Feature F1 Unlocked
Brazil’s lost champion? David Tremayne on Carlos Pace, the racer after whom the Sao Paulo circuit is named
Coming just 13 days after the fatal accident that befell Tom Pryce in the South African Grand Prix on March 5th, 1977, Jose Carlos Pace’s death in a plane crash stunned the F1 fraternity.
Handsome and quick, he was the archetypal Brazilian racing driver who followed his trailblazing friends Emerson and Wilson Fittipaldi to Europe. On his day he had the speed and race craft to beat anyone, and had proved it convincingly at the autodromo in Interlagos that would later be named in his honour when he won the Brazilian GP two years earlier.
Had fate been kinder, he might have been Brazil’s second world champion, between Emerson and Nelson Piquet.
Having made his own mark in Europe in Formula Ford and Formula 3 in 1969, Emerson encouraged other Brazilians to follow, and Carlos became his protege after some impressive drives back home.
Emerson and Maria-Helena, and Wilson and Suzie, lived in Bunwell near Norwich, close to the famous Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ School at Snetterton and, of course, Team Lotus’s headquarters at Ketteringham Hall, near Hethel.
Carlos lived nearby in Attleborough, when he and Wilson were racing in F3 together in 1970. They had an arrangement that whichever was the first to win a race would stand dinner for the others. Wilson did so after winning at Silverstone late in May. Carlos, whom they called ‘Moco’, had been second then, but a week later, after Thruxton, it was his turn. They finished with four wins each, and Carlos won the Forward Trust Championship.
The three Brazilians remained firm friends off the track, when they were racing in F1. “When we went to South Africa,” Suzie recalled, “we all used to go on a photographic safari to get over the jet lag.
“I can still see today ‘Moco’ sitting in the car, roaring, saying that all these wild animals were really just fakes. He thought it too good to be true that they would turn up just when we wanted to see them. Thank God he never got out.”
He’d quickly followed Emerson into F1 with Frank Williams, via the latter’s F2 team. Despite lack of either cash or Patrick Head – whose arrival would later transform Frank's fortunes – he won a race at Imola in 1971, and Frank offered him a ride in the big time for 1972.
“Though I have to admit that my management of our little F2 team was not one that people would admire, it was obvious despite the perpetual aggravation that Carlos had a great deal of talent,“ Frank once told me. “He also had a little bit of sponsorship for F1, so we took the plunge. It was well worthwhile. The guy was very, very talented.
“I must say he was not designed by God to play any active sport like tennis or running. He was ungainly, overweight, unfit, but he was a natural race driver. Outstanding. He was tough, physically strong, and had a strong head. A bit like Alan Jones in a way.”
He made his debut in in Frank’s old March 711 in the South African GP, qualifying 24th and finishing 17th after wheel bearing problems throughout qualifying and battles with a faulty fuel pump. In his second outing, at Jarama, a brilliant drive took him to sixth and his first World Championship point as he chased Andrea de Adamich’s Surtees and Peter Revson’s McLaren to the flag. But it was clouded by the death of his father back in Brazil.
His abundant talent became ever more evident at drivers’ tracks such as Clermont Ferrand, Brands Hatch, the old Nurburgring, Mosport Park and Watkins Glen.
“Everyone in the team appreciated him as a man who was a no-nonsense guy when he got into the cockpit,” Frank added. But though Williams tried hard to keep him for 1973, an offer from John Surtees proved too tempting.
“John was a constructor in his own right, didn’t need any sponsorship and was able to offer good money,” Frank admitted. “He was clearly a better act than we were. Carlos said he would love to have stayed but that he had to move because of his own career. Who could blame him?”
His first drive for Surtees produced a solid second in a TS9B in an end of season non-championship race at Brands Hatch, but in 1973 with the new TS14A, its fragile Firestone tyres frequently went off just when he was well placed.
But there were good highlights: qualifying sixth at Interlagos; challenging Emerson for third place at Zolder until the rear wing stays broke; a strong initial run in third place behind Ronnie Peterson and Jackie Stewart in the tragic Dutch GP; a sensational fourth place with fastest lap of 7m 11.4s at the old Nurburgring despite a cracked rib sustained in a Jody Scheckter-induced shunt at Silverstone; a tremendous third and fastest lap in Austria, where he won the Jo Siffert Rouge et Blanc award for fighting performance.
The relationship with Surtees broke down mid-season in 1974, however, and Bernie Ecclestone, who would rate him a great friend, signed him to replace Rikki von Opel in his Brabham team.
He ran second behind ‘Big Carlos’ (Reutemann) in Austria before a fuel line broke; matched him before tyre problems dropped him to fifth at Monza (where he set a new lap record); beat him in Canada; and ended the season finishing second to him in America, again with fastest lap.
