RetroTorque Classic Car Community The ultimate Pryce

Article Information

  • Posted By : retrotorque
  • Posted On : Mar 07, 2018
  • Views : 429
  • Category : Features
  • Description : The story of Tom Pryce.

Overview

  • ‘Deadly’. That’s the word which best sums-up Formula One motor racing in the 1970s. There were more Grand Prix fatalities during that decade than in any other - tragically, a total of ten altogether. And, sadly, at least another four ‘70’s F1 drivers were killed in accidents outside the GP race series as well.   For today’s F1 fans - who have become so used to drivers being able to walk away unscathed from even the most horrendous looking of incidents - these are shocking statistics to contemplate. And it scarcely seems possible that so many leading racers of the day, Bruce McLaren, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson amongst others, could have all lost their lives in such a short period of time.   Perhaps the most horrific of all the decade’s accidents was the one which claimed the life of Tom Pryce, at Kyalami, in South Africa on March 5th, 1977. And it wasn’t just the nature of what happened to the young Welshman which made this incident so particularly terrible, but also because it denied the Formula One world the chance to see of what this young driver was truly capable. Many think that he would have gone on to be World Champion. Born on June 11th, 1949 in Ruthin, North Wales, Tom Maldwyn Pryce is still the only Welsh driver to ever have led a championship Formula One race - the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1975. Researching peoples’ opinions about him for this article, I was struck by a sense of the strong parallels between him and, ‘60's Lotus racing legend, Jim Clark. Adjectives such as reserved, gentlemanly, modest and determined appear time and time again to describe his character, although it’s evident that Tom (or Maldwyn, as he was better known by his middle name to his friends and family) also had a marvellous sense of humour. Clearly, the antithesis of some of his more extroverted contemporaries, such as James Hunt, he was an uncontroversial figure, well liked and he commanded the respect of his fellow racing drivers and GP fans alike. And all of this is despite the fact that he was really only involved in a proper two full seasons of F1 racing. Pryce’s career started explosively, with him quickly rising through the tiers of the lesser racing formulas. In his first season’s racing, in 1970, he won the Formula Ford Daily Express Crusader Series and he followed that up by claiming the Formula 100 race series title a year later. However, 1972 brought contrasting fortunes. After a short period racing in a Formula Super Vee car, Pryce had moved up yet again, this time to Formula 3, with him finishing in first-place in that season’s race at Brands Hatch, but during the F3 race at Monaco he suffered an accident which curtailed the rest of his season. In fact, this incident strangely foreshadowed the tragic circumstances which would later end the young Welsh driver’s life. Waiting by the side of his broken-down Royale racing-machine, he was hit by another race-car, the force of the collision propelling him through a shop window and breaking his leg - underlining just what a dangerous place a race circuit is to be when you’re not actually sat in a moving car.   Despite this set back, Pryce was offered a place in the then up-and-coming Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle Formula 2 Motul Rondel Racing team for 1973. A more demanding race series than Pryce had yet encountered, his best result would be a second place finish, at Norisring in Germany, behind his team mate Tim Schenken. Even so, Pryce had done well enough to secure the ultimate prize - a drive in Formula One for the next season.   Originally, he was all set to race in F1 with Rondel team but the ‘energy crisis’ of 1973 scuppered these plans. It meant that the oil company Motul, which had been sponsoring that team, could now no longer afford to offer its financial support, without which the fledgling F1enterprise wasn’t financially viable. So instead, the F1 project was bought by two British businessmen, shipbroker Tony Vlassopoulo and the Lloyds underwriter Ken Grob. The new team was given the name Token - derived from the two owners’ first names - and Pryce was hired as one of its drivers - in part due to the sponsorship funds which he could bring to the fledgling outfit. (Incidentally, Ron Dennis would have to wait a further six years before his Project 4 company would buy McLaren and provide a way for him into Formula One.)   Tom’s F1 debut underlined just what a challenge the 25 year old driver and Token had taken on together. This first race was in the non-Championship Silverstone International Trophy. However, Pryce’s car, the Ray Jessop designed Token-Cosworth RJ02 3.0-litre, was clearly still under development and at this stage it was even running without an airbox or an engine cover. This, combined with the limited practice time available to Pryce, meant that he was the slowest of the 16 competitors at the event. Indeed, in qualifying he had been slower by a full 26 seconds than James Hunt’s pole position setting time! Whilst in the race itself, Pryce had to retire with a gear linkage problem after completing just 15 laps.   Happily, the Token and its driver fared much better in their next outing together, at Nivelle in Belgium, in the 5th round of the 1974 World Championship, Pryce’s first championship Grand Prix event. Here, the young racer qualified in 20th place (out of 32), this time being only 3.03 seconds behind Clay Regazzoni’s pole-position qualifying time. In the actual race, he completed 66 out of the 85 laps before a collision with Jody Scheckter’s Tyrell forced a retirement due to suspension damage.   