Something that is often lost in the grey, highly corporate world of modern motor racing is charm – that ability to please and appeal to all people with neither effort or force.
It was inevitable that as Bernie Ecclestone helped reshape Formula 1 into the mammoth global entity that it is today, much of the warmth found within smaller events dissipated as the sport drifted away from its core fanbase.
As with many globalised sports and entertainment franchises, it has resulted in many of its competitors appearing standoffish and distant, whereas generations gone by often dripped wonder, charisma and charm. Born in the city of Sao Paulo on the 6th of October 1944, Jose Carlos Pace exuded just such charm.
Known to his close friends as Môco, Pace was the son of a wealthy textile industrialist. His first experience of motor racing was in karts, where week-after-week, he raced hard in local championships against names that would eventually become well known in motor racing circles. At the age of 18, he had moved up to cars and was competing in Brazilian touring-cars in a Renault Dauphine as well as single-seaters in Formula Vee.
Displaying sublime skill and speed, he was to become national champion for three consecutive years from 1967, pairing often with school friend Wilson Fittipaldi, brother of the legendary Emerson.
The promise was there and at the dawn of the 1970′s, Pace left for Europe to join the British Formula 3 Championship. Despite the difficulties of finding himself in a foreign climate with little English and few friends, it would not take long for the 25-year-old to find success. Indeed his first attempt at the series resulted in him taking the Forward Trust Championship in a Ford-powered Lotus 59 with the famous Jim Russell Racing School.
His début European year saw him post several points finished and take victory against a highly rated field at the Guards International Trophy in July. Amongst those left in the Brazilian’s wake were future World Champion James Hunt, as well as Wilson Fittipaldi and Tom Walkinshaw. On his way to the crown, Pace took another win to claim the title by four points ahead of Australia’s David Walker.
Not content to stand still, the Brazilian moved up to the highly competitive Formula 2 series in 1971 where he raced for Frank Williams Racing for the first time.
Naturally, the competition that Pace faced had grown in stature, but it was not enough to stop him winning an aggregated non-championship race at Imola, while the likes of François Cevert, Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Reutemann fell by the wayside. It would be his sole Formula 2 victory of the season, but it was enough to convince Frank Williams to give him a Formula 1 drive for the following year.
Formula One, Williams and Surtees
For a man that bares the title of Interlagos, his statistics rarely portray an outstanding career in the top level. As Pace débuted in Formula One in 1972, the great nation of Brazil watched Emerson Fittipaldi become World Champion for the first time. The Sao Paulo native knew now that he had much to live up to, yet despite flashes of speed, Pace’s début season was tempered with frustration.
Fittipaldi meanwhile, with his brilliantly woven hair and large finely sculpted sideburns raced to five victories at the wheel of the Lotus 72D, while Pace ran in the March 711 for Frank Williams’ fledging Grand Prix squad.
A 6th place at Jarama and a 5th at Nivelles were scant reward for the small team, while the rest of the season formed a story that told of car failures and poor speed. Pace was still running at the German and Austrian Grand Prix, but was not classified for either event – he was simply too far behind to be a listed finisher.
The year did bring some bright moments though – races at the wheel of a Ferrari at the Osterreichring 1000km and the Watkins Glen 6 Hours brought him 2nd and 3rd place finishes with Helmut Marko and Derek Bell respectively.
So impressed was he by Pace’s speed and temperament, that John Surtees signed the Brazilian for the 1973 Formula One season. Pace actually drove his first race for the Surtees team somewhat early – only two weeks after the conclusion of the 1972 World Championship, Pace scored a popular podium for Surtees in a non-Championship race at Brands Hatch just behind the BRM of Jean-Pierre Beltoise.
However, as Pace took to the Cosworth-powered Surtees TS14A for 1973, it was clear that an improvement in results not forthcoming. The season brought only six finishes in fifteen races; however the Brazilian managed to score his first podium at the Austrian Grand Prix, having achieved an impressive 4th at the Nordschleife two weeks earlier.
