Looking back with Peter Gethin

The winner of the fastest World Championship Grand Prix ever run talks to Motor Sport

It was during his spell as a McLaren works driver, first with the Church Farm Racing M10A in Formula 5000 and later as a member of the Grand Prix team, that Peter Gethin fell in love with West Sussex, the area in which he now makes his home. "I used to drive down through this area when we went testing at Goodwood and always promised myself that, one day, this is where I would live", he smiles with obvious self-gratification. And it was to the tiny village of Lodsworth, nestling in the calm of the West Sussex countryside, that we recently journeyed to talk to Gethin about his varied and interesting racing career which finished at the end of the 1977 season, and about his likes and dislikes, his aspirations and disappointments. Now 43, Peter Gethin hardly looks a day older than he did that memorable afternoon almost 12 years ago when he climbed onto the victory rostrum at Monza, having won the Italian Grand Prix for BRM in one of the most exciting finishes imaginable — and at an average speed of 150.76 m.p.h., the fastest World Championship Grand Prix ever run! 

Peter Gethin was a product of the cut-throat world of the 1-litre Formula 3 which thrived on the British and European racing scene between 1964 and '70. He'd previously handled a succession of sports cars, achieving considerable success in a Lotus 23 during the 1963 season — "I well recall pushing my car into the scrutineering area at Aintree alongside Jim Clark's Lotus 30: he was, and will always be, the best driver in my book" — but it wasn't until this son of a well-known jockey became involved in F3 that he began to carve himself a reputation which suggested that he might "go all the way". At the time it was generally accepted that the best way to graduate into the Grand Prix world was via Formula 2, which at that time provided a realistic opportunity for aspiring stars to pit their skill against established Formula 1 stars. However, through a combination of opportunity and circumstance, Gethin took the untried route through the new Formula 5000 which became part of the British racing landscape in 1969.

The previous September Gethin had attracted the eye of several team managers with a splendid drive at Albi at the wheel of his Frank Lythgoe Racing Brabham BT23C. "I contested the lead and eventually finished second alter battling with Pescarolo and Rindt — at that time the people to beat", reflects Gethin with pleasure, "but although I'd had a good finish to the season which kept my name in focus, I couldn't get a deal together to continue in Formula 2. So. when the opportunity of driving the new Formula 5000 works McLaren came about, I jumped at it." This McLaren "semi-works" machine was entered and run by Church Farm Racing from the Pagham base of Colonel Bernard Hender, Derek Bell's stepfather. This organisation had originally run Bell's F2 Brabham, but since Derek was now a contracted Ferrari driver, they were free to run the Chevrolet V8-engined McLaren M10A on McLaren's behalf. "What's more", explains Gethin enthusiastically, "we had the advantage that Bruce McLaren himself took a terrific interest in the project and did a lot of the pre-season testing himself. You can imagine this helped me tremendously".

Even 14 years later Gethin retains warm and pleasant memories of Bruce McLaren's generosity and remarkable charm. "No matter how hard you worked for him, or how long the hours, he could get over any problem by simply coming in and smiling his famous smile. You know, I really respected that man. He could have persuaded me to drive his Can-Am transporter from one end of America to the other no problem! He was a lovely man. And the car? Well, I reckoned I'd got the best car available and I was 'plugged in' to the best team available. I figured that it didn't matter I wasn't in F2. I thought that as long as I did well, and won races, keeping my name in the forefront of attention, then sooner or later my chance would come . . ." And Gethin was absolutely right.

In the Spring of 1970 Denny Hulme burnt his hands badly in a fire at Indy, so Gethin was told by McLaren that he would stand-in for Denny as a member of the Formula 1 team in the Belgian Grand Prix. "I was a real innocent, then", he reflects, "and I remember this was the only occasion on which I felt the firm side of Bruce's tongue. I was with him and his friend Barry Newman (who later sponsored an F5000 McLaren for Howden Ganley) when Bruce told me that I would be driving F1. I harmlessly replied that, well, it clashed with an F5000 race in which I was supposed to be driving Sid Taylor's semi-works McLaren. Bruce simply turned and fixed me with a stare. 'You don't suppose we've fixed you up with all that good equipment just for Sid Taylor's benefit, do you?' he replied firmly. 'You'll drive in Belgium'. And that was it!"

