DECEMBER 7, 2011
The death of Peter Gethin on Monday has prompted a flood of tributes, all of which mention somewhere along the line that the Englishman won the fastest and, at the time, the closest race in F1 history.
Victory in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix was to be Gethin's only win in 30 F1 appearances but, typically, it was charged with the sort of emotion and drama that seemed to cover most aspects of his otherwise modest racing career. His entry into F1 was a good example.
Having failed to achieve much during a patchy few years in F3 and F2, Gethin found himself without a decent drive for 1969. With his career seemingly at a dead end, Gethin was thrown a life-line.
Bruce McLaren, aware of the sales potential of the inaugural Formula 5000 series, offered Gethin a semi-works drive in a McLaren-Chevrolet. Gethin grabbed his chance, knowing that the orange single-seater, with its 5-litre V8, had been tested and developed by Bruce himself. It was a good decision all round, Gethin winning the series with a clean, quick style that suggested he could cope with the step to F1.
That came quicker than he expected. When Denny Hulme suffered burns to his hands at Indianapolis, Bruce had no hesitation in drafting Gethin as a replacement in the F1 team. Life could not have looked better for the chirpy little guy with the cheeky grin as he turned up at Goodwood for his first test in the F1 car on 2 June 1970.
As Gethin made himself comfortable in the cockpit of the M14, a pall of smoke arose from the far side of the airfield circuit. McLaren, driving the CanAm car, had hit a marshals' post at 170 mph when part of the powerful sport car's rear bodywork came adrift. Gethin was among the first on the scene and what he saw as to make a lasting impression. Bruce had been killed instantly.
The team did not race as planned at the next race in Belgium, Gethin making his F1 debut in Holland. It was to be a difficult baptism in a team struggling to come to terms with the loss of a leader who had been an inspiration on every front.
Things became even worse in 1971 with the introduction of the McLaren M19, a tricky car that proved very difficult to set up. In August, Gethin was told his services would no longer be needed. This happened just after the even more unwelcome news that Pedro Rodriguez had been killed in a sportscar race. BRM offered Gethin the vacant F1 seat for the rest of the season. His second race with the British team would be at Monza, a circuit then devoid of chicanes and one which Gethin knew would be suited to the lusty V12 engine.
Gethin may have qualified 11th but he thrashed the car, going 500 rpm above the agreed limit, taking every corner at the maximum for every lap until he caught the leading bunch. Once there, Gethin knew he would have to play his cards right on the final lap.
In typical Monza fashion, there were four cars running wheel-to-wheel; Gethin's BRM, the March of Ronnie Peterson, Francois Cevert's Tyrrell and the Surtees of Mike Hailwood. The trick was for Gethin to manoeuvre himself into one of the first two places coming out of Parabolica, the final corner.
In the event, Peterson outbraked Cevert and slid wide briefly, Gethin grabbing his chance by diving inside them both. Determined not to lift off, Gethin kept his foot to the floor and came out of Parabolica marginally in front. But Peterson was coming back, the red March moving up on Gethin's left shoulder, Cevert outside Peterson and Hailwood a metre behind as the quartet fanned out onto the broad finishing straight.
With the absence of either sophisticated photography or timing on the finishing line, Gethin knew there would be nothing in it. Working on the assumption that human nature would make the final decision, Gethin thrust his right arm in the air to help the officials make up their mind. He was declared the winner by 0.01 seconds at an average of 151.634 mph.
That would be the remarkable high point of a F1 career that lasted for one more full season. But, that night at Monza, he was The Man.
I visited Peter at his driving school at Goodwood 15 years later to recall that race. The laughter lines on his expressive face were evident as he recounted the story of what happened afterwards.
BRM was run by Louis Stanley, a pompous man with an overbearing nature. Having celebrated victory in a Milan restaurant, Stanley's chauffeur-driven limousine picked up a puncture on the journey back to Villa d'Este, the lavish hotel by Lake Como in the mountains to the north. Gethin found himself to be the only person present capable of changing a wheel. So there was the winner of the Italian Grand Prix on his hands and knees, in the gutter, in the dark, with Stanley towering over him and chortling: "Ho, ho, ho, who would have believed it....the winner at Monza...ho, ho, ho...".
Gethin received the princely sum of £800 for his day's work at the race track. Times may have changed but, by any standard, that was an insulting amount for a massive victory by a little guy with enormous spirit.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.