…And he takes a milestone victory. Peter Gethin’s win at Monza in 1971 made the record books, but it was also his sole Grand Prix success BY ALAN HENRY into Parabolica they came for the 55th and final time with Ronnie Peterson’s bright red March 711 just ahead. Right on his of Cevert tail was the dark blue Tyrrell of Francois Cevert with Mike Hailwood’s Surtees next in the bobbing and weaving queue. Yet there was a wild card in the pack. Tight on the inside line as the high-octane bunch raced for the fast righthander was Peter Gethin’s Yardley-liveried BRM P160. He’d qualified 11th in the 24-car
field, but had only come into contention as the race ran down towards its closing stages.
As the cars fanned out going into the corner, Gethin kept his line. And his nerve. Late on the brakes and flicking down through the fivespeed BRM gearbox, he could hear the chirping of his overused Firestone tyres as he scrambled up the inside of Peterson’s March, the two cars only inches apart as they strained for grip. Ronnie drifted slightly wide, just enough to leave room for the BRM to edge level. It was about a quarter of a mile to the chequered flag. As Gethin pulled alongside the
March he held the BRM in fourth gear until its V12 was literally screaming. Coming up to the end of the pitwall, he finally snicked it up into fifth and surged past Peterson by a nose to win the 1971 Italian Grand Prix at an average speed of 150.755mph. Not only was this the smallest margin of victory in Formula 1 history up to that point — 0.010 seconds — but his success was achieved at a record average speed as well. Not until Ayrton Senna’s Lotus pipped Nigel Mansell’s Williams-Honda at Jerez 15 years later would there be a closer finish. MD
“I over-revved the P160 by about 500rpm for at least half the race when I lost the tow and probably a few more after the Parabolica on the last lap,” says Gethin. “As I had caught the leaders with approximately 10 laps to go I worked out I needed to be in the first three going into Parabolica on the last lap. As it was I outbraked Cevert and Ronnie going in and couldn’t stop, so as soon as I was in front I floored it and just made the line. By losing the tow earlier in the race and then catching them up I felt after all the hard work in doing so I had to win. Looking back, I suppose I must have been slightly mental!
“I knew it was going to be really close, so I raised my arm in triumph, not because I was showing off, but I reckoned since this was Italy they might not be too clever on their timekeeping to whichever driver raised his hand first.” F
. orty years ago, for three tumultuous months in the summer of 1971, triumph and tragedy became fleetingly, if inextricably, linked in the business of the BRA,’ Formula 1 team. The Bourne squad’s superb Tony Southgate-designed P160 briefly began
to look like the car to beat, particularly after Jo Siffert scored a runaway victory in the Austrian Grand Prix at the super-fast Osterreichring.
Siffert saw that win as going some way to making up for the loss of his team-mate, the great Pedro Rodriguez, who’d been killed driving a private Ferrari 512M in what amounted to an inconsequential minor-league sports car race at the Norisring a week prior to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Pedro was expected to be a strong contender at the Northamptonshire track, but instead of publishing upbeat race previews, it was left to the UK motoring magazines to pen flattering valedictory tributes to ‘the Mexican bandit’, as he was affectionately known. Yet it was as a result of a seemingly unobtrusive mid-season change of team that Gethin, previously a member of the McLaren Fl squad, found himself shunted across to BRA,’ where fate and circumstance put him on the fast track to a remarkable, well-deserved
and totally unexpected Grand Prix victory. Peter Kenneth Gethin earned his middle name from his father, the famous flat racing jockey and trainer Ken Gethin, and was born in Ewell, Surrey. Midway through 1962 he purchased a Lotus 7 from sprint exponent Harry Epps and entered it for a race meeting at Brands Hatch. To his thinly concealed amazement he qualified on pole, but inexperience caught up with him in the race
itself when he spun off while leading. Over The balance of that ’62 season Peter raced most weekends and ended his initial campaign with a couple of victories and several promising places. For 1965, Charles Lucas offered Gethin a drive in the new team he was about to establish for that season. Gcthin facd thelioice of accepting another Ford-engined Lotus 23 for
sports car racing or an old F3 Lotus 22 which had previously been driven by Frenchman Jacques Maglia and the young American Roy Pike. He opted for the single-seater, which proved to be a complete and utter waste of his time and efforts. Early during that season Lucas retired temporarily from driving in F3 and his exGraham Hill F2 Brabham chassis was reallocated to Gethin. It turned out to be another fiasco. ‘Luke’ had shunted it heavily on the demanding Pau street circuit and it never seemed to handle properly from then on. “Maybe it was a bad car, maybe it was set up for Graham Hill and never really suited anybody else,” muses Gethin. “Either way, it never felt right to my mind, but I was really appreciative that Luke offered me the drive even though
some people reckoned he’d only done so because he fancied my girlfriend!”
On the strength of a succession of consistently competitive performances, Gethin was eventually selected by Bruce McLaren to drive the works Church Farm Racing Ml OA in the inaugural UK domestic Formula 5000 championship in 1969, winning the title at his first attempt. The McLaren driver was locked in a season-long battle with Team Surtees works driver Trevor Taylor, with Gethin just nudging ahead in the points after the final round in which both title contenders were eliminated lapping a slower car. For Gethin this success was a worthwhile boost to his career, proving that he could handle a powerful single-seater with some confidence as well as showcasing McLaren’s customer capability as F5000 continued to expand and grow on both_sides ofthAilantic. “Bruce had faith in me and I like to think I justified it during 1969,” says Gethin. “It also proved there was another route which could lead you to Fl rather than simply F2, which was many people’s popular choice at the time.” Eti?
