Today marks the 40th anniversary of Piers Courage’s death. He was known as a very quick, but erratic driver, and his 2 podium positions in Formula 1 do not get near describing what could have been for one of the best drivers on the grid during his time.
Piers Courage was born on 27th May 1942 in Colchester, and was the heir of the famous Courage brewing dynasty. Because of this, he was educated in Eton, and this is where he caught the racing bug. However, while he was there, he was unable to fully pursue racing, although every Sunday morning he would dissapear with his family’s Morris Minor Traveller.
Once he left Eton in the summer, he was able to get started fully. He began his racing career in a Lotus 7 which was funded by his father, although after this he was on his own. Most of his time racing the Seven was spent going backwards, thanks to his penchant of spinning. Off the racing track, he was similarly erratic, crashing his car into a skip in Montpellier Square, Knightsbridge. During this time, he was involved with many strange tales involving people such as Frank Williams, Charlie Crichton-Stuart, Jonathon Williams and Anthony Horsley. For example, Piers decided to ram his car backwards into a wall, to reshape a damaged chassis.
In 1964, he teamed up with a good friend, Jonathon Williams, and raced in the European Formula 3 championship in a Lotus 22, under the name of Anglo-Swiss Racing Team. Although they did not compete for the entire season, they had made their mark, getting 2nd place in Zandvoort and 3rd in Reims. This encouraged Piers to compete for a full season in 1965.
The next year, he drove a 1.0L F3 Brabham for George Lucas, and got to know Frank Williams, who sometimes drove the car, other times being the mechanic. He got a string of good results, and 4 wins across the year, at Silverstone, Goodwood, Caserta and Reims, which earned him the 1965 Grovewood Award from Jim Clark. This impressive season earned him an invitation from Colin Chapman to drive a Lotus 41 in the 1966 Formula 3 season.
While his car was inferior to the dominant Brabhams, on occasion Courage was able to out-perform them, and earn himself some wins in the process. His impressive performances meant that Ron Harris asked him to drive in Formula 2 for one race, the 1966 German Grand Prix. However, Courage ruined this opportunity by crashing out in the race.
Despite this, he was still offered a drive by the Brabham Formula 1 team in 1967, and he drove a Lotus-BRM 25 for the first race in South Africa, although he retired with a problem with the fuel system, and spinning multiple times in the race. At the next race in Monaco, he spun off on lap 64, and retired again, causing the team to drop him for the rest of the season.
With his reputation now in trouble, Courage was forced to spend the rest of the season in John Coombs’ F2 McLaren M4A, and finished 4th in the standings. At the end of the season, he bought the car off Coombs, and brought the car down under to compete in the Tasman series as a privateer. This is where his career turned around, as in 7 races he finished second, fourth, fifth, third, third and fifth, and then scored an excellent win at the very end. This resulted in Tim Parnell offering him a second chance – with the Reg Parnell Racing BRM Team for 1968.
Piers Courage driving a Brabham
During the 1968 season, Piers was much improved, as he didn’t crash out of a single Grand Prix. He got into points-scoring positions 4 times, in France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy, all one after the other. However, reliability struck on more than one occasion, so he only finished 19th in the standings with 4 points. Still, it was a good improvement from his previous attempt.
Piers Courage driving for Reg Parnell Racing, in a BRM P126, in 1968
For 1969, he got an offer to replace Jim Clark at Lotus, but declined, deciding to move to Frank Williams Racing Cars, driving a Brabham BT26A. Although he crashed out of the German Grand Prix, Courage had an excellent season, with 2 podium positions in Monaco and the USA, and 2 other points-scoring finishes. At Italy, where he finished 5th, Jackie Stewart remarked that Courage was “driving like a tiger” around the high-speed Curva Grande. His driving style had improved, and was more clean and consistent. With an 8th place finish in the drivers’ standings, things were on the up for Piers. But, as it tends to do, it all went horribly wrong.
Following a business agreement with Allesandro de Tomaso, Williams opted to use the newly designed De Tomaso 505, rather than the tried-and-tested Brabham, for the 1970 season. It was a disastrous mistake, as the De Tomaso turned out to be overweight and unreliable. For the first half of the season, Courage did not record a single finish, apart from a 3rd place at the non-championship race, the International Trophy. At the Dutch Grand Prix, things looked slightly better. Courage qualified 9th, which was a significant improvement on previous performances.
But, during the race, his car ran wide on a bend, rode up an embankment, and rolled upside-down, with the car bursting into flames. To make matters worse, the De Tomaso car chassis and bodywork had magnesium in it, which was put in to lighten the car. This magnesium exploded, so much so that nearby trees were ignited. His helmet afterwards showed signs of rubber, an indication that a loose wheel had struck him on the head. Just 3 years later, Roger Williamson crashed and was killed at this very same corner.
It would be unfair to remember Piers Courage by only the above race performances. He had just reached a turning point in his career, before it was brought to a sickening halt. Wins, possibly even more, would have been earned by Piers if he had ever had the chance. Hopefully, “Porridge” will be remembered for his sheer enthusiasm for motorsport, and his “living life to the full” attitude.