Sadly, Peter Gethin didn't drive in the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix. "I went down to Goodwood for a pre-race test in the M14 Formula 1 car", remembers Peter, "and I was literally just being strapped into the cockpit when we saw the smoke . . ." Bruce McLaren had crashed the M8D Can-Am car into a marshals' post on Goodwood's main straight. He was killed instantly. Testing was obviously abandoned and Peter Gethin was one of the first at the accident scene: "it made a very, very big impression on me . . ." he says reflectively.

Considering the way his career subsequently progressed, Gethin admits that Bruce's death had a lasting, long-term effect on the progression of his career, just as cars and equipment play an important part in a racing driver's repertoire, so did personal relations and confidence. Gethin appreciated that only too well: from the moment he first went into F3 he had understood that it wasn't just ability that mattered. "Charles Lucas only invited me into his F3 team back in 1965 because he fancied my girlfriend", he smiles. But, notwithstanding that somewhat basic reason, Gethin successfully made the transition into F3. Now, almost before he had embarked on his F1 career, an integral part of a very special relationship had been brutally shattered. He was only to last a year in the McLaren Formula 1 line-up before he was told that there would been longer a place in the team for him. He became a casualty of the abrasive Teddy Mayer, the American lawyer who was now senior partner in McLaren Racing following Bruce's death.

Gethin is remarkably candid and objective about why he was eventually asked to "move on" by Mayer: somebody had to take the rap for the failure of the McLaren M19 in its initial form. "Denny had run well with the M19 at Kyalami and only been deprived of victory when a bolt broke in its suspension", Gethin recalls, "but at most other places it was a difficult car to set up with that rising rate suspension. I could never get it to work: it had a peculiar 'dead' feeling about it and I honestly didn't know what to do with the thing. Well, Denny was really 'family' by that time — I don't think McLarens would have fired him if Jackie Stewart had become available — so I was made the 'fall guy'. They recruited Mark Donohue and Penske's lot to try and sort the thing out for the last few races of the year and told me that I wouldn't be wanted beyond Monza. I felt pretty hard done by, I can tell you. I'd already been slung out of the Can-Am team in favour of Peter Revson and now here I was being booted out of their F1 team!"

It was at this point in Gethin's career that he received a particularly lucky opportunity, one which he grasped firmly with both hands. Pedro Rodriguez had been killed a week before the British Grand Prix after crashing Herbert Mueller's Ferrari 512 during a sports car race at the Norisring, a race, incidentally, in which Gethin in Sid Taylor's Can-Am McLaren M8D finished second. That left a gaping vacancy in the BRM Formula 1 line-up and Gethin continues the story with an air of impish amusement:

"Louis Stanley had the foresight, or whatever you'd call it, to ring me up and show a degree of interest. He was a quite remarkable man. I suppose the best thing you could say about him was that he meant well, but in terms of organisational ability I think he was the complete opposite to Ken Tyrrell, whom I still consider to be the 'ultimate' F1 team manager, assuming, of course, that he's got the necessary budget. Anyway, Stanley rang me and asked 'would you be free for the Austrian Grand Prix?'. I told him that I would and had great pleasure in telling McLarens to stuff it. . . ."

Gethin was out of luck in his first race for the team, his BRM P160 finishing a lowly tenth. But Peter Gethin's great day come at Monza a few weeks later. Going into the last corner of the last lap, he forced his BRM inside Ronnie Peterson's March 711 to snatch the lead, holding off the brilliant Swede in a sprint to the chequered flag and winning by one hundredth of a second. Francois Cevert's Tyrrell and Mike Hailwood's Surtees TS9B were third and fourth, the first four cars covered by 0.18 sec. in a finish which left everybody absolutely breathless with excitement and Peter Gethin the jubilant winner. Jack Oliver, who'd replaced Gethin in the McLaren team, finished seventh!

