Infotainment Factory: The dark past of F1's newest race

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Thursday, 16 May 2019

The dark past of F1's newest race


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WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES

More than three decades after it last appeared on the Formula One calendar, the Dutch Grand Prix was this week officially resurrected, as the sport seeks to cash in on the popularity of hometown hero Max Verstappen.

Zandvoort will be the venue once again in 2020, as it was so many times between 1952 and 1985, with drivers saying they’re looking forward to returning to the circuit by the North Sea, although admitting the narrow track will make overtaking difficult.

But Zandvoort casts a dark shadow over the sport.

In 1973, it was the scene of one the most shameful incidents in Formula One history, which needlessly cost the life of an up and coming star, burnt to death because the “safety” facilities were hopelessly inadequate, even by the comparatively low standards of the day.

Roger Williamson was just 25 years old when he lined up on the grid that late July day, competing in only his second grand prix. On the eighth lap, he suffered a suspected tyre failure, which sent his car into the barrier on the far side of the circuit. Despite the fact the car ended up upside down, Williamson was not seriously hurt, but he was trapped in the car, unable to free himself.

And then it caught fire.

Marshals inspect Roger Williamson's upturned car during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

Fellow driver David Purley, who witnessed the accident, stopped to try and help, but was unable to free Williamson, while marshals, who were not wearing fireproof overalls, could only stand and watch. Purley tried to wave down fellow drivers to assist, but they assumed the burning car was his, and he was clearly OK, so they carried on racing. After all, there was still a race to be won.

Williamson could be heard screaming for help as the fire took hold, with the single extinguisher on hand proving woefully inadequate.

A distraught Purley walked away as the situation become hopeless, while the race continued. By the time a fire-truck arrived more than five minutes later, Williamson had died of asphyxiation, and a blanket covered the wrecked car, with Williamson’s body still inside, until the end of the race.

Purley was awarded the George Medal for his efforts in trying to save Williamson.

“I just couldn’t turn it over,” Purley said later.

“I could see he was alive and I could hear him shouting, but I couldn’t get the car over. I was trying to get people to help me, and if I could have turned the car over he would have been alright, we could have got him out.

“I didn’t even think about the heroism or any of that rubbish. I just did what comes naturally to a trained soldier who sees a fellow in trouble.”

Marshals inspect the burnt out wreckage of Roger Williamson's car during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

The accident, and the hopeless response from the officials, drew the ire of F1 fan R.C Algar, who wrote to Motorsport magazine in September 1973.

“Sir, I feel it is time I put pen to paper to complain most bitterly about the fire-fighting arrangements at the Dutch Grand Prix,” he wrote.

“It was painfully obvious that the marshals present at the scene of Roger Williamson's crashed March (the make of car) had very little or no idea at all what to do in such a situation. On the televised coverage of the circuit I saw only one fire extinguisher, the one that driver David Purley ran to the other side of the track to get.

“As the marshals ran over to the blazing car they seemingly left that one extinguisher behind. It was sickening to watch these marshals who turned out in sports coats etc. with not one piece of fire proofed clothing seen amongst them for at least five more minutes until the fire truck arrived.

Roger Williamson was killed at the age of 25.

“David Purley put up a fantastic fight to try and free Williamson but was on his own. This must not be allowed to happen again, these marshals at Zandvoort should have had more experience and adequate fire-fighting equipment on hand to cope with this, and as a result of their lack of knowledge and equipment another driver is dead.”

The part of the circuit where Williamson died no longer exists, sold off to property developers when the track owners ran into financial difficulties in the 1980s. But a memorial was unveiled in 2013, with the ceremony attended by Kevin Wheatcroft, who at the age of 14, was at Zandvoort that dreadful day in 1973. His father Tom had been Williamson’s sponsor and close friend.

David Purley

“I’ve never been back here since the accident,” said Wheatcroft.

“Anyone that knew my dad knows he was a very tough character, and very little stopped him, let alone slowed him down. Losing Roger destroyed him. For a few weeks he wasn’t approachable in any sense of the word, and he never really got over it. Roger wasn’t just a driver, he became an extension of the family.

“I had quite a fight with myself on whether I should or shouldn’t be here, but I did it for Roger’s memory and I’m glad I came. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t stop and think about what might have been, and what he would be doing now. At the end of the day it’s 40 years ago, and time to bury some ghosts, I suppose. That’s exactly what I’ve done.”

WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES

More than three decades after it last appeared on the Formula One calendar, the Dutch Grand Prix was this week officially resurrected, as the sport seeks to cash in on the popularity of hometown hero Max Verstappen.

Zandvoort will be the venue once again in 2020, as it was so many times between 1952 and 1985, with drivers saying they’re looking forward to returning to the circuit by the North Sea, although admitting the narrow track will make overtaking difficult.

But Zandvoort casts a dark shadow over the sport.

In 1973, it was the scene of one the most shameful incidents in Formula One history, which needlessly cost the life of an up and coming star, burnt to death because the “safety” facilities were hopelessly inadequate, even by the comparatively low standards of the day.

Roger Williamson was just 25 years old when he lined up on the grid that late July day, competing in only his second grand prix. On the eighth lap, he suffered a suspected tyre failure, which sent his car into the barrier on the far side of the circuit. Despite the fact the car ended up upside down, Williamson was not seriously hurt, but he was trapped in the car, unable to free himself.

And then it caught fire.

Marshals inspect Roger Williamson's upturned car during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

Fellow driver David Purley, who witnessed the accident, stopped to try and help, but was unable to free Williamson, while marshals, who were not wearing fireproof overalls, could only stand and watch. Purley tried to wave down fellow drivers to assist, but they assumed the burning car was his, and he was clearly OK, so they carried on racing. After all, there was still a race to be won.

Williamson could be heard screaming for help as the fire took hold, with the single extinguisher on hand proving woefully inadequate.

A distraught Purley walked away as the situation become hopeless, while the race continued. By the time a fire-truck arrived more than five minutes later, Williamson had died of asphyxiation, and a blanket covered the wrecked car, with Williamson’s body still inside, until the end of the race.

Purley was awarded the George Medal for his efforts in trying to save Williamson.

“I just couldn’t turn it over,” Purley said later.

“I could see he was alive and I could hear him shouting, but I couldn’t get the car over. I was trying to get people to help me, and if I could have turned the car over he would have been alright, we could have got him out.

“I didn’t even think about the heroism or any of that rubbish. I just did what comes naturally to a trained soldier who sees a fellow in trouble.”

Marshals inspect the burnt out wreckage of Roger Williamson's car during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

The accident, and the hopeless response from the officials, drew the ire of F1 fan R.C Algar, who wrote to Motorsport magazine in September 1973.

“Sir, I feel it is time I put pen to paper to complain most bitterly about the fire-fighting arrangements at the Dutch Grand Prix,” he wrote.

“It was painfully obvious that the marshals present at the scene of Roger Williamson's crashed March (the make of car) had very little or no idea at all what to do in such a situation. On the televised coverage of the circuit I saw only one fire extinguisher, the one that driver David Purley ran to the other side of the track to get.

“As the marshals ran over to the blazing car they seemingly left that one extinguisher behind. It was sickening to watch these marshals who turned out in sports coats etc. with not one piece of fire proofed clothing seen amongst them for at least five more minutes until the fire truck arrived.

Roger Williamson was killed at the age of 25.

“David Purley put up a fantastic fight to try and free Williamson but was on his own. This must not be allowed to happen again, these marshals at Zandvoort should have had more experience and adequate fire-fighting equipment on hand to cope with this, and as a result of their lack of knowledge and equipment another driver is dead.”

The part of the circuit where Williamson died no longer exists, sold off to property developers when the track owners ran into financial difficulties in the 1980s. But a memorial was unveiled in 2013, with the ceremony attended by Kevin Wheatcroft, who at the age of 14, was at Zandvoort that dreadful day in 1973. His father Tom had been Williamson’s sponsor and close friend.

David Purley

“I’ve never been back here since the accident,” said Wheatcroft.

“Anyone that knew my dad knows he was a very tough character, and very little stopped him, let alone slowed him down. Losing Roger destroyed him. For a few weeks he wasn’t approachable in any sense of the word, and he never really got over it. Roger wasn’t just a driver, he became an extension of the family.

“I had quite a fight with myself on whether I should or shouldn’t be here, but I did it for Roger’s memory and I’m glad I came. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t stop and think about what might have been, and what he would be doing now. At the end of the day it’s 40 years ago, and time to bury some ghosts, I suppose. That’s exactly what I’ve done.”

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