Token then entered Pryce for the Monaco Grand Prix. However, despite the encouraging World Championship debut which Tom had just had, the racing authorities adjudged him as too inexperienced to compete. So, instead, and with something of a point to prove, he once more competed in the supporting F3 event - this time in a March 743. This race would turn out to be one of the highlights of Pryce’s career as, in full view of the watching F1 world, he demonstrated - with some flair - the true level of his ability by outclassing the rest of the field to claim an easy win.   Shadow Racing Cars (the Don Nichols owned outfit) were obviously impressed by this showcasing of Pryce’s talent, as shortly afterwards, with seven races in the ‘74 season left to go, Pryce left Token in order to join this team. Shadow had been in need of a permanent replacement for the late Peter Revson, who had been killed earlier in the season during a practice session accident at the South African Grand Prix (the same race event at which Pryce would also be killed, three years later, whilst also driving for Shadow).   By 1974, Shadow had been involved in F1 for a full three seasons and was a much more well-established team than Token. Even so, they were still well short of being a race-winning team. Despite this, Pryce managed a few relative successes in few remaining rounds of the season. He qualified fourth at Dijon - although an early collision with James Hunt ruined his actual race - and at Brands Hatch he managed to earn himself a place on the fourth row of the grid and an 8th placed race finish. He then went on to score the first F1 point of his career, in Germany, finishing that race in 6th place from eleventh on the grid. When the season ended, this single point was enough to place him 18th in the Drivers’ World Championship, equal with Vittorio Brambilla (March) and ex-F1World Champion Graham Hill (Lola).   Having been with his new team for quite a few months, things seemed set-up nicely for Pryce for the start of the 1975 season. Although, as things turned out, the first few races would prove frustrating, with just a mixture of retirements and a couple of lowly race finishes in Argentina and South Africa to show for his efforts. However, the fifth race of the season, at Belgium with a sixth placed finish, kick-started a run of better fortune. This lead to the young racer achieving the first pole position qualification of his career, at the British GP (on a wet track) and a third-place podium race finish in Austria (again, on a rain-soaked circuit). These performances, amongst a few of his others, gained Pryce a deserved reputation for being a sensationally talented wet-weather driver. Indeed, what some proclaim to be his greatest career victory - in the 1975 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch - also came as the result of a superb performance in adverse weather conditions.   Like some of the other events which were part of the Grand Prix calendar back then, the results of the Race of Champions didn’t count towards the F1championship. Even so, it was a hard-fought event. 1975's race took place in mid-March on a cold and damp day and there was even a touch of snow in the air, which prompted some of the teams to run on ‘wet-weather’ tyres.   Pryce had stormed the qualifying session, claiming pole-position for his place on the start-grid. However, when the actual race got underway he wasn’t able to pull-away cleanly and immediately slipped down to fourth place. Despite his relative lack of experience at F1 level, he didn’t capitulate and instead set about the task of trying to catch and re-pass those who had just overtaken him. His courage paid off, as soon he was all over the back of Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus in 3rd place, which he quickly managed to pass. But Jacky Icky, also in a Lotus, proved to be a more difficult proposition to overtake. Even so, a few laps later, Tom managed to overhaul him too.   Meanwhile, the Tyrell of race-leader Jody Scheckter had been disappearing into the distance. So by the time that Pryce had fought his way back to second place, with just over a quarter of the race gone, Scheckter had managed to establish a lead of just over eight seconds. However, just as with the two Lotuses before and despite (or maybe because of) the track conditions, Tom was able to chase-down the Tyrell, catching it at slightly over one second per lap and it wasn’t long before he was right behind the future World Champion’s car. But before Pryce had the chance to try-out any sort of overtaking manoeuvre on Scheckter, the Tyrell’s engine blew, allowing the Welshman to easily assume the lead - for which he remained unchallenged for the rest of the race. All things considered, not least the quality of the rest of the drivers and the performance capabilities of some their cars, this was a truly impressive drive and one which surely reflected the level of Pryce’s driving talent and race winning potential.   By the time the ‘75 season was over, Pryce had collected eight points in the Drivers’ World Championship, enough to finish in tenth place. According to Shadow’s Chief engineer of that period, Trevor Foster, in comments published on the BBC’s website, Tom had also attracted the attention of Lotus, who were interested in having him drive for them the following season. It’s just a guess on my part, but perhaps Colin Chapman saw in Pryce a driver with whom he could recapture the kind of excellent working relationship, racing success and friendship which he had enjoyed with Jim Clark.   At this point in time, a drive for Lotus would have offered Pryce immediate Grand Prix winning potential and perhaps even a shot at the World Championship. But instead, Pryce decided to stay with Shadow. Unfortunately, this loyalty wasn’t to be rewarded with any real success. Despite a bright start to ‘76, with the second podium finish of his career (resulting from a third place finish at Brazil’s Interlagos circuit), Pryce’s season followed pretty much the same pattern as the previous year. It didn’t help that Shadow were cash-strapped, after their sponsors UOP had decided to pull out of F1. This resulted in Shadow only being able to introduce a new car (DN8) towards the back-end of the season and their being forced to use a redevelopment of their old DN5 chassis in the meantime. Even with this handicap, Pryce finished the ‘76 season with 10 points and 12th place in the Drivers’ Championship.   