Piers Courage by his family

Courage Best: Piers Courage was not just another driver who died before his time. He was a genuinely great man too. Adam Cooper talks to his family.

Piers Courage in a De Tomaso at the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix

Piers Courage: A great person, a gentleman through and through, and a formidable racer Motorsport Images

Some-time, back in the early sixties, shortly after Piers Courage decided that motor racing was going to be his life, his father took him to one side and asked why he was so determined not to follow a conventional career. They were at Fitzwalters, the beloved family home where Piers grew up, set in attractive Essex countryside.

"I can still remember my father and brother standing there together," says second son Charlie Courage, pointing towards the hallway of the house where he still lives.

"My father asked Piers why he so wanted to go motor racing. 'Well Dad, you had the war,' he replied. I suppose it was all about the buzz it gave him..."

Piers Courage was the last of the gentleman racers. That is not to imply that he was in any way a playboy or amateur; racing was his living, and by the time he died he had developed into an outstanding driver. But he was a gentleman in the purest sense and perhaps he should really have been racing a decade or three earlier.

Piers Courage was born on May 27 1942, and was followed by Charlie and Andrew. Their father Richard was involved in the eponymous family brewery, and became chairman of the company in 1960. As a toddler Piers raced a pedal car around the grounds of Fitzwalters, but he didn't catch the racing bug until he was a teenager. A friend at Eton, where he picked up the nickname 'Porridge', loaned him a copy of 'The Vanishing Litres' by Rex Hayes. Piers was captivated by tales of the Bentley boys charging round Le Mans, and racing became an obsession.

"I know my father always bitterly complained about the money spent on Autosport on MOTOR SPORT," smiles Charlie. "There were racks of the things all over his bedroom. Piers made a chequered flag out of his ceiling; the black squares were photographs of racing cars. When he was bored he'd lie on his bed with his .22 air pistol and shoot the drivers. Mother took a terribly dim view of that..."

His first chance to see racing up close came on Easter Monday 1958. The solo trip from Essex to Goodwood by train and bus was an epic, but was worth it. What impressed him most was the atmosphere in the paddock, although he didn't have the nerve to interrupt Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins for autographs.

Inevitably the plan was for Piers to go into the family business, and having failed to get into Cambridge he was pointed in the direction of accountancy. But cars always came first. An early experience involved racing some chums on a local airfield, at the wheel of his mother's Morris Minor Traveller.

"He showed me these photographs of a Le Mans start, and the Morris was one of the cars," says youngest brother Andrew. "There was another of him applying a tremendous amount of opposite lock. He said you mustn't show this to my mother or father. It was very hush-hush."

The authorities eventually put a stop to the fun, but Piers soon fell in with a bunch of real racers. One was Mini driver Jonathan Williams.

"I was at automotive college with a guy called Mark Fielden," recalls Jonathan. "He took me to a bar in South Kensington, and every evening all these motoring mad people would turn up there. Piers was one of them."

Piers and Jonathan became firm friends, and Courage began to follow his chum to club races. On July 2 1961, the day Giancarlo Baghetti won the French GP, the pair met a man who would loom large in both their lives. It happened at a wet Mallory Park.

"We were great chums by then," says Jonathan, "and Piers just tagged along to offer moral support. In the race I cocked it up and sat on top of the bank watching Frank Williams. I didn't know him then, but his name was in the programme, and I was certain that it wouldn't be long before we were talking. He was getting wilder and wilder, and then rolled his A35 completely. So there we sat."

The two namesakes met up in the paddock again afterwards, where Jonathan introduced Frank to Piers. Courage's circle of race-mad mates continued to grow. He shared a flat in Lower Sloane St with Jonathan, Fielden (who was later killed at Silverstone) and another Mini racer called Sheridan Thynne. All were supposed to be studying, but were, in fact, directing their funds towards their hobby.

"Frank appeared like a genie from Nottingham periodically," says Thynne, "on the Friday night before a Brands Hatch meeting. I can remember him eating with us on a Sunday night, and finishing about 10.30pm. We were quite keen to go to bed, and at that stage Frank used to set off from Sloane Square to hitch-hike to Nottingham. We thought that was a bit strange."

