Roger Williamson: 50 years since this F1 talent was taken too soon

| 6 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

It’s exactly 50 years since a dreadful accident in the Dutch Grand Prix shamed Formula One and, perhaps, robbed Britain of its next World Champion.

At the time, several young British chargers were being eyed by F1 teams: Tom Pryce, Tony Brise and James Hunt all looked like strong hopes for the future.

But for many the man on his way to the top was a stocky, smiling lad from Leicester called Roger Williamson.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

Roger Williamson (left) with his backer and friend, Tom Wheatcroft, in 1971

Roger came via boyhood karting to club racing in a self-built Mini, winning 14 out of 18 races.

He went on to dominate the 1970 club saloon championship in an indecently fast Ford Anglia.

Then his dad, Dodge, who ran a small garage and raced speedway ’bikes, scraped up the funds to buy him a Formula Three car on hire purchase.

At once he was winning, but Dodge still hadn’t made the first payment when the tired engine needed an urgent rebuild.

In the paddock, a thickset chap with a broad Leicester accent came up and said: “Why don’t you put in yer spare engine?”

Roger laughed: “What spare engine?” So the man said: “Go and buy one, lad. I’ll pay fer it.”

That man was Tom Wheatcroft: hard-nosed builder, millionaire property developer, huge motorsport enthusiast.

It was the start of an extraordinary relationship.

Tom treated Roger like a son, and Roger never took his benefactor for granted.

Now with the right equipment, he dominated F3.

In two years he won an amazing 44 races, three championship titles and the prestigious Grovewood Award, given each year to the most promising young driver.

He became a crowd favourite for his distinctive head-down crouch at the wheel, his indomitable determination and self-belief in the cockpit, and his perpetual broad grin out of it.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

Williamson on his way to yet another F3 victory in his GRD at Brands Hatch

After 30 F3 wins, in 1973 Roger moved up to Formula Two, and against tougher international opposition he continued to shine.

On his first visit to Monza he took pole, got shunted off by a rival, rejoined well down and carved back up the field to win.

Already he’d been given an F1 test by BRM; but far more significant was that Ken Tyrrell and Walter Hayes of Ford wanted his signature on a contract. The approach was made in great secrecy.

Jackie Stewart, on course for his third world title with Tyrrell, had decided to retire at the end of the year, but only he, Ken and Hayes knew.

Stewart’s teammate François Cevert would step up to be number one, and Tyrrell wanted Williamson as number two.

The offer overwhelmed Roger: he hadn’t even had his first F1 race yet. Instead he told Wheatcroft that his loyalty lay with him.

Tom promptly laid plans for a fully funded two-car F1 team for 1974, for Roger and a so-far-unnamed British number two.

Meanwhile, he did a deal with March to run Roger in the remaining Grands Prix of the season.

The first outing was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Jody Scheckter’s lap one accident took out eight cars, one of them the Wheatcroft March.

Two weeks later the F1 circus was in Holland for the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, Williamson among them.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

David Purley was another promising F1 newcomer in 1973

Also at Zandvoort, in a March sponsored by the family Lec fridges company, was a young British driver known for his risk-all courage and press-on style.

David Purley had left home after frequent rows with his father to work on a building site; then he joined the Army, seeing action in Aden in the Parachute Regiment.

A bomb blew up the armoured car he was in with six others. The six died; Purley was unscathed.

On a parachute training jump his parachute failed to open. He fell on his platoon sergeant’s chute and both landed safely.

Out of the Army he took up racing with an appropriately brutish AC Cobra, which he destroyed in a huge accident at Brands Hatch.

Moving into F3 he found the cars tame, but at the most dangerous race of the season, on the ultra-fast Chimay road circuit in Belgium, his bravery was unbeatable.

He won it three years running. In 1973 he persuaded his father to front up for an F1 car.

Like Roger, at Zandvoort he’d be starting his second Grand Prix.

The story of that race has been analysed endlessly. By far the best account appears in David Tremayne’s superb 2006 book, The Lost Generation, which covers the short lives of Williamson, Brise and Pryce.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

David Purley's first Grand Prix in the Lec-sponsored March F1 car was at Monaco in 1973

After Piers Courage’s fiery fatal accident at Zandvoort in 1970, the Dutch Grand Prix did happen in 1971; but by 1972 Jackie Stewart’s safety campaign against dangerous tracks had almost total support from his fellow drivers, and the governing body, the CSI, endorsed their refusal to race there.

For 1973 the organisers promised various hasty improvements, including new Armco barriers. Stewart inspected them and wasn’t impressed.

“We’ve been hijacked into coming here,” he said. The race went ahead anyway.

On lap eight Williamson was leading Purley through the fifth-gear left-right before Tunnel Oost when Williamson’s left-front tyre failed.

At high speed the car swerved and struck the new Armco barrier. Contrary to Jackie’s specification, it was not anchored in concrete: the supports had just been sunk into Zandvoort’s soft sand.

