Forty years ago, Canada held its inagural Grand Prix. Stirling Moss took part, but the race was won by a 21-year-old hero. Less than 12 months later, Peter Ryan was dead. Paul Fearnley tells a what-if tale
Canadian. Young. Quick. Fearless. Quality skier, too. Jacques Villeneuve, right? It could be, except it’s not. The description instead refers to a man killed nine years before the 1997 champion squawked his first breath, to a man born a decade before the legendary Gilles, to a man who, with luck, might have been as good as either. Might. For me, however, this story began with an
Australian. Frank Gardner saw all sides of the sport in a 40-year career. Despite his many successes, his self-deprecation and disrespect for authority never wavered. He would, will, happily prick his or other people’s balloons with a barrage of piercing one-liners. When he talks, you should listen.
I certainly was as he reeled off a Jim Clark story, about how the Scotsman could drive unnerving distances on the road with his eyes shut But then, as is his way, forthright Frank threw this into the melting pot: “Course, the fastest driver I ever sat with was Pete Ryan.” Who? The winner of the inaugural Canadian GP in 1961, that’s who. The man described in the opening paragraph, that’s who.
Gardner, as is his way, promptly qualified his statement by listing Ryan in the “all balls and eyesight” category. Too quick for his own good, in other words. The early ’60s were gladiatorial. Cars were fast and flimsy. Safety was barely an afterthought, never mind a priority, and drivers were at their most vulnerable in the early stages of their careers. They had a lot to learn from their first big accident And they had to learn well. If they survived it, that is. Ryan tragically didn’t. Born in Philadelphia on June 10, 1940, he was a scion of the family that owned the fashionable Mont-Tremblant Ski Lodge in Quebec. Cashed-up and well-connected, he burst onto the North American racing scene in 1959— but only because he had been denied his place in Canada’s Olympic ski team because his family had never taken up citizenship.
Here was a thwarted 18-year-old with a need for speed — motor racing was the obvious outlet Six times in eight starts he won his class in 1959 at the wheel of a Porsche 55ORS. In 1960 he won 11 times from 20 starts in an RS60. These performances were timely: Canada had just caught the racing bug, and caught it bad. Circuits were springing up, the most impressive of them being Mosport, near Toronto. Enthusiastic bigbuck sponsors were willing to coax star names over to race — and encourage home-grown talent to take them on.
This new era kicked off with the $100,000 Player’s 200 at Mosport in June 1961. Ryan was scheduled to drive a Comstock Racing-run Lotus 19 Monte Carlo, a car bought for him on the understanding that he would tackle this event, Canada’s first international contest But he withdrew at the last minute, stating that he couldn’t risk losing his American SCCA licence by competing in ‘professional racing’. It caused a stink, but this young man knew his own mind and wouldn’t budge.
Cooler heads prevailed in September when Pepsi-Cola sponsored the Canadian GP at Mosport, and Ryan lined the 2.5-litre Lotus up on the front row for this 100-lapper. Alongside him, in carbon-copy UDT-Laystall 19s, were multiple Le Mans winner Olivier Gendebien and no-introduction-necessary Stirling Moss, who had swept both 100-mile heats of the Player’s 200.
The European aces set the pace, swapping the lead a showboating 25 times in the first 70 laps, but Peter drove sensibly to orders and picked up the pieces when the leaders struck trouble three-quarters through the 250-mile race.
He had been metronomic, lapping in lmin 40sec (5sec off Moss’ fastest lap) but, in front of 25,000 expectant fans, he almost blew it with his only mistakes of the race, a spin five laps from home which he compounded by failing to make an immediate compulsory stop, costing him a 60-second penalty. He pitted a lap later to have the bodywork repaired, at which point Pedro Rodriguez, another 21year-old charger, unlapped himself in the cumbersome NART Ferrari Testa Rossa. Ryan, now unsure of the race standings, tore after the Mexican, the pair of them running side by side over the closing laps, the Lotus just squeezing ahead to win by a second — and a lap.
Colin Chapman, no less, was impressed — by Peter’s skill and wallet — and shipped over a year-old Lotus 18 (with 21 bodywork) for him to drive in the 1961 US GP at Watkins Glen. It was uncompetitive — he qualified 13th of 19 and struggled home ninth — but it was a start. And Chapman’s suspicions had been confirmed: he offered Peter a works Formula Junior (9) drive for 1962. The impatient youngster wanted to graduate directly to Fl, but Chapman felt he was using his natural ability to get himself out of “too many sticky spots” and that a year learning the ropes in a lesser formula would benefit him. Dominated by Lotus, Cooper and 784 Lola, FJ cars were miniature Fls nimble and midengined. The perfect breeding ground.
