Monday, 28 December 2015

DEATH of a Race Car Driver by Flying Fire Extinguisher - Tom Pryce, SOUTH AFRICA



Pryce is the only Welsh driver to have won a Formula One race and is also the only Welshman to lead a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix: two laps of the 1975 British Grand Prix.

Wales has never had the pleasure of a Grand Prix success story - unlike the other British nations. England can boast a record eight world champions, including the last two; Scotland has two in triple-champion Jackie Stewart and the brilliant Jim Clark; whilst Northern Ireland can lay claim to two championship runners-up in Eddie Irvine and John Watson. Wales has produced just three Formula One drivers, none of whom managed a race win. However one of them was a brilliantly talented racer, and would surely have gone on to great success had his life not been cut tragically short at the South African Grand Prix of 1977.

Tom Pryce
That man was Tom Pryce born on 11 June 1949 in Ruthin, Denbighshire, to Jack and Gwyneth Pryce.
Jack had served in the Royal Air Force as a tail-gunner on a Lancaster bomber before joining the local police force. Gwyneth was a district nurse. Pryce's older brother, David, died at the age of three leaving Tom an only child for much of the time he was growing up, although his parents did foster a young girl called Sandra for a while. Pryce, known to his friends as Mald, attended Nantglyn Catholic Primary School, Denbighshire. The family later moved to Towyn, Denbighire, due to Jack's job.

Pryce took an interest in cars while driving a baker's van at the age of 10, before informing his parents that he wanted to be a racing driver. During an interview with Alan Henry in 1975, he stated that he had wanted to become a pilot, but thought he was not intelligent enough. Like many future Formula One drivers, Pryce had a childhood racing hero. In his case it was Lotus's Scottish driver Jim Clark. Pryce's mother recalled that he was very upset when Clark died at the Hockenheimring in April 1968. His father noted that "he was very upset when Jochen Rindt was killed, too". After he left school at 16, in typical pragmatic Welsh fashion, Pryce's mother insisted that he take an apprenticeship as a tractor mechanic at Llandrillo Technical College, giving him "something to fall back on", as she put it, if his career as a racing driver was unsuccessful.

In 1975 Pryce married Fenella, more commonly known as Nella, whom he met at a disco in Otford, Kent in 1973. Following the death of her husband, Nella went on to run an antiques store in Fulham, London with Janet Brise, the widow of Tony Brise, who died in a plane crash in 1975 with fellow racing driver, Graham Hill and later moved to France.


Pryce leads Niki Lauda at Brands Hatch 1974



But Pryce’s talents were too great to go unnoticed and by the mid-seventies he’d reached Formula One. His debut came at the Belgian Grand Prix of 1974, driving for the underfunded Token team. At the next race in Monaco he was denied entry due to fears over his lack of experience, and so took a step down and competed in the supporting Formula 3 race. He won it convincingly, putting an end to any questions over his ability to compete in F1.

He also bagged a better drive, switching to the Shadow team from the Dutch Grand Prix onwards. Third on the grid at the following race in France, behind only Niki Lauda and Ronnie Peterson, impressed many, though his race ended in a tangle with James Hunt. He took a single points finish that year with 6th at the German Grand Prix and remained at Shadow for 1975. It was a year that showed yet more promise, with 5 points finishes, including a podium at the Austrian Grand Prix. During that season Pryce also won the ‘Race of Champions’, a non-points paying event held in July, where he beat F1 stars Ronnie Peterson and Emerson Fittipaldi to claim victory.

1976 started brightly, with 3rd place at the opening round in Brazil. However it would not be until the ninth round of the championship, at his home race in Britain, that Pryce added more points. 4th place there and again at the Dutch Grand Prix saw him finish the year on 10 points, and 12th in the championship.

For 1977 he remained with Shadow, a team he felt very much at home with, and had high hopes for the season ahead. At 27 he was still young, had shown great promise and was increasingly coming to the attention of some of F1’s big hitters. The first two rounds, in Argentina and Brazil, had both brought non-finishes, and so Pryce arrived at round 3 in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami hoping to kick-start his season.

Things started well as Pryce posted the quickest lap in the wet practice session, but he qualified a disappointing 15th on the grid. 22 laps in to the race a tragic set of events would see Pryce and a young fire marshal lose their lives.


Death
Pryce made a poor start to the Grand Prix in his DN8 and by the end of the first lap was in last place. Pryce started to climb back up the field during the next couple of laps, overtaking Brett Lunger and team mate Renzo Zorzi on lap two, and Alex Ribeiro and Boy Hayje the following lap. By lap 18 Pryce had moved from 22nd to 13th place.

