Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Peter Kenneth Gethin (21 February 1940-5 December 2011)


Jenks was not always right. Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent, Denis Jenkinson got carried away by what he saw as a win by, “a tough little Londoner,” on 5 September 1971. Peter Gethin, then 31, set a record in the history of world championship Grands Prix by winning at the fastest average speed of all the races that had counted towards the title since 1950. He won the Italian Grand prix at Monza at 150.75mph, with just over half a second between him and fifth, also a BRM, driven by Howden Ganley.
Jenks wrote: “It was interesting to listen to Fran├žois Cevert and Ronnie Peterson explaining why they did not win, when they had started the last lap each confident that they had got it all worked out for victory. Peterson claimed that he could pass Cevert’s Tyrrell between the last corner and the finish. He had tried it several times during the last 15 laps. Cevert said he had a much more powerful engine than Peterson and could pass any time he wanted. His plan was to lead into the last corner then pass on the run-up to the finish. He did not want to lead in the last corner in case Peterson slipstreamed him and darted ahead on the line.”

Analysis paralysis. Jenks imagined motor racing was much more careful and controlled than it really was. He thought Peterson, “a charger with not too much racing intelligence,” and Cevert, “a beautiful young man who is timid and doesn’t want to get hurt.” He was probably right in supposing than neither thought Gethin or his BRM likely winners, yet constructs a last lap scenario too profound. What really happened was that Cevert and Peterson got over-excited about their clever plans and went wide on the last corner, leaving room for Gethin to get through. He could then accelerate his BRM away in its high second gear, taking the engine to 11,500rpm. He normally changed into third for the straight past the pits but this time remained in second until after the flag. Opportunism took him to victory. Motor racing was much less of an exact science than Jenks imagined.

P160 Yardley BRM on its press showing, 17 February 1971
Peter Gethin hung up his helmet in 1977 after a career spanning 15 years of Grand Prix, Formula 2, and Can-Am. He dominated Formula 5000, was European Champion in 1969 and 1970, and scored a remarkable double victory in 1973 by winning the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch twice, under different sets of rules.

He was born in Ewell (nearly London) into competitive sport. His father was Ken Gethin, one of the top jockeys and horse trainers in England, and started racing in 1962 with Lotus sports cars. In 1965 he moved on to single-seaters, then in 1968, into Formula 2, then still the training ground for top drivers. His opportunity in Grand Prix racing followed Bruce McLaren’s death in a testing accident at Goodwood but by the next year the team was in disarray, and Gethin moved to BRM.

The Monza race was only his second at the wheel of the V12 and by the following year the authorities introduced new corners to slow cars down. Slipstreaming, they decided, was too dangerous, so that while later generation of cars were faster, and cornered at higher speeds, race average speeds were lower. Alan Henry’s customarily well researched obituary in The Guardian relates how Gethin told him BRM boss Louis Stanley spent race weekend trying to lure Cevert into the BRM team. The previous evening, Peter was moved to the bottom of the dinner table to accommodate the French driver.

Yet 24 hours later, following his not entirely expected win (the lofty Stanley saw Gethin as “something of a lightweight”) he was swept regally out of the paddock in Stanley's Mercedes 600. His greatest day finished with him crouching by the side of the road back to Como, changing a wheel. It said much for Gethin that he saw the funny side.

Monza was Gethin’s only grand prix victory in 30 races. Bubbly, short 5ft 8in, with a winning smile and great charm, his record speed was only exceeded in 2003. His place in the history of motor racing was nevertheless still secure.

Yardley Team BRM press release picture, Europa Hotel, London. Motor racing publicity pictures had a long way to go. BRM mechanics are real.

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