Piers made his first steps towards racing when his father gave him a Lotus 7 kit for his 20th birthday. When the tricky build process was complete, Piers drove to the Lotus factory for a check-up, where the wishbones were found to be fitted upside down...

"Piers wasn't so keen on that side," says Charlie Courage. "He just wanted to get in and drive the bloody thing." At last Piers had something he could also race. His first outing was a three-lap sprint at Brands in 1962, and he had a busy season, gradually learning the ropes of racing.

"He was extremely carefree," says Thynne, "with massive energy and huge bubbling enthusiasm. We were all quite worried about him because he used to spin quite a lot on the road, as well as the track. Road journeys in the Lotus were never relaxing."

For 1963, Piers needed to progress. With his father's help he eventually traded up to an 1100cc Merlyn sportscar, but it wasn't easy.

"Piers wanted to go racing," says Charlie, "and my father said, 'Don't be bloody stupid, boy. You're training to be a chartered accountant, and I'm damned if I'm paying for you to do something I don't want you to do.' My mother then threw a wobbly and simply said, 'If you don't buy him a car, I'm leaving.' He said no; she left. She lived with my uncle and aunt for a week before he gave in."

The Merlyn fell off the trailer yards from the factory, but Piers made quiet progress through the '63 season. As far as his parents were concerned it was still a hobby and at the end of the year he was sent to an accountancy crammer in Wales. The unhappy Piers soon made a crucial decision; he quit the studies and escaped. His new home was Jonathan's base at a notorious flat in Harrow, owned by yet another racer, Charlie Crichton-Stuart.

"He turned up one day, and said he'd given it up," says Jonathan. "His mother rang up and asked if I'd seen him. He was standing about a foot away from me. 'No, not at all...' It was the only time I lied to her, dear lady."

When Piers told his father that he wasn't going to be an accountant, the reaction was simple; if you want to go racing, don't expect any help.

Jonathan had already done a season of F3 in Europe, and invited Piers to join him in '64. They bought a pair of Lotus 22s, and called themselves Anglo-Swiss Racing, because their plan was to use Lausanne as a summer base. And so began an extraordinary adventure, as the pair set off around the continent to join a band of motor racing gypsies who travelled from race to race, living off the start money and somehow keeping their abused machines going. All the time, Piers was learning. Life took a turn for the better when they met Charles Lucas. Charles had come into a huge inheritance and invited Piers and Jonathan to campaign his Brabhams in 1965.

"It was because he was a mate, not because he was an ace driver," says Lucas. "Piers was the dearest friend I ever had, and you just wanted to have him around if possible, because he was always a laugh. He always believed in himself, he always believed he was a racer. Although we tried to tell him that he wasn't! We thought we were Hawthorn and Collins, even to the extent of buying corduroy caps and folding them in the middle. It sounds so pathetic now - walking around and calling each other mon ami mate..."

Lucas created a competitive team, and Piers became a regular winner, capable of beating the top names of the day; he won the top Grovewood Award. For 1966 Lucas was invited to form the works Lotus team, and Piers stayed with him. That Easter he married Sally, also known as Lady Sarah Curzon, the daughter of 1931 Le Mans winner Earl Howe. The honeymoon was spent at a snowy Oulton Park...

Piers continued to shine on the track, and for 1967 gained the chance to do some GPs in Tim Parnell's second-string BRM outfit. His career was moving fast; too fast, in fact. The step was premature and with the wrong car.

"You would have to have been Superman to make one of those wrecks work," says Jonathan Williams, "I think Piers was overdriving trying make a rubbish car perform."

He only did three GPs, and for the rest of the year raced an F2 McLaren for John Coombs; there were good results, but a lot of crashes. In October he teamed up with old pal Frank Williams to do an F3 event at Brands, and planned a full F2 season in '68.

Meanwhile Piers scraped together enough money to buy the McLaren from Coombs and headed down under to do the Tasman series as a privateer. He turned himself into a quick and reliable contender, and outran all comers including Jim Clark to win the wet finale at Longford. He returned home with his confidence high.

