I have written a few times about the wonderful collection of cars and other vehicles that make up the Donington Collection, a museum at Donington Park in North West Leicestershire, near East Midlands Airport. I was there for lunch this week, and the tribute outside the building to Roger Williamson reminded me of the danger that is inherent in motor racing. It always saddens me to see so called fans on Twitter and other social media wishing that someone or other will crash to allow their favourite driver to succeed. Motor racing is a dangerous sport, and a crash can have tragic consequences. Many steps have been taken to make the sport safer over the years, and thankfully, serious injury is a rare occurrence in Formula One these days. In fact, the safety developments in Formula One cars often find their way eventually to road cars. Back when Roger Williamson was racing, however, the sport was a much more dangerous place.
Williamson was a native of nearby Ashby de la Zouch, who was British Formula Three champion in 1971 and 1972. He was offered a drive in Formula One for March in 1973 He made his debut at the British Grand Prix, driving among such British names as James Hunt, Jackie Stewart, John Watson, Graham Hill, Mike Hailwood, Mike Beuttler, Jackie Oliver and David Purley, and other leading drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda, Clay Regazonni, Carlos Retuemann, Denny Hulme, Ronnie Peterson, Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass and Jody Scheckter. It is quite incredible now to think of a Formula One race featuring eight British drivers, given the more limited number of cars now and the increase in nations interested in the sport.
Williamson’s second race was the Netherlands, or Dutch Grand Prix of 1973. This race could have been remembered as Jackie Stewart’s 26th career win, breaking Jim Clark’s record, but sadly it is remembered for very different reasons. On lap eight, Williamson’s car hit the barriers at high speed, most likely the result of tyre failure, and flew 300 yards back across the circuit, landing upside down against the barriers. The petrol tank ignited, and the car caught fire. The race continued under yellow flags. Williamson was not seriously injured by the initial impact, but his car was now on fire and he was trapped. David Purley, a fellow British driver, stopped, ran across the live racetrack, and tried to turn the car over so that Williamson could escape. Purley tried in vain, and the marshalls, who were not wearing flame resistant overalls, were unable to help. Race Control assumed that Purley had crashed, seeing his car abandoned, and as he had left his car safely, the race continued whilst Purley desperately tried to save the life of his compatriot. A single fire extinguisher was not enough to put out the flames, and as members of the public tried to scale the fences to help, they were pushed back by security staff with dogs.
Remarkably, the race still continued, and when the fire engine was released, it took eight minutes to get to the scene of the accident whilst avoiding the ongoing race. The flames were extinguished, the car was righted, and it was discovered that Williamson had died of asphyxiation. A blanket was placed over the car, with Williamson’s remains still inside, and the race carried on.
Even after all this time, the footage of the crash and its aftermath is very hard to watch. It was shown again recently as part of BBC Four’s Grand Prix The Killer Years. You might not want to watch the video below.
David Purley’s act of bravery saw him award the George Medal. He did not compete in Formula One through 1974-1976, other than an appearance at the 1974 British Grand Prix, preferring to race in other series, before returning in 1977. At the British Grand Prix in that year, his throttle became stuck open, and his car hit a wall at high speed, travelling at 108mph and coming to a complete standstill in just 66cm, putting an estimated force of 179.8g on his body. Although he suffered many broken bones, he survived. The remains of the car are also on view at the Donington Collection.
Purley recovered enough to compete in motor racing, but moved to aerobatics. He was killed in a plane crash in 1985 when his biplane hit the sea off his home town of Bognor Regis.
Purley also competed successfully in the Macau Grand Prix, and his car is on display in the museum in Macau.
As well as the cars in the Donington Collection, there is a statue outside the building of Roger Williamson, and the simple but poignant inscription from Tom Wheatcroft, “Nobody Could Take His Place In My Heart”.
If you do visit the Donington Collection, please do take the time to think about Roger Williamson, David Purley, and some of the other competitors in the sport who remind us of just how brave these drivers are. Next time you are watching a race, and wish bad luck on a driver so that “your” driver can do well, just stop for a second to think what that bad luck can mean.