The chirpy and popular pint-sized son of the successful jockey Ken Gethin scored his greatest F1 moment a matter of weeks after switching from McLaren to BRM in the summer of 1971 when he forced his BRM P160 through into the lead of the Italian GP at Monza, winning the race by one hundredth of a second at an average speed of 151.634mph. Not only was this the closest GP finish up to that point in history but also the fastest race average recorded.
Gethin started his professional career in junior league F3 in which he was a star during the mid-1960s. On the strength of a string of consistently competitive performances, Gethin was recruited by Bruce McLaren to drive the works Church Farm Racing M10B 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 Peter just nudging ahead in the points stakes after the final round in which Taylor was eliminated lapping a slower car. For Gethin, this success was a worthwhile boost to his career, proving that he could handle a very powerful single-seater with some confidence as well as showcasing McLaren’s customer capability as F5000 continued to expand and grow on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Bruce had faith in me and I like to think I justified it during 1969,” said Gethin. “It also proved that there was another route which could lead you to F1™ rather than simply F2 which was many people’s popular choice at the time.”
The following summer Gethin was testing the F1 McLaren M14 at Goodwood on the same day Bruce was killed in the latest Can-Am machine. The 30-year old Englishman stepped into the vacant McLaren F1 seat and also distinguished himself with the seriousness of purpose and discipline which he applied to handling the Can-Am M8F, which he did not allow to intimidate him.
“He did very much better than I ever expected him to,” said Teddy Mayer after Peter lucked into a Can-Am race win, although his place in the Can-Am line-up for 1971 was taken by Peter Revson and he was effectively bumped from the F1™ squad mid-way through the year when Roger Penske did a deal for Mark Donohue to race a Mclaren M19A in the final two GPs of the year.
By then, of course, Gethin’s greatest day had come at Monza; but not at the wheel of a McLaren.