Peter Gethin’s 1971 victory in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza used to be a benchmark of speed and time – the fastest ever Grand Prix at 242.51 kph (150.75 mph), the closest ever finish with just 0.01s* between first and second, and a staggering 0.61s covering the first five cars.
The modern era has robbed it of both these claims. Michael Schumacher won the 2003 race at the same circuit, albeit now emasculated by chicanes, at 247.48 kph (153.84 mph). And Rubens Barrichello took a farcical ‘win’ in Indianapolis in 2002, when Schumacher claimed to be trying to engineer a dead-heat, by just 0.011s.
But in 1971 Monza was still a monster circuit, and none of the five drivers who hurtled together towards the chequered flag that day would have considered yielding to allow their team mate to win. The two men who followed Gethin home, Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert, died in Formula One cars. Death was still a frequent occurrence in 1970s Formula One, and drivers treated the sport and each other with corresponding amounts of respect as a result.
Without chicanes, Monza was a near flat-out run from the starting line, through the sweeping Curva Grande and up to the two Lesmos. Here the immense speeds relented just a little and the pack would bunch up. Experienced drivers knew that, in a slipstreaming race, if you were leading at Lesmo you would almost certainly be passed before the finishing line.
Down the hill the cars would fly into the Curva Ascari, which was then a single curve, not a twisting chicane. From there to Parabolica, much the same as it is today, pinched and tight on the entry before opening up and returning drivers to the start line.
Gethin qualified 11th in his Yardley team BRM P160, having defected from Bruce McLaren’s outfit at the previous round in Austria. Chris Amon’s Matra was on the pole ahead of Jacky Ickx in one of the crowd’s beloved Ferraris. But Ickx was to retire with engine failure and Amon was cruelly robbed of a possible win when, while leading, he reached to remove a disposable tear-off strip from his visor but pulled the entire visor away from his helmet. Partially blinded by blasts of high-speed air, he rolled in sixth.
In all, eight different drivers led the race and the lead changed no fewer than 24 times in 55 laps. Gethin only took the lead for the first time on lap 52 after passing Mike Hailwood’s Surtees.
In setting up his car Gethin played a tactical game, tuning the gears for optimal drive out of Parabolica should he find himself in the leading group at the end of the race. He did, and lunged down the inside of Cevert and Peterson as they rounded Parabolica for the last time. Flying from the final corner his BRM was clearly ahead. Peterson drew alongside but somehow not quite passed as they reached the finishing line. Behind them, Cevert, Hailwood and Gethin’s team-mate Howden Ganley were side-by-side.
It was Gethin’s one and only win, and the only points he scored in the 1971 season. Those nine points gave him ninth overall at the season’s end. He scored just one point the previous season, and one point the next, and no more. The days when relative unknowns could pull up in garage-tuned cars and take on the world’s best are long in the past, but fondly remembered.
*NB. in 1971 timings were made only to two decimal places. It therefore cannot be said for certain whether Gethin’s win or Barrichello’s was closer. However, the top five cars have never finished closer than they did at the 1971 Italian Grand Prix.