1975 was his best year. He started from the front row and challenged for victory in Argentina until engine failure, then came the big breakthrough on his home turf at Interlagos. There, to the elation of their countrymen, he led Emerson home after the retirement of Jean-Pierre Jarier’s dominant Shadow. It was his greatest moment.
Herbie Blash, then a member of Brabham’s management, recalled: “As a driver he was very much out of the Ronnie Peterson mould. Not technical at all, but incredibly quick. He really did have natural ability. The classic was when he won at Interlagos… you can imagine what that meant to him.
“He was really good fun, to be honest definitely a bit of a playboy. Very smooth. A really genuine, happy-go-lucky guy who enjoyed jokes. Very stylish.”
Carlos led from pole in South Africa and in Spain was extremely lucky to avoid involvement in Rolf Stommelen’s accident when the Embassy Hill’s rear wing mounting broke. His Brabham actually ran beneath the flying Hill car as it aviated, but he admitted: “I had my eyes tightly shut!”
He led in Belgium and in Britain and there were other strong performances: third at Monaco; fifth at Zandvoort; second to Emerson at Silverstone; a front row start with Lauda at the ‘Ring. He was sixth overall, but the arrival of Alfa Romeo’s hefty flat-12 for 1976 compromised his progress.
But where Reutemann effectively gave up before decamping to Ferrari, Little Carlos took sixth in Spain, and fourths in France and Germany, on his beloved Nurburgring.
“Carlos would get depressed, and would need lifting a bit,” designer Gordon Murray revealed. “He was typically South American, very effervescent, a fiery sort of driver, and those guys are often up and down. If things aren’t right they take a lot of building up. Bernie used to have to do an awful lot of that.”
But over the winter the BT45 was heavily revised. Incoming John Watson remembers Carlos as an easy-going team mate, and “the sort who thought about his racing outside of the cockpit. I think the team liked the fact that he came up with ideas all the time.”
Carlos nearly won the season opener in Argentina, but fell to second behind winner Scheckter through heat exhaustion. He led again in Interlagos, but retired after a clash with James Hunt’s McLaren.
In South Africa, two pit stops for new front tyres stymied him after he’d started from the front row. And just under a fortnight later the persuasiveness of his close friend Marivaldo Fernandez would cost him his life.
Marivaldo had just bought a new Piper Cherokee and wanted to show it off. On March 18 he suggested flying up to Ribeira on Prieto, a town in upstate Sao Paolo, to visit their great friends Emerson and Maria-Helena and Wilson and Suzie. Carlos wasn’t keen because of poor weather reports, but Marivaldo suggested that since he was learning to fly, maybe he could take the controls for a while.
Despite his misgivings Carlos gave in, but thankfully their wives preferred to stay in Sao Paulo. Carlos kissed Elda goodbye and Marivaldo did likewise to Vera, and they boarded the Cherokee. Within an hour they ran into the violent thunderstorm that Carlos had feared, and crashed. There were no survivors.
“We were going to have a barbecue in the afternoon, but in the morning Carlos crashed,” Emerson remembers. “The accident was in a thunderstorm, close to Sao Paulo. They had no instruments and they went low and hit a mountain.”
“The four of us were staying at a friend’s farm, and Marivaldo and Carlos were coming to join us,” Suzie remembers. “At five o’clock in the morning we had a telephone call saying that the plane had crashed. At first nobody would believe it…”
Frank Williams and Jackie Stewart weren’t sure that Carlos had true champion potential. But Bernie Ecclestone was.
“Pace was brilliant,” Murray says. “Bernie always had fantastic faith in him – and mine grew. I first saw him at an F3 race at Thruxton in 1970, and he was terrific. I think he had a massive amount of natural ability. Bernie always said he could be world champion, but at the time I was sceptical.
“It’s desperately unfair because he wasn’t around long enough in the right circumstances to judge the guy. I certainly think he would have had race wins in 1977, he would have won a lot of races. Whether he had the complete package easily to become a world champion, I just don’t know.”
Bernie always remembers his old friend with affection. “You don’t create these personal relationships, they just happen. With Carlos, it did when he lived in London while he was racing with us.
“He was a character, a fun guy. He enjoyed the good things in life. But he was an up and down character, especially with the Brabham-Alfa.
“Whenever it stopped in a race, he would get back to the paddock and we’d jump into the hire car to head for the airport, and he’d be saying, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m going back to Brazil’. But by the time we’d landed back in England and I’d dropped him off at his flat, he was saying that he was going to win the next race.
“He was a racer, with a lot of talent. Definitely world champion material. If he had lived, maybe we wouldn’t have needed Niki Lauda.”
But that one moment, that wish not to offend his friend Marivaldo, denied ‘Moco’ his chance to prove who was right about his true level of ability.