The barrier bent back and acted as a launching ramp. The Wheatcroft March took off and continued down the track upside down, bursting into flames.

Purley slid to a halt, leapt out and ran across the track to where the March had come to rest, burning fiercely, with Williamson trapped inside.

Purley waded into the fire and tried to lift the car, but single-handed he couldn’t.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

Fire marshals did eventually arrive at the crash scene at Zandvoort, but by then it was much too late

He then dashed up the road to where there was a single fire extinguisher, ran back and emptied it on the fire until it ran out. But the blaze raged on.

Only then did two marshals appear. Neither was properly clothed, equipped or trained.

Purley desperately shouted and waved at them to come and help him try to raise the car, but unprotected as they were they dared not come into the flames.

At race control, despite the huge cloud of black smoke engulfing that part of the track, there was no understanding of the severity of the accident, and the race went on.

Other marshals and a policeman arrived, but none of them could help Purley.

Despite being burned through his flameproof overalls and still wearing his crash helmet, he fought on desperately but fruitlessly to lift the car.

After eight minutes a small fire engine drove up but failed to put out the fire. Ten minutes after that a larger fire engine came to the scene, its crew wearing proper fireproof gear.

The fire was finally extinguished and the wreckage turned over. Williamson’s body remained in the cockpit and it was left to Purley to find a piece of cloth and cover his face.

Finally he walked away, rage and despair showing in every step.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

Purley with his wife Jane outside Buckingham Palace in 1974 after receiving the George Medal for his bravery at Zandvoort

We know all this because the race was televised – the exception rather than the rule in those days – and the horrifying sequence was repeated on news bulletins around the world.

The following morning’s tabloids further dramatised the story by stating that Williamson and Purley were close friends.

In fact, they only knew each other as fellow competitors to nod to in the paddock, little more.

A day later David phoned me from Heathrow. He’d just landed, dodging the reporters as best he could, and before driving home to Bognor Regis he wanted to talk privately about what had happened, to try to get his head straight about it.

He came to my house in Chiswick, the burns up his arms heavily bandaged. I went out for fish and chips, and as we ate them in my sitting room David relived it all.

He had no memory of leaping from his car and running along the track, or grabbing the fire extinguisher: he said it was his army training kicking in, which taught him to take action at once if a fellow soldier was in danger.

Roger was apparently unhurt in the accident and was fully conscious, trapped in the fire, and David could hear his screams.

The ex-paratrooper had seen a lot; he was a tough guy. And yet, as he talked, tears filled his eyes.

They were not tears of sadness. They were tears of rage and frustration that something so disgraceful, so avoidable, had happened.

Changes were made in race organisation after that: fireproof clothing for marshals, better training, more extinguishers, proper communication with race control and a host of other obvious procedures that should have been in place already.

Improvements were made to the Zandvoort track, including anchoring the barriers properly. For Roger Williamson, it was all too late.

Classic & Sports Car – Taken too soon: remembering F1 star Roger Williamson

‘For many the man on his way to the top was a stocky, smiling lad from Leicester called Roger Williamson’

Purley carried on racing, finishing ninth in the Italian Grand Prix that year, then moving to Formula 5000 and cleaning up the 1976 Shellsport Championship.

In 1977 he fielded his own F1 car, the Lec, briefly leading the Belgian Grand Prix in the wet.

But in practice for the British Grand Prix he had a terrifying accident when his throttle jammed. Hitting the bank at Becketts his car went from 108mph to instant standstill, subjecting Purley to an estimated 179g.

The car was shortened by 26in, leaving him with his knees level with his ears. He had 29 bone fractures and his heart stopped several times.

A man less strong and less courageous would certainly have died, but immediate medical care from the inspired on-track doctors kept him alive.

“If you’re going to have an accident,” he said later, “you’d better have it in England.”

After months of rehabilitation but still barely able to walk, he raced again in the Aurora British F1 series, finishing a brave fourth at Snetterton.

In the pits after the race he said to his team manager, Mike Earle: “Do me a favour, Mike. I don’t want to look a wally, but I can’t move. Wheel the car round the back and get me out there.”

After that he got his excitement from flying, buying a Pitts Special and enjoying increasingly dramatic aerobatics.

Over the English Channel one morning in July 1985 there was a technical problem. David could not pull out of a dive, and the Pitts disappeared beneath the waves.

David Purley was a man out of his time. If he’d raced in the devil-may-care 1930s, or even the 1950s, he could have been one of the best.

For him, motor racing had to be dangerous, otherwise it would not be a challenge – although after Zandvoort he always said that when an accident did happen, it was the circuit’s duty to have proper facilities to cope.

Roger Williamson remains in the history books as a happy and hugely talented young man who could have gone to the top of his chosen sport, but for the incompetence and irresponsibility that marked the era he raced in.

As for Tom Wheatcroft, not long before he died in 2009 he told me: “That day in Holland, it were the saddest day of my life. I kept on being involved in motor racing. But the day we lost Roger, part of my spirit died.”

Images: Getty/Motorsport Images

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