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​Lost in the Dunes: The Death of Roger Williamson

A promising young F1 driver, Roger Williamson lost his life in a fiery accident at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix. More than 40 years on, he remains emblematic of a brutal era of grand prix racing.

by Jim Weeks
Jul 28 2016, 6:14pm

Wheatcroft tries one of Williamson's cars for size // PA Images

The 1970s were the most brutal years in Formula One history. Between 1970 and '78, nine drivers were killed participating in F1 World Championship events, with many more suffering injuries of varying severity. Grand Prix racing was understood as a dangerous pursuit, sometimes fatally so. Whereas the competitors of today race in relative safety, their '70s counterparts knew that death would claim either them or one of their contemporaries. And it did not care for reputations: stars such as Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson perished, as did fledgling drivers who had just arrived on the scene.

Roger Williamson belonged to the latter category. The hugely promising 25-year-old lost his life in a fiery accident at the Dutch circuit Zandvoort in July 1973, cutting brutally short a career that had promised so much more, and exposing shocking flaws in F1's safety provisions.

Williamson was born on 2 February 1948 in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire. His early career saw him compete in karts as a teenager before moving up to race Minis, then a highly successful spell driving a Ford Anglia.

Next he switched to Formula Three, winning a trio of British titles across 1971 and '72. It was during this time that Williamson first met Tom Wheatcroft, a wealthy Leicestershire businessman and motorsport enthusiast. After initially helping out by purchasing an engine, Wheatcroft became Williamson's mentor and benefactor, offering financial and emotional support on the route to F1. The two would forge a close friendship.

Funded by Wheatcroft, Williamson made his F1 debut at the 1973 British Grand Prix, driving for future FIA president Max Mosley's March team. He qualified 22nd for the race – a credible effort for a rookie in a 29-car field – but his debut would not last long. When Jody Scheckter crashed on the opening lap it caused a huge pile-up, eliminating nine cars in one accident. Williamson was among them.

Two weeks later he was back in the March for the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. A pall still hung over the track, located in the dunes near the North Sea coast, following the death of British driver Piers Courage three years earlier. Driving a Williams-Ford, Courage suffered a suspension failure and, after a heavy impact, his car burst into flames. He is believed to have died instantly, having been struck in the head by a loose wheel, rather than as a result of the inferno.

Nevertheless, the fire had been intense and should have acted as a warning to the Zandvoort officials. If such a situation were to occur again they would need to be properly prepared, with fire extinguishers and appropriate clothing.

READ MORE: Lessons From the Life and Death of Gilles Villeneuve

Williamson qualified 18th in the 24-car field, another solid effort from a newcomer, and this time managed to progress past the first lap. After his abortive debut at Silverstone, he was now a fully-fledged grand prix driver, competing against the likes of Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Graham Hill.

But it was not to last. On lap eight, Williamson's car suffered a left-rear tyre failure. Like Courage three years earlier, he became a passenger in a violent accident that sent him into the barriers at high speed. These had been erected incorrectly, which created a springboard for the car to flip into the air and turn over. And, like Courage's stricken Williams, the March burst into flames.

But there was a crucial difference in Williamson's case: he was alive – conscious, in fact – inside the overturned car, trapped within the cockpit while it burned around him.

The race was not stopped, with yellow flags waved while the rest of the field passed by. There was one exception, however. Having witnessed the accident, David Purley stopped his car and sprinted across the track to help Williamson. Purley – an ex-army officer whose racing career was funded by his father's LEC Refrigeration empire – plunged his hands into the burning March, attempting to turn it over and free Williamson. He could not do so alone, while the fire truck was unable to reach the scene due to the race still being active. Marshals were present, but with no protective clothing they were unable to assist Purley. Despite the stark warning of Courage's death, the provisions in place to deal with such an incident were wholly insufficient.

"I could see he was alive and I could hear him shouting, but I couldn't get the car over," Purley later recalled. "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." Purley was subsequently awarded the George Medal, the highest civilian award for bravery, for his actions that day.

But he could not save his compatriot. It was eight minutes before fire tenders arrived on the scene; by this time, Williamson had died as a result of inhaling hot gases. He was 25 years old.

His death was certainly a tragedy – and a preventable one at that. After Williamson's family, no one was as badly affected as Wheatcroft. "He didn't just lose a driver, he lost part of the will to live; he lost part of the passion for motorsport," his son Kevin later reflected. "While he stayed involved [in motorsport], [it was] never quite at that same level."

READ MORE: The Cult – David Purley

Though many people were personally affected, there is a sense that Williamson's death was just another in a long line of racing drivers killed competing in the sport they loved. The Dutch Grand Prix continued to be staged at Zandvoort until 1985 and, most damningly, Formula One drivers continued to die: François Cevert was killed later in 1973, Peter Revson and Helmuth Koinigg were both lost in 1974, and Mark Donohue in 1975. Along with these men, Williamson has become emblematic of a brutal era of grand prix racing.

A statue of Williamson was later erected at the Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire, which was owned by Wheatcroft. Roger started just two Formula One World Championship races, and did not finish either, but his name lives on in more than four decades after his death.

@Jim_Weeks

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