After two and a half seasons working together and now that the new DN8 chassis was finally available, perhaps 1977 should have been the season that the Pryce/Shadow combination finally began to achieve some real success, but alas we’ll never know.   The South African Grand Prix was the third F1 race of the ‘77 season, the first two rounds not having gone particularly well for Pryce. He had been unclassified for the in the first race in Argentina and, although he had qualified fifth in Brazil, his race there had been ruined by an engine blow-up. However, the Welsh racer was to enjoy one last hurrah in racing. One of the practice sessions on the Kyalami circuit was held on a wet track and, true to past form, Tom was the quickest of the drivers in these conditions, although he wasn’t as competitive in the later qualifying session, and so ended-up starting the race from 15th place on the grid. In the Grand Prix itself, Pryce managed to complete 22 laps before the accident which was to claim his life occurred.   Arguably, the chain of events leading up to the fatal incident started with the death, at the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 at Zandvoort, of Roger Williamson - like Pryce another promising young British driver, who was killed in horrific circumstances. Williamson died when his March racing-car suffered a puncture and had crashed, eventually landing upside-down and on fire, with the unfortunate racing driver trapped inside. In this era of F1's history its safety standards were woeful. The marshals located near to the incident were too badly trained and equipped to provide any proper assistance, and decided to merely wait for the arrival of a fire-appliance from another part of the circuit. Famously, another driver in the race, David Purley, stopped his car and rushed over to try and free Williamson from the wreckage but was unable to do so. However, Purley did succeed in providing more help to Williamson than any of the attendant marshals by grabbing the only available fire-extinguisher and trying, in vain, to put out the fire.   These were dark days for F1 and it was clear that a change of attitude was needed. So, four years later at Kyalami, when the Shadow of Pryce’s team-mate, Renzo Zorzi, developed a small fire and was parked-up by the side of the track, the South African marshals’ reactions were this time very different, despite it being immediately apparent that Zorzi was in no danger.   An overreaction, an inappropriate response or another case of poor organisation…? There are many views about what happened next, but immense bad luck was certainly a factor too.   Zorzi’s Shadow had come to rest in the middle of the straight, just over the crest of a slight hill. Two young marshals, who were stationed on the other side of the race-track, it’s reported, were told by their superior to go and put out the fire. So they dashed across the track, making it almost to the other side before the previously hidden March of Hans-Joachim Stuck and Tom Pryce’s Shadow suddenly crested the hill, more or less side-by-side, but with Pryce just a little further behind. With no time to react to the situation, Stuck was fortunate; his March passed between the two marshals. But Pryce wasn’t as lucky, he hit the second marshal, 19 year old Jansen van Vuuren, who was still some way from the edge of the track, full-on.   Apparently, Pryce had managed to react quickly enough to lift off from his throttle for a split-second, but, even so, there was an immense amount of energy involved in the collision and van Vuuren was killed instantly. Perhaps surprisingly, the accident didn’t seem to harm Pryce’s car all that much. There was just some minor damage to its front wing and it was able to carry on down the straight, all the time gradually slowing down in a seemingly controlled fashion. However, coming up to Crowthorn corner it veered off to the right of the circuit, glanced-off the barriers and collected Jacques Laffite’s Ligier (causing his car damage but not injuring him) as it came back onto the circuit. But Pryce wouldn’t have been aware of anything after the initial impact of the collision as, like the unfortunate marshal, he too had died the instant it had happened:   When van Vuuren had been running across the track, he had been holding a heavy fire-extinguisher. In the accident, this had hit Tom Pryce’s head with so much force that it had caused him massive injuries, even tearing-off his crash-helmet at the same time.   It’s obvious that danger is a characteristic of Grand Prix racing which will always be an intrinsic part of the sport, perhaps it’s even a strong element of its appeal. However, that doesn’t mean that unnecessary risk should be tolerated and, surely, Pryce’s death was a totally avoidable and unacceptable accident. Thankfully, F1 is a much safer sport for drivers now - the last driver fatalities being those of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger at Imola in 1994. The safety of marshals, though, is perhaps another matter, with two deaths (in both cases caused by flying accident debris) occurring as recently as 2000 at Monza and 2001 at Melbourne.   One poignant fact which hangs over the whole incident is that if Tom Pryce hadn’t been killed at Kyalami, it does seem likely that he would have found real success very shortly afterwards. His replacement in the Shadow team, Australian Alan Jones (undoubtedly another very talented driver and 1980 World Drivers’ Champion with Williams) won the Austrian Grand Prix for Shadow in the 12th round the GP championship, just a little while later in 1977. Many think that this should and would have been Pryce’s first championship GP victory.