For much of that memorable race, the last "flatout blind" to be held before Monza was emasculated by chicanes, a five and six car bunch contested the lead. But it was the final lap that always counted in these "slipstream specials" and Gethin recalls that he was always pretty confident that he could win, assuming that he could either lead or be in second place as the bunch dived into Parabolica for the last time.

"From the start of the race I just revved that V12 engine 500 r.p.m. over its normal limit all the time," he smiles, "and I can honestly admit that I didn't think it would last to the finish. Jo Siffert had a more powerful development engine in his BRM and that extra power broke the transmission, so I wasn't optimistic. I got separated from the leading bunch as we were passing a slower car and at one point dropped about eight seconds back. But I chiselled away, gaining the odd tenth here and there, wondering to myself at what point I would pick up the slipstream of that half dozen or so cars at the front of the field. To my absolute amazement, the slipsteam began working from four seconds back, and down that long Monza back straight I just hauled up onto their tails in a single lap!

"Then, on the final lap, I dived up the inside at Parabolica. The car started to slide and I piled on the opposite lock, telling myself 'don't lift, don't lift' and I came out of the corner first. I knew as long as I didn't fumble a gearchange I could get to the line first, but Ronnie was surging up on me and passed me 20 feet after the flag. I knew it was going to be really close, so I waved my arm in triumph, not because I was showing off, but I reckoned that as this was Italy and they might not be too clever on their timing, the chances were that they'd give the win to whichever driver raised his arm!"

After the race Cevert came up and read Peter the riot act, saying that he'd moved him out onto the "loose stuff" at the final corner, but Gethin told him that he couldn't care less! This seemed particularly ironic "as the previous evening I'd been amused to see Louis Stanley wining and dining Cevert at the Ville d'Este. obviously trying to butter him up to drive for BRM in 1972. Now, all of a sudden, I was in favour again and 'moved up the dinner table' to sit with Stanley at the victory celebration that evening. On the morning of the race all the Stewarts and Hills of this world hopped off from the hotel to the circuit in their helicopters and I drove down in my hire car. Now I was all set to be chauffeured home again in the Stanley's limousine, and what happens? Half a mile down the road the Mercedes has a puncture and here I am, winner of the Italian Grand Prix, down on my hands and knees in the gutter changing the wheel at midnight. And Stanley's standing there chortling 'who'd have thought it, the winner of the Italian Grand Prix. Ho, ho, ho . . .' Well, at least, I supppose you've got to give the man credit for a sense of humour!"

Gethin reckons that his win at Monza helped persuade Marlboro to come in as BRM team sponsors (in place of Yardley) the following year, but he also considers that Jo Siffert's tragic death in the end-of-season Brands Hatch Victory Race deprived the team of a valuable personality whose influence might have tempered Stanley's lavish approach to the 1972 programme.

With this new-found Marlboro support, Stanley announced an ambitious concept which involved "national teams", with drivers such as Reine Wisell, Alex Soler-Roig, Helmut Marko and Jack Oliver popping in and out of the team from time to time, all these in addition to regular drivers Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Howden Ganley and Gethin. Needless to say, the whole situation proved completely unrealistic and impractical — and BRM fortunes began to wane significantly, despite Beltoise's excellent wet win at Monaco.

Gethin, who'd been paid the princely retainer of £5,000 for the 1972 season to add to the "eight hundred quid I got for winning Monza — of which £300 went on my bill at the Villa d'Este", found himself getting nowhere fast. "By three-quarters of the way through the season I'd rather lost interest and was pretty disillusioned about the whole affair. Really, after my experiences with McLaren I should have known better than to allow myself to get into this sort of situation. I really think that if Seppi had still been alive he would have pressed Marlboro to keep Stanley's idea of running so many cars more under control." By the end of 1972 Gethin and BRM had drifted apart to the point where they didn't renew their agreement for 1973: and, apart from a 'one-off' drive for Stanley in the following year's Canadian GP (where Clay Regazzoni was being "disciplined") — "hoping for a good result so that I could have the pleasure of telling them to get lost!" — and an unsuccessful drive in one of Graham Hill's cars at Brands Hatch in 1974, that was the end of Peter Gethin's Formula 1 career.

