“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.
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.
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.”