On lap 22, Zorzi pulled off to the left side of the main straight, just after the brow of a hill and a bridge over the track. He was having problems with his fuel metering unit, and fuel was pumping directly onto the engine, which then caught fire. Zorzi did not immediately get out of his car as he could not disconnect the oxygen pipe from his helmet. (Oxygen pipes were used to prevent drivers being suffocated if they were trapped in the car in a fire.)
Tom Pryce’s helmet design was, in comparison to later drivers’,
simple and restrained.
His helmet was plain white all over until 1970.
At that year’s race at Castle Combe, his father asked
Pryce to make his helmet stand out more so that
he could easily identify him in a pack of cars.
Pryce added five black vertical lines to his helmet,
placed just above his visor. From that time the
only change to this design was the addition of a
Welsh flag to the side of his helmet in 1974.

The situation caused two marshals from the pit wall on the opposite side of track to intervene. The first marshal to cross the track was a 25-year-old panel beater named William (Bill). The second was 19-year-old Frederik “Frikkie” Jansen van Vuuren, who was carrying a 40-pound (18 kg) fire extinguisher. George Witt, the chief pit marshal for the race, said that the policy of the circuit was that in cases of fire, two marshals must attend and a further two act as back-up in case the first pair’s extinguishers were not effective enough. Witt also recalled that both marshals crossed the track without prior permission. The former narrowly made it across the track, but the latter did not. As the two men started to run across the track, the cars driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck and Pryce came over the brow of a rise in the track.

Pryce was directly behind Stuck’s car along the main straight, Stuck saw Jansen van Vuuren and moved to the right to avoid both marshals, missing Bill by what Tremayne calls “millimetres”. From his position Pryce could not see Jansen van Vuuren and was unable to react as quickly as Stuck had done. He struck the teenage marshal at approximately 270 km/h (170 mph). Jansen van Vuuren was thrown into the air and landed in front of Zorzi and Bill. He died on impact, and his body was badly mutilated by Pryce’s car. The fire extinguisher he had been carrying smashed into Pryce’s head, before striking the Shadow’s roll hoop. Pryce might have survived the impact, if it hadn’t been for the fire extinguisher the marshal was carrying. The extinguisher struck his helmet with enough force to almost decapitate him. The force of the impact was such that the extinguisher was thrown up and over the adjacent grandstand. It landed in the car park to the rear of the stand, where it hit a parked car and jammed its door shut.

The impact with the fire extinguisher wrenched Pryce’s helmet upward sharply. Death was almost certainly instantaneous. Pryce’s Shadow DN8, now with its driver dead at the wheel, continued at speed down the main straight towards the first corner, called Crowthorne. The car left the track to the right, scraping the metal barriers, hitting an entrance for emergency vehicles, and veering back onto the track. It then hit Jacques Laffite’s Ligier, sending both Pryce and Laffite head-on into the barriers. Jansen van Vuuren’s injuries were so extensive that, initially, his body was identified only after the race director had summoned all of the race marshals and he was not among them.

The eventual race winner was Austrian Niki Lauda, his first win since his near fatal accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix. At first he announced it was the greatest victory of his career, but when told on the victory podium of Pryce’s death, he said that “there was no joy after that”.


 


Pryce's death, and its horrific nature, were met with great grief from all those who knew him during his career, especially his wife Nella, his parents Jack and Gwyneth and the Shadow team.




His peers described Pryce as quiet, down-to-earth and honest; someone who endeared himself to the jet set personalities of Formula One without ever losing touch with the people of his hometown. His death was a tragic accident- no driver error, no mechanical failure, just plain bad luck.

His body was buried at St. Bartholomew's Church in Otford, near Sevenoaks, Kent, the same church where he and Nella were married two years earlier.
Pryce's performances in a Formula One car earned him much respect amongst the F1 paddock. David Tremayne named his son after the Welshman.

The Tom Pryce Award, also known as the Tom Pryce Trophy, was instigated, and is given annually to Welsh personalities who have made an outstanding contribution to motoring or transport.

During its re-design the Anglesey Circuit in North Wales named the Tom Pryce Straight after a request from Ruthin Town Council. A trust was established in 2006 to create a memorial to Pryce in Ruthin. A local artist was commissioned by Ruthin Town Council in 2008 to design an 8-by-4-foot (2.4 by 1.2 m) plaque and in February 2009, an auction of Formula One pit passes to fund its manufacture was announced. The memorial was unveiled on 11 June 2009, on what would have been Pryce's 60th birthday.

Memorial


 Hans Joachim Stuck, who was racing Pryce at the time, said: ‘As we got to the top I suddenly sensed this marshal running across the track from my right, carrying an extinguisher. I took a big chance and I don’t know how I got away with it. There was no time, I just reacted on pure instinct.’ David Tremayne, a British journalist and Pryce fan, said: ‘The tragedy itself – the sheer randomness of it – is so hard to take and still is. You tend to focus your anger on someone and for a long time it would be focused on a 19-year-old kid, called Jansen van Vuuren, who ran across the track.’

Childhood friend Trefor Williams said: “A few of us were planning to make arrangements to surprise him by turning up in the pits at Brands Hatch and shouting to him in Welsh. Sadly that never happened – it has always been my biggest regret.  


Remembering Tom Pryce...

 


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