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Heavy price to pay for a series of freak occurrences

by Steve Harrison about a year ago in racing
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How fate conspired against Welsh race ace at Kyalami

There can be few Welshmen down the centuries who have suffered a more tragic end than racing driver Tom Pryce.

A wet-track specialist, Pryce was firmly on the road to a successful Formula One career when a series of freak occurrences on this day, 5 March, 44 years ago led to the 27-year-old’s tragic demise at the 1977 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami.

He began his final race weekend by setting the fastest time in the wet-weather practice session on Wednesday, posting a time of 1:31.57 seconds... a second ahead of eventual 1977 world champion Niki Lauda.

The following day the weather improved and Pryce slipped down the grid to 15th place, almost two seconds slower than James Hunt’s time in pole position.

Driving for the Shadow race team, Pryce made a poor start to the grand prix itself and by the end of the first lap was in last place in his DN8. But the man from Ruthin, Denbighshire, climbed back up the field throughout the following laps, overtaking Brett Lunger and Shadow team-mate Renzo Zorzi on lap two, then Alex Ribeiro and Boy Hayje the following lap.

By lap 18 Pryce had moved from 22nd to 13th place but then on lap 22 fate took a cruel turn. Zorzi pulled off to the left side of the main straight just after the brow of a hill and bridge over the circuit because of problems with his fuel-metering unit, petrol pumping directly onto the engine, which soon caught fire.

The 30-year-old Italian couldn’t disconnect the oxygen pipe from his helmet so did not immediately exit the cockpit, causing two marshals from the pit wall on the opposite side of the track to attempt to intervene. The first marshal to cross the track was a 25-year-old panel beater named Bill, followed closely by 19-year-old Frederik “Frikkie” Jansen van Vuuren, carrying an 18kg fire extinguisher.

Neither had been granted prior permission to cross the track, with the vehicles of Hans-Joachim Stuck and Pryce bearing down on them over the brow of an incline in the track as they did so.

Pryce was tucked in behind Stuck's car down the main straight and while the German driver saw Jansen van Vuuren and moved to the right to avoid both marshals, missing Bill by “millimetres”, the Welshman was unable to react in time and hit the teenage marshal at about 170 mph.

The teenager was thrown into the air and landed a few yards in front of Zorzi’s car. He died on impact, his body crushed by Pryce’s vehicle. The fire extinguisher Jansen van Vuuren had been carrying smashed into Pryce’s helmet before striking the Shadow’s roll hoop, the force of the impact sending it over the adjacent grandstand and into the car park to the rear of the stand, where it hit a parked car and jammed its door shut.

The sudden impact wrenched Pryce’s helmet sharply upwards, with death almost certainly instantaneous. The Shadow DN8, its driver now collapsed at the wheel, continued at speed down the main straight towards the first corner, called Crowthorne, and left the track to the right, scraping the metal barriers, hitting an entrance for emergency vehicles, then veering back onto the circuit where it collided with Jacques Laffite’s Ligier, sending both cars head-on into the barriers.

Pryce left behind his widow, Fenella, and was buried in the same St Bartholomew’s churchyard where his wedding had taken place in 1975. In his honour Wales introduced the Tom Pryce Award, given to Welsh companies or persons who have made a valuable contribution to motor engineering, motoring or transport in general, and his hometown commissioned a memorial plaque unveiled on 11 June 2009, which would have been his 60th birthday.

The son of Gwyneth and Jack Pryce, “Mald” − as he was known to his friends as a result of his middle name, Maldwyn − was born in 1949 and from a young age showed an interest in cars, especially once he managed to get behind the wheel of a baker’s van when he was 10.

He began his motorsport career by entering the British Racing School, where ex-Formula One driver Trevor Taylor taught him the basics. He began competing in a series set up by the Motor Racing Stables specifically for racing school pupils, winning the series in 1970 and earning himself a Lola T202 to race.

This persuaded him to give racing a go as a career and he left his farming job to relocate near Brands Hatch. Moving at breakneck speed through the categories, he won the Formula F100 championship in 1971 and was given a works F3 car for 1972… driving for Team Rumsey he won first time out.

Racing at Brands Hatch in the support race for the Formula One Race of Champions, Pryce won so convincingly that many rivals, including James Hunt, Jochen Mass and Roger Williamson, complained his car must be underweight. It eventually transpired the weighbridge at the circuit was incorrectly calibrated and every car in the race had been underweight.

Pryce graduated to Formula One in 1974 at the age of 25, joining the newly-formed Token Racing team created by Tony Vlassopulos and Ken Grob. He made his world championship debut at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix, where he qualified in 20th place, three seconds slower than the fastest time set by Clay Regazzoni. Pryce completed 66 laps before retiring after a collision with Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell.

He was refused entry to the 1974 Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, deemed too “inexperienced” by organisers, so to prove a point Vlassopulos replaced normal driver Buzz Buzaglo with Pryce for the supporting F3 race and, driving a March 743 for Ippokampos Racing, he won by 20.8 seconds.

His performances for Token made Shadow Racing sit up and take notice and he made his debut for the team midway through the year at Zandvoort, although he didn’t get far, colliding with Stuck on lap one. That year Pryce did pick up his first point though, finishing sixth at the Nurburgring.

Despite a tumultuous first year in Formula One, Pryce found himself at the centre of the driver market for 1975 with both Lotus and Shadow vying for his services. Financial difficulties at Lotus meant they wanted Pryce to replace Ronnie Petersen, while Shadow wanted to keep Pryce, but also wanted Petersen for the publicity he could bring to a fledgling team.

Ultimately both stayed at their respective teams, but Pryce soon showed he was a force to be reckoned with, winning the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.

After qualifying second at Monaco and taking pole at Silverstone, Pryce was the new British star on the rise and he landed his first world championship podium at the Austrian Grand Prix in infamously wet conditions. That year he finished in a creditable 10th place in the championship.

But 1976 was a year of ups and downs for Pryce. Third place in the opening round in Brazil was good, but he would only score points on two more occasions throughout the year, in Britain and the Netherlands.

By the start of 1977 Shadow was struggling financially although the signing of sponsored-driver Zorzi eased some of the troubles. No points were scored during the first two races with Kyalami the destination for round three of the championship.

Of that fateful day in South Africa, Stuck later explained: “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.”

It’s impossible to know what Pryce could have achieved in the sport had those freak occurrences at Kyalami not cut short his life, but his replacement at Shadow was a little-known Australian driver named Alan Jones who went on to become world champion three years later driving for Williams.

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About the author

Steve Harrison

Something doesn't add up about the Covid-19 pandemic... are there reasons to be fearful for our futures?

JOIN THE DOTS: http://not.wildaboutit.com

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