In fact, Pace set the fastest lap of both those races; even managing to lap the Nordschleife some seven seconds quicker than he had in qualifying!
A second season with the Surtees team was looking to offer more of the same. Although the car had displayed plenty of speed, piloting the TS16 proved to be a fruitless experience with race finishes a rarity.
Disappointment becomes success at Brabham.
With a lack of results coming through, Pace’s relationship with Surtees began to falter, but with half the 1974 season elapsed, the Brazilian was invited by Bernie Ecclestone to drive alongside former F2 rival Carlos Reutemann at Brabham. It was an opportunity Pace grabbed with both hands.
At the wheel of Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT44, results soon came for the Brazilian and he ended the season with a 2nd place at Watkins Glen, just behind Reutemann.
Pace started the 1975 season in an updated version of the BT44 and it instantly served him well. At the season opener, Pace qualified his Brabham on the front row and was running well until his engine gave way seven laps from the end, but two weeks later Pace would take his sole Grand Prix victory at Interlagos ahead of reigning World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi.
It was a truly joyous occasion. For Pace to have won, not just his home race, but in the city of his birth elevated the 30-year-old to celebrated status amongst the local fans. The adoration foisted upon the victor was emphatic and the enigmatic Pace responded in kind.
It was his best season in the sport – with a further two podium and other point scores, Pace finished the championship in 6th position with 24 points; but once again, the inability to deliver cars to the chequered flag without a mechanical failure dented his potential.
If one were to look at cold statistics, it would tell you that Reutemann scored most of the points for Brabham during the season; although the canny Argentine driver registered only two retirements to Pace’s eight, it was the Brazilian that showed the way in terms of speed.
However rather than build on their 1975 success, Brabham only went backward. Pairing their new BT45 machine with the flat-V12 Alfa Romeo engine turned out to be a disastrous move, as the team suffered retirement after retirement. So disillusioned was Reutemann, that he left for Ferrari three-quarters of the way through the season – eventually ending up alongside the wounded Niki Lauda.
Pace notched up several points scores during this difficult year, but the team had fallen from second in the Constructor’s to ninth in one foul swoop. As fast as the Alfa-powered car was, it mattered little if it couldn’t do the distance.
Death in the air
With Reutemann replaced by Penske-exile John Watson, it initially it seemed as if 1977 could be different for Pace. The opening race of the year at Argentina gave the Brazilian a 2nd place finish, behind future World Champion, Jody Scheckter. The reality was that this was false dawn – Pace did take the runner-up spot, but then again only five cars got to the end of the 53 lap distance.
Pace followed his Argentine success with a failure to finish at Interlagos and 13th place result at Kyalami, although few will ever recall Pace’s participation in that race or anyone else’s for that matter. Sadly, the South African Grand Prix was marred by the tragic death of Tom Pryce and teenage trackside marshal Frederik Jansen van Vuuren in an appalling accident on the start / finish straight.
The next race for hero of Interlagos should have been at Long Beach, but by then Pace was already dead. Thirteen days after the South African Grand Prix, Pace decided to miss the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch to conduct personal business in Brazil.
Flying in a light aircraft in a storm, the plane collided with a hill just outside of Mairipara, near Sao Paulo. He died instantly alongside fellow racer Marivaldo Fernandes and friend Carlos Roberto de Oliveira.
That Pace should lose his life outside the cockpit at a time when when injury and death at the track was all to common is tragic. That his life was cut down at the age of only 32 even more so.
Instantly recognisable in the car as he was outside it, Pace’s cool, swift handling ever present as was dark helmet, adorned with a yellow and red tinted “arrow” that pointed towards his eyes – it was a design that would influence Pedro Diniz some years later. In 1985, Interlagos was renamed Autódromo José Carlos Pace as a tribute, while outside the grounds of the circuit, a bronze bust of the man stands proud.
Interlagos is a most stunning circuit for a most charming man and is a fitting theatre for Sao Paulo’s hero. Somehow that just feels absolutely right.