Ryan’s 1962 began with Ferrari drives, though, at the Daytona Three Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. Luigi Chinetti, influential boss of North American Racing Team, was another whose eye had been caught by Peter; he had handed him the the rarelyawarded Dino Ferrari Memorial Trophy for an outstanding achievement by a 21-year-old driver, and predicted a bright future.
Ryan drove a NART Testa Rossa at Daytona, but finished 15th after co-driver Ricardo Rodriguez suffered a blow-out early in the race. At Sebring, he and America’s John ‘Buck’ Fulp were entrusted with the new V8 mid-engined prototype, but only after Moss had driven it, declared it too slow and plumped for the older, front-engined 250Th. Fulp and Ryan were 30 laps down in 13th. They paired up at Le Mans too, in a TR61, and ran on the fringes of the top 10, until Peter, wrestling with a recalcitrant gearbox, dropped it irretrievably into the Mulsanne sand early on Sunday morning.
It had hardly been a successful international sportscar blooding, but the portfolio was shaping up nicely.
But F1, via FJ if needs be, was his avowed intention. Pete already had an FJ victory under his belt, using a loaned Lotus 20 to win the Vanderbilt Cup at Bridgehampton on his category debut, in 1961. He was chomping at the single-seater bit, but would have to chomp a bit more. The overbooked Chapman had passed him to Ian Walker’s still-setting up, semiworks outfit, which ran in reversed-out Lotus colours.
“If Colin thought highly of him, that was good enough for me,” says Walker. “It was obvious that Peter had great talent from our very first test with him but he would throw caution to the wind.”
His first FJ outing with the team was the Monaco GP support race in May. The works Lotus 22s of Peter Arundell and Alan Rees were already in the groove by then and had been cleaning up, yet Ryan was victorious in the second 16-lap heat, beating Rees. He thus started alongside Arundell on the front row for the 24-lap final and ran second on the first lap. But he clipped a kerb in his eagerness, bent a wishbone and fell off the pace. He would soon put matters right, though. Mallory Park is small, utilitarian, and the FJ grid at that year’s Whitsun Meeting had been depleted by a flood of entries for the Crystal Palace encounter the following day. But Arundell was there. And he couldn’t shake off Ryan, who calmly left it until the 28th lap of 30 to make a decisive move. The works car was vanquished and Ryan was hot property, for Arundell was highly rated and rightly so.
Ryan was on the crest of a wave. The week after Le Mans, he gleefully frightened the living daylights out of his chief mechanic John Pledger during a lurid drive to Reims in a just-bought Jaguar E-type.
“Yeah, it was pretty hairy,” remembers Pledger. “Those early E-types were horrible. We were running through the night and we had a near-miss with a truck while Peter was struggling [unsuccessfully] to locate the [floor-mounted] dip switch.
“He was fast, but I reckon he was in control; ‘balls and eyesight’ might be a bit unfair. When he won his heat at Monaco, it came as a bit of a shock to us, but he took it in his stride. He was rich, but there were no airs and graces to him; he mucked in down the workshop and came to the greasy spoon round the corner and ate with us.” Ryan dealt with all people the same way, as Pledger discovered when Peter introduced him to works Ferrari personnel at the Nurburgring. “I knew he had raced Ferraris, but I was amazed at just how friendly he was with them.”
Ryan was going places. Reims was next.
He was scrapping for the lead (naturally) of his heat when he tangled with Bill Moss’ Gemini at the fast right-hander after the pits. It was the kind of corner, a brave corner, a balls-and-eyesight corner, where he would have backed himself to eke out an advantage. Instead, his Lotus cartwheeled and he was thrown out. Although taken to a Paris hospital, he succumbed the next day, July 2. He was 22.
“He wouldn’t accept finishing second. He would take on anybody. It didn’t matter who they were,” says Pledger. “Mike Spence won the Final for us but there was no joy in it.” It was left to a forlorn Pledger to trundle the E-type back home. Ironically, Arundell would have his burgeoning career effectively ended by a crash in an F2 race at Reims two years later, but not before he’d confirmed his talent with two thirds and a fourth in his first four GP starts with Lotus in 1964. Yet that might have been Ryan, a man chastened and improved by his big escape at Reims back in ’62, alongside Jim Clark in Formula One. Might.