We were all mightily impressed by the legendary Villeneuve/Arnoux battle at Dijon in 1979 weren’t we? Repeat: Yes we were. But we’re here to tell you that it was nothing…Nada… Zilch…Rien du tout!...In comparison with the Italian Grand Prix of 1971. This would be the last Grand Prix ever held at Monza before the venerable venue sprouted its first chicane and straight-line speed would be paramount.
So the teams were soon cutting their wings down to a minimum (as demonstrated here on Ronnie Peterson’s March 711). Which not only reduced drag, but allowed the cars to slipstream in close formation and, most astonishingly of all, actually overtake each other!
Come the day of the race, the drama would start at the first twitch of the starter’s wrist. New Zealander Chris Amon was on pole, but found himself left for dead. As the flag dropped and Clay Regazzoni somehow swept his Ferrari straight through into the lead. From the fourth row of the grid! The Swiss held on for four characteristically wild laps before having to give best to Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, who’d forced his March past the Ferrarista, and was followed directly by the Tyrrell of World-Champion elect, Jackie Stewart.
This trio of talent would spend the next twenty-five laps tossing the lead about between them. Until the fabled products of Mr Tyrrell’s and Mr Ferrari’s world respected manufactories would cash in their chips to leave Ronnie Peterson running briefly unopposed out at the head of the field. But with a looming cloud of opposition growing ever larger in his mirrors!
Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, in his first Formula 1 race for six years, was the first to break cover. To lead a single, glorious lap in his Surtees. Before another Son-of-the Swiss, Jo Siffert, would usurp him in the name of BRM (when was the last time that two different drivers from Switzerland would both take a turn at the lead in the same Grand Prix?). But Jo would be another to see his hopes turn rapidly sour. When, after just four furious laps at the front, he was forced to drop back, and eventually out, as his BRM’s gearbox began to crumble through his fingers.
A bit more horse-trading ensued as Jo Siffert’s challenge dwindled away. Until order and reason were finally restored, as pole-man Chris Amon elbowed his French blue Matra-Simca out of the pulsating throng, and re-established his rightful place back at the head of the squabbling field. And with the race now entering its final stages, it was looking increasingly likely that Chris was finally going pull-off the Grand Prix victory that had always eluded him throughout his otherwise glorious Formula 1 career.
But it wasn’t for nothing that the popular Kiwi had built up his awesome reputation for terrible luck. With just five laps to go, he went to pull a tear-off from his visor. And the whole visor assembly came off in his hand! With the leader blinded by his own airstream, the pack behind pounced. And in an instant, the Matra had dropped from first, down to sixth. And Chris Amon’s dreams of freshly opened Champagne, were shattered once again (and despite any number of close calls, he never would suffer the indignity of actually winning a World Championship Grand Prix).
This left us with a five car battle to the flag. And it would prove to be an epic. Ronnie Peterson and Mike Hailwood were still in there. Joined now by Jackie Stewart’s team-mate Francois Cevert in his Tyrrell, and two more BRMs. In the capable hands of Britain’s Peter Gethin and New Zealander Howden Ganley.
And all of them except Howden Ganley, would take the opportunity to hold the lead at some point during those last few laps. At this point in the proceedings we see Peter Gethin taking a turn. With Ronnie Peterson, Mike Hailwood, Francois Cevert and Howden Ganley all in line astern.
As the leading pack approached the famous Parabolica curve for the very last time, it was Francois Cevert who held the advantage. But it was Ronnie Peterson who grabbed the initiative. And by leaving his breaking to the very last instant, he shot down the inside of the Frenchman, towing Peter Gethin’s BRM through behind him. But his scarlet March drifted wide onto the grass at the exit, and Peter and Francois were able to sail past to snatch the lead back from him. With only the drag race to the finishing line left to go.
Peter Gethin was now in the lead, with Francois Cevert hard on his tail in second place. But Ronnie wasn’t giving up yet. Thanks to Frank Costin’s careful attention to the slipperyness of his March’s bodywork, he was able to creep his way past the dark blue Tyrrell and was catching the BRM driver hand-over-fist as the chequered flag finally cleaved it’s course through the shimmering afternoon heat.
It was so close that the Englishman wasn’t sure whether he’d won or not. But he threw his arm in the air anyway. On the grounds that “If there was going to be a dispute, it might at least help to have looked like the winner”! And when the dust finally settled, Peter Gethin was indeed judged to have won the 1971 Italian Grand Prix.
Beating Ronnie Peterson, by just 0.01 of a second! Francois Cevert was third, having crossed the line 0.08 of a second after Ronnie. And Mike Hailwood was fourth, 0.09 of a second behind the Tyrrell. Leaving Howden Ganley to come home fifth, 0.43 of a second adrift of Mike. Just 0.61 of a second covering the whole lot! And as the pack crossed the finishing line, in the middle of the group was Jo Bonnier’s McLaren. Which was having itself lapped!
Not only was this the closest Grand Prix finish ever, but it was also, at the time, the fastest Grand Prix ever. With Peter Gethin’s average speed for the whole race standing at 150.755mph. This record stood for an amazing thirty-two years. Until Michael Schumacher finally bettered it at the 2003 Italian Grand Prix. On the very same, but now extensively chicane infested piece of Italian real-estate.
Strangely enough, the fastest lap, in the fastest ever race, was claimed by Frenchman Henri Pescarolo. Driving a March, privately entered by non-other than the future World Championship winning constructor Frank Williams. Henri had never really featured amongst the leaders though, and he never recorded another Grand Prix fastest lap in his entire career! Another remarkable fact was that none of those first five finishers had ever won a Grand Prix up to that point (in fact, Mike Hailwood and Howden Ganley never would). And with the luckless Chris Amon sixth and McLaren driver Jackie Oliver in seventh, you had to go all the way back to eighth place, where Emerson Fittipaldi had cruised home in the gas-turbine powered Lotus 56B, to speak to someone who actually had! For Peter Gethin though, it would prove to be the pinnacle of his motor racing career. He successfully carried the momentum through to the last few races of the 1971 season, to take a win in the non-championship Victory Race finale at Brands Hatch.
But the following Grand Prix season would be disastrous for him. Still at BRM, he was completely overshadowed by a new batch of team-mates, and only a picked-up a single World Championship point all year. Dropped by the team for the following season, Peter only ever made two more appearances at the wheel of a Grand Prix car. Instead, he stepped down a notch, to enjoy a very successful career outside of Formula 1. Driving principally for the Belgian Count Rudi Van de Staaten (who’s family brewery owned the Stella Artois brand) and his VDS team. Until he retired from the sport after a fruitful year of Can-Am racing, with VDS, in 1977.
But there was one consolation. According to the man himself, the prize money that Peter Gethin earned for his famous victory in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix was, apparently, just about enough to cover his weekend’s hotel bill!