Piers Courage, BRM, in the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch

Piers always tried hard: Here he slides Tim Parnell's BRM P126 en route to a lowly eighth and last place at the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch Motorsport Images

A full F1 season in Parnell's BRMs in '68 brought sixth in the rain at Rouen and fourth at Monza, but Piers enjoyed his F2 outings with Frank rather more. They planned another onslaught on the Tasman series, with a Brabham modified by Robin Herd. And if they could do that, why not F1 in '69? Piers readily agreed. "It really was a terrific relationship they had," says Lucas. "They both built each other up."

Frank acquired a BT26, and Herd modified it from Repco to DFV spec. The Williams team duly made its F1 debut in Spain, where Piers retired with engine failure. Monaco was rather better. Having started eighth Piers drove a strong race and, helped by retirements, gained a superb second. He finished 17sec behind Graham Hill's Lotus.

Piers followed up with fifths at Silverstone and Monza, and another excellent second at Watkins Glen, just behind rookie winner Jochen Rindt. Both the Austrian and Jackie Stewart had become close friends, and Piers joined their cosmopolitan set. He had grown up as a person and a driver, and had developed other interests. The arrival of sons Jason and Amos was also part of the maturing process, but he remained close to his old F3 pals.

"He had a lot more self respect," says Lucas, "He missed the laughs we had in the old days, because racing was actually now very serious. But I really don't think he changed at all."

For 1970 Piers received a tempting offer from Ferrari. Perhaps influenced by the bad experience of Jonathan Williams, briefly with the Scuderia in '67, he stayed loyal to Frank; a lucrative Alfa sportscar deal helped. But he still found himself driving an Italian F1 car, as Williams agreed a deal to run the new de Tomaso. On its debut in South Africa the bulbous 505 was hopeless, but after rapid development it soon improved.

Piers Courage talks to Frank Williams just before his fatal crash

Last time out. On the grid at Zandvoort, Frank talks to Piers for the last time Motorsport Images

In late June the circus moved to Zandvoort. The mood was sombre as Bruce McLaren had been killed but weeks earlier, and everyone breathed sighs of relief when Jack Brabham and Pedro Rodriguez escaped massive accidents in the days before the race. Piers again qualified an encouraging ninth. He battled with Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari in the early laps, pulling clear of the works Lotus of John Miles. On lap 23, he went missing.

"Piers was flying," says Miles. "There were some fast sweeping corners at the back of the circuit, which were all almost flat or flat out. He had gained a couple of corners on me; all I saw was a plume of smoke, and a burning car. You pass so fast you're not absolutely sure who it is."

It was Courage. He'd struck the primitive catchfencing, and slammed into the bank. Early in the accident he'd lost his helmet. Eventual winner Rindt saw it at the trackside and knew who had gone off; he'd borrowed the same helmet at Clermont-Ferrand the previous year. The race wasn't stopped, and the marshals eventually gave up their futile attempts to get the driver out of the magnesium-fed fire; poor Piers stood no chance. Stewart wrote that, mercifully, head injuries may have killed him before the fire took hold.

Cruelly, early reports said he'd been seen walking around, but it wasn't long before a shocked Frank learned the truth. Sally was watching with Nina Rindt from the roof of the pits; she flew to England with Nina, Jochen and his manager, Bernie Ecclestone. Piers was buried the day after a memorial service for McLaren at St Paul's Cathedral. Veterans like Rindt, Stewart and Brabharn, used to such events, cried openly.

"My mother had been behind him hook, line and sinker," says Charles Courage, "it did her no good at all when he was killed. She blamed herself for the whole thing. Everyone had said this is daft, he's going to kill himself, and I think she sealed it off, put it the back of her mind. It was her number one son doing what he wanted to do."

"I wouldn't say my mother recovered," adds Andrew. "My father was a reserved person, mother was much more emotional. I suppose they weren't able to communicate about her grief."

Sadly Jean Courage was knocked over and killed in 1977. Twelve years later her grandson Jason began racing, but suffered spinal injuries after being knocked off his motorcycle in London. In 1998 he returned in the Renault Spider series, having been taught to use hand controls by Clay Regazzoni. Piers would have been proud. "Piers stayed unspoiled and great fun to be with, and retained all the bubbly enthusiasm," says Thynne. "I think one of the saddest things was he was very fond of his children, and was going to be a very good father."