Honest regret rather than any bitterness tinges Gethin's memories of his years in Formula 1. "There was never really a time when I thought I would be World Champion", he admits, "but I thought I was pretty good nonetheless. The biggest thing that influenced the course of my Formula 1 career was undoubtedly Bruce McLaren's death. I think he would have been smart enough and brave enough to have seen me through that troubled 1971 season and not make me a scapegoat. I think he'd have got down to testing the MI9 and sorted it out. He was a hard man where it was necessary, but essentially a fair man at the same time.

"I don't think I lost any ability in 1972, in fact I reckon I was just about at my peak as a driver when everything went wrong with BRM. That BRM organisation was just totally wrong. The cars, the equipment, the preparation, the number of drivers: it just wasn't on, the way in which Louis Stanley wanted to approach the business."

For the remainder of his active racing career, Peter Gethin concentrated once again on the category which had brought him to the verge of Formula 1 in the first place — Formula 5000. He enjoyed a long and good-natured relationship with Chevron and used their cars to achieve considerable success, winning the 1973 Race of Champions and later winning the 1974 Tasman Series in a car owned by the Belgian Count van der Straaten, a member of the family who control the Stella Artois brewery company. He stayed with Team VDS right through the 1975 season (using Lola T400s) then 1976 (with Chevron again) and into 1977 when he rounded off his career by finishing the Can-Am series as runner up to Patrick Tambay.

By the end of that season Gethin decided that he would retire from active driving, having become fed-up with all the travelling and testing that was necessary.

"I used to take the dog for long walks while I turned the whole business over in my mind," he remembers, "I still enjoyed the actual racing, but, set against that, I had ceased to enjoy testing and didn't want to travel any more. I loved being at home too much!"

However, Gethin didn't want to be away from racing completely and he agreed to run a team of Formula 2 Chevrons throughout 1978 for a couple of amateur American drivers. But it was "a dreadful season, not because I didn't enjoy the business of managing a team, but because we were trying to prepare the cars as well as we could and they were struggling to qualify. It was demoralising." Gethin added that he wouldn't mind becoming involved in racing again on a similar basis or even perhaps turning his hand to commentating which he briefly tried at the 1978 Silverstone International Trophy meeting. One thing of which he is certain is that he doesn't simply want to go along and watch as a spectator: if he can't be involved, he will stay away. And that's precisely what he did in 1979 and 80.

In 1981 he was approached by his old friend Count van der Straaten and asked if he would consider coming to live in the USA in order to do a public relations programme for Team VDS. Peter agreed and spent just over a year based at Midland, Texas, trying to project the team's image and adding to its media exposure. However, Peter admits that it wasn't a particularly easy task — particularly as he didn't get on terribly well with Van der Straaten's son who was effectively running the team, and with whom he'd crossed swords when he was driving their Formula 5000 cars some years earlier.

Gethin hated living in Texas: "it was as awful as West Sussex is lovely", he grins, and he's now happy to be home in the country he likes best. He has several business projects in the pipeline and is currently examining the possibility of buying a garage business in his neighbourhood. He continues to appreciate nice road cars and is currently planning to swap his BMW 323i for a Porsche 944 "although I was amazed when I found out how long the waiting list is!"

Although Peter Gethin's domestic life is extremely happy, with his wife, young son and golden labrador named Dino, he's honest enough to admit that he doesn't look back on his racing career with a great deal of satisfaction. "No," he insists, "I'm not really happy with the way it turned out. I should have had the wit to carry on after 1977, perhaps in long distance events. I never got involved in that side of the business. I reckon I was easily as good as Hobbs or Bell and there's a decent amount of money to be made without too much in the way of risk, compared with F1. I don't think I fully appreciated just what a good life motor racing offered me, but retirement is at least interesting because is let's you understand iust how few real friends you have when you're racing. The telephone doesn't ring anywhere near so often once you've stopped!" — A.H.