On June 2 1970, that fateful day in McLaren history, Peter was at Goodwood testing an M14A F1 car. The Sussex circuit was at its sundappled best as photographer David Phipps drove into the paddock, but the McLaren transporter was empty, with no personnel to be seen. Then he heard the plaintive distant wail of an ambulance siren. It was a signal that nothing would ever be the same for the team again. 1,3 ruce had been testing the new McLaren M8D prior to the start of that season’s Can-Am campaign. Tragically the ill-fitting engine
cover flew off at around 170mph just before the kink on the Lavant straight, the rear wheels lifted from the Tarmac and Bruce slammed off the track and into a deserted marshals’ post. He never stood a chance. “It had been arranged that I would drive for McLaren in the upcoming Belgian GP,” recalls
Gethin, “and I was at Goodwood testing in preparation for that event. I was just being strapped into the cockpit of the M14A when we saw the smoke. I was among the first to reach the accident scene. It made a deep and profound impression on me.” The team was thrown into disarray. Denny Hulme was still recovering from painful burns sustained in a methanol fire while testing at Indianapolis, so veteran Dan Gurney was drafted in to drive both the F1 and Can-Am cars for a while. Unfortunately the American driver’s contractual commitments to Castrol clashed with McLaren’s contracts with
Gulf. “It seemed as though we could work it out,” said team boss Teddy Mayer, “and in fact the sponsors concerned were very good about trying to make it work.
“But regretfully we had to part. We brought in Peter Gethin in his place. And he did far, far better than I thought he would.” In fact, as Doug Nye highlighted in his excellent book McLaren: The Grand Prix, Can-Am and Indy Cars, Gethin had driven barely a dozen laps testing McLaren Group 7 cars prior to being pitched in at the deep end of the racing action at Edmonton, Alberta in the colourfully titled Klondike Trail 200 where he finished second behind a physically recovering Hulme.
In his third Can-Am outing Gethin won. By the end of the season the Englishman had netted $26,000 for the team. Seems like peanuts by today’s standards, but for the time this was a huge sum, certainly by the relatively modest standards of contemporary F1. “I was due to drive the M8D the day Bruce died,” Gethin recalls. “I remember driving the
car for the first time and it frightened me to death, but after not many laps I was wanting more power, all of which shows you the mentality of race drivers then. However, my first race was Edmonton, and I was told I had to finish second to Denny unless he failed to finish, and then to win. He won and I qualified and duly finished second. The first 100 miles was easy to run with Denny but I got a bit weary in the last 100. He wasn’t called the Bear ‘cos he liked honey…”
Unfortunately for Gethin his initially promising start with McLaren did not herald great things going forward into 1971. The new Ralph Bellamy-designed M19 proved difficult in the extreme to sort. Gethin’s place in the CanAm line-up was taken by Peter Revson, and he was effectively bumped from the F1 squad midway through the year when Roger Penske did a deal with Mayer for Mark Donohue to race an M19A in the final two GPs of the year.
“Teddy and I did not really gel, and as neither Denny nor I could sort the M19 Teddy felt Mark Donohue probably could, so I was informed that my services would not be required for Canada and the USA,” says Gethin. “As I had already been approached by Louis Stanley for ’72, I told him I was free immediately [which was just before the Austrian GP]. I therefore had the pleasure of informing Teddy I was leaving before my being told to leave.
“In retrospect I think Mark was a good idea as in my opinion he was America’s equivalent to Bruce. So it made sense, but I also probably didn’t help my cause by telling Teddy his greatest asset was his wife!” Yet although the fallout with Mayer and McLaren led to Peter’s glorious Monza success and a full-time contract with BRM in 1972, there was no more Grand Prix glory destined to come his way. The team suffered a second tragedy when Siffert was killed in a fiery
accident when his P160 crashed in the end-of-season Victory race at Brands Hatch. By then, Gethin reckoned, BRM was too chaotically operated under Louis Stanley’s control and there was very much a patriarchal relationship between him and the drivers, who he regarded as hired hands he could recruit or dismiss at the click of his fingers. That curious quality was on public display over Gethin’s glorious Monza weekend when Stanley invited Cevert to dine with the BRM team at the swanky Villa D’Este hotel on Lake Como the night before the race. Stanley was trying to recruit Cevert for
’72, although why the Frenchman should have spent two seconds considering giving up his role as Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell team-mate isn’t clear.
Nevertheless Gethin recalls his being pushed down the pecking order at the ‘high table’ to make space for Stanley’s glamorous new friend. But of course that all changed the following afternoon when the Stanleys hailed him as hero of the hour. Ironically Cevert, after finishing third, sought out Gethin and complained that he had pushed him out onto the marbles at the Parabolica on the final lap. “I told him that I couldn’t care less,” says Peter with a grin. Having driven to Monza on race morning in his modest rental car, Gethin was wafted out of the paddock ensconced majestically in the Stanleys’ limousine for the trip back to the hotel. Trouble was, the Mercedes 600 suffered a punctured tyre and Gethin ended his greatest day crouched by the roadside changing a wheel while his corpulent employer stood back giggling at the scene. In a sense, it was the story of Peter Gethin’s F1 life. a)
In brief, August 2008
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