Peter Gethin 1940-2011

Peter Gethin, who has died aged 71 after a long illness, is best remembered for his dramatic BRM victory in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix. But he was also a versatile and successful racer in F5000, sports cars and Can-Am. After making his mark in British events with Lotus 7 and 23 sports-racers he graduated in 1965 to Formula 3, first as team-mate to Piers Courage in the Charles Lucas team and then for ’67 in the works Chevron. He was a frequent front-runner in an F3 era which included the likes of Chris Irwin, Roy Pike, Derek Bell and Jonathan Williams.

In 1968 Peter moved up to F2 with Frank Lythgoe’s team, but he really came into his own with the arrival in ’69 of Formula 5000. First in an orange McLaren M10A, run by Church Farm Racing but with unobtrusive works input, and then with Sid Taylor’s M10B, he dominated the first two years of the series. This earned him a reserve seat in the McLaren F1 team, and he was sixth in the 1970 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. The tragedy three months later of Bruce McLaren’s death promoted him to Denny Hulme’s number two. He also supported Hulme in the Can-Am Series, winning one round and finishing second twice. But his races in the second F1 McLaren were more or less fruitless, and in August 1971 he switched mid-season to BRM. This was once again in the wake of tragedy, for the vacancy was due to the death of Pedro Rodríguez in a sports car race in Germany.

The Italian GP was only his second race for the Bourne team. In an enthralling Monza slipstreamer he started 11th, but somehow towed his way up the field to be fourth in the leading five-car group as they started the final lap. He sneaked past Mike Hailwood and then, with two wheels on the grass, Ronnie Peterson to arrive at the Parabolica, wheels smoking, on François Cevert’s inside. As they sprinted to the line the race was Gethin’s by, officially, a hundredth of a second. His winning speed, a shade over 150mph, remained F1’s highest average for over 30 years.

He took no pleasure from winning the non-championship Brands Hatch Victory Race a month later, for it was stopped when his BRM team-mate Jo Siffert crashed fatally. The following year brought but a single championship point, and after a couple more unrewarding rides for BRM and Embassy Lola Peter turned back to F2, winning for Chevron at Pau, and F5000. The 1973 Race of Champions mixed the two big single-seater formulae: his F5000 Chevron qualified on the fourth row, 0.8sec slower than Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus and 0.1sec faster than Hulme’s McLaren, and when unreliability slowed the F1 frontrunners he scored a surprise win. He then found a berth with the Belgian Count Rudi van der Straaten’s team and continued to enjoy F5000 success, just missing out on the European title in ’74 and campaigning the red VDS colours in Can-Am and American F5000. He was second to Patrick Tambay in the ’77 Can-Am Series, and then retired.

But he remained involved in the sport, managing drivers and briefly joining Toleman as F1 sporting director. He also ran a racing school at Goodwood and was an ambassador for Ferrari UK. Small in stature like his father, the famous jockey Ken Gethin, Peter was laid-back, open and friendly to everyone – especially the opposite sex, in whom he had an abiding interest (usually reciprocated). Indomitably cheerful and with a mischievous sense of humour, he bore his final illness with philosophical equanimity. Although he raced cars for a living, he did it, as he did everything else, for fun. In that respect he was a proper old-fashioned racing driver.