Roger Williamson and the Dutch Grand Prix Tragedy of 1973
Have you ever watched a video that just grips you? You know the ones that make you choked-up because you can feel the anguish and pain of the situation? The tragedy at Zandvoort had this impact on me today. The worst part was that it was completely avoidable, making it all the more frustrating to watch:
Roger Williamson (February 2, 1948 – July 29, 1973) was a talented racing driver from England who was killed during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.
Williamson won the 1971 and 1972 British Formula Three Championship titles. In 1973, Formula One returned to the Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, after an absence of a year due to extensive safety upgrades to the race track which amongst others included new asphalt, installation of barriers and building a new race control tower. This race was only the second Formula One start for the March team and the second Grand Prix race for the promising Williamson.
During the race, Williamson suffered a sudden tire deflation, which pitched him into the barriers at high speed and catapulted his car 300 yards (275 metres) across the track against the barriers on the other side. Williamson’s car came to a rest upside down and the driver was unable to extricate himself from the burning car. Fellow driver David Purley came to Williamson’s aid but he was unable to overturn the car. Initially some people, like the commentators on Dutch tv, race control and some of the other drivers participating in the race, thought that Purley was the driver that belonged to the burning car, and thus thought that the driver had gotten away safely.
The fire marshalls stationed at the corner where the accident occurred were both poorly trained and badly equipped, with Purley snatching the only fire extinguisher available to try and extinguish the fire. The marshalls, without flame retarding gear, stood by as the fire grew stronger, awaiting the arrival of the fire truck that had to navigate across the track while the race was still in progress. The police pushed back some spectators who had climbed the fences on to the track with the aim of assisting Purley’s efforts.
It was arguably the darkest day and most confronting moment in the sport’s history insofar. The incident encapsulated the senseless nature of so many fatalities in the sport in that era, while it was the first time that such a dramatic event was televised directly to so many people. The accident also publicly exposed that safety measures in and around Formula One circuits in that era were insufficient.
Williamson participated in 2 grands prix, debuting on July 14, 1973. He did not score any championship points. Purley was awarded the George Medal for his actions in trying to save Williamson. In 2003, on the 30th commemoration of his fatal crash, a bronze statue of Roger Williamson was presented in Donnington, UK.
SADDEST DAY OF MY LIFE – TOM WHEATCROFT
By George Dryden
Tom Wheatcroft regards the day that Roger Williamson died as “the saddest day of my life”.
The 80-year-old Donington Park owner, who provided moral and financial support to Williamson during his career, said that the driver was ‘like a son’. And he explained that the day Williamson died had been ‘so strange’ with an occurrence of number 13s.
“The day he died was so strange, just lots of little things,” said Wheatcroft.
“The car should have been number 13, but it was changed at the last minute, the race was 13 minutes late starting and when he crashed, he was in 13th position.”
“He was like a son to me – such a big part of my life.”
“It was the saddest day of my life, but I have so many good memories of him.”
“He was a wonderful fellow in every way – his character, integrity, honesty and determination. He never asked me for anything and we never argued. After that, I tried to work with two other drivers, but I couldn’t replace him. There will never be anyone like him, either as a friend or a driver.”
Wheatcroft remembers: “I first met Roger driving a Ford Anglia at Mallory Park. I thought what a marvelous effort he was making as he went round the track.
“I was going to offer to help him with any equipment, but he had a few friends around him and had people queuing up for autographs, so I didn’t butt in.”
“Then I saw him at Monte Carlo. He had a poor engine and the smoke was pouring out, but he still kept passing the cars.”
“I went and found him afterwards. He was sitting there with the engine out on the pavement, trying to mend it.
“I said ‘Oh, no, lad, that won’t do’, so I found out the engine supplier and bought him a new engine.”
“I never really expected to see him again, but a while later, I was just about to go to bed and there he was on my doorstep, covered in grease because he’d been working on his car. He gave me two tickets to Silverstone to say thank you.”
“I got him sorted out after that with equipment and sponsorships and I went to every race in his career after that, except one.”
“He had an offer to go on Tyrrell’s team, and I’d got the contract all sorted for him when he just turned to me and said he wanted to stay with me.”