The 35th Anniversary of the Death of Tom Pryce, the Formula 1 Welsh Dragon

Matt HillContributor IIIApril 13, 2012

Tom Pryce drives the #16 Shadow Racing Shadow Ford DN5B during the Grand Prix of Monaco on 30 May 1976 on the streets of the Principality of Monaco in Monte Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)
Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Statistics can often only give you half a story about a driver. For example, Michael Schumacher is statistically the greatest driver of all time. He has the most wins, most pole positions, most world championships, most fastest laps, most wins in a season and many other records.

Yet, there is a large body of opinion (including myself) which doesn't consider Schumacher to be the greatest. Some think the greatest was Senna, some think Fangio, some think Prost, Nuvolari, Clark, Stewart and there are many others for which a credible case can be put forward.

The Formula 1 career of Tom Pryce when looked at purely statistically is fairly unremarkable. He did better than some by earning two podium finishes and nineteen points over his career but compared to statistics produced by some drivers it does seem fairly paltry. His talent behind the wheel though was known by anyone who saw the Welshman drive, and had his career not been tragically cut short, he could have had many more successes.

Tom Pryce entered motorsports rather late compared to many and had his first competitive race at the age of 20. However his talent soon became obvious, and he began to win race after race. It was also then he began to show what became one of his hallmarks as a driver.

In a wet race, Pryce was virtually unbeatable. The first championship Pryce won was a Formula Ford championship and it went down to the final race. Halfway through the final race it began to rain, and from the third row of the grid, Pryce passed everyone and went on to win the race and therefore, the championship, with ease.

The Formula 1 career of Tom Pryce began for the tiny Token team in 1974. Token Racing were one of many tiny teams that tried to enter Formula 1 during the 1970's that competed in a few races before disappearing. Having entered a non-championship event with a car totally unprepared, the Token team made some adjustments to the car and applied to enter a full championship event.

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Tom Pryce drives the #16 UOP Shadow Racing Team Shadow DN3 Ford during the British Grand Prix on 20 July 1974 at the Brands Hatch circuit in Fawkham, Great Britain. (Photo by Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

Pryce made his debut at the fifth round of the season which was the Belgian Grand Prix at the Nivelles-Baulers circuit. The track only held the Belgian Grand Prix twice in 1972 and 1974. In some ways it could be seen as a prototype for some modern Formula 1 circuits with the track having huge run off areas and was considered by many too be boring.

In the Token car (which was making its debut in a championship event) Tom Pryce qualified 20th out of the 31 starters and was only 3.03 seconds off pole position. He completed 66 laps of the 85-lap event before a collision with Jody Scheckter forced Pryce into retirement.

The Token Racing team tried to enter Pryce for the Monaco Grand Prix but they were refused entry due to Pryce's lack of experience. Not deterred Pryce entered the Formula 3 support race for that weekend which he won comfortably. Following this and some impressive Formula 2 races he was offered a drive for the Shadow team replacing Brian Redman who was filling in after the death of Peter Revson.

Pryce made his debut for the Shadow team at the eighth race of the 1974 season which was held at the Zandvoort circuit. Sadly, it was short debut after getting into an accident with Hans Joachim Stuck on the first lap.

In France after qualifying an amazing fourth, he was hit by James Hunt which ended his race early. At the British Grand Prix he finally got to the checkered flag finishing eighth but even better was to follow at the next race.

Tom scored his first championship points at the German Grand Prix at the legendary Nurburgring, where he finished in sixth position. He then proceeded to see out the rest of the season with another top-ten finish and a couple of retirements.

During the offseason Lotus began to negotiate with Shadow over swapping Pryce for Ronnie Peterson. Sadly, the deal fell through in the end and Pryce remained at Shadow. It is however a testament to the ability of Pryce that Lotus were interested in bringing him to the team. Peterson is now remembered as a truly great driver, so for Lotus to be prepared to lose him in order to gain Pryce shows that Lotus were very impressed by the Welshman.

In the 1975 season, he finished in the points on five separate occasions and earned his first podium at the Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring where, once again, Tom showed his wet weather prowess finishing third ahead of such drivers as Lauda, Peterson, Fittipaldi and Scheckter. The conditions were so wet the race was abandoned after 29 laps but unlike many others Pryce kept his car on the track.

In 1975 his other points finishes were at in Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany. In Germany he had been up in second but he ended up fourth after a leak began in the Shadow which meant that hot fuel was leaking onto him and burning his skin and blinding him. His bravery in continuing earned him an award named after the late Jo Siffert for his bravery. On the whole 1975 had been a good year for the Welshman.

1976 began brilliantly for Pryce with him earning third place at the Brazilian Grand Prix. However regulation changes brought in through the season ruined the competitiveness of the Shadow car which meant after that Pryce only got into the points twice more. Despite not being able to get in the points though, Pryce finished consistently within the top ten and underlined his credentials as a fast and now reliable driver.

Sadly by the 1977 season, the Shadow team were beginning to struggle financially. They had never been the richest of teams, which is part of the reason the previous year had been tough. The rules changed and Shadow didn't have the money to change the car sufficiently to work effectively once the new rules were enforced.

In 1977, Toms teammate over the previous few season Jean-Pierre Jarrier left to join the ATS team and into replace came Renzo Zorzi.  Zorzi brought with him some money which did help the team but was also later described by Jackie Oliver (Shadow Team Owner) as "the worst driver they ever had".

Rather unsurprisingly with the team in such financial difficulty, the car for the 1977 season was nothing more than a slight upgrade over the previous years machine. Zorzi got a point largely by default at the second race of the season in Brazil with every other car being involved in incidents or breaking down. Pryce had been running second amazingly with just seven laps remaining before his engine broke.   

But the truth was the Shadow team was, well, a shadow of what they had been in previous seasons. The third race of the season was in South Africa at the Kyalami circuit. Tragically it would be the last race of Tom Pryce's life.

After qualifying in 15th, Pryce had settled into a midfield battle with Stuck, Laffite and others. On Lap 21, Zorzi, Pryce's teammate, pulled off the road on the start finish straight with a broken fuel meter. Zorzi began to climb out of his car when a small fire began which caused Zorzi to hurriedly leave his car despite having issues disconnecting his helmet oxygen supply.

Mar 1976:  Portrait of Shadow Ford driver Tom Pryce of Great Britain. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport
Getty Images/Getty Images

On the other side of the start and finish straight along the pits, two marshals noticed this fire and both ran across the track, despite the race still going on at full speed, in order to put the fire out. As the marshals began to run across the track, the cars driven by Stuck and Pryce were coming down the front straight.

In a horrible twist of fate, the front straight of Kyalami ran uphill for the first half before then running downhill for the second half of the straight. Where the Zorzi car had stopped was just beyond the crest of the hill, so the drivers coming had no idea the marshals coming across the track.

Stuck saw these marshals at the very last second and swerved and avoided them both by the tiniest of margins. However Pryce, who was running directly behind Stuck had no time at all to react and hit the second marshal at roughly 170mph. The marshal in question was a young man by the name of Jansen Van Vuuren. Some sources do say his name was Fredrik Jansen Van Vuuren but Jansen Van Vuuren is the more commonly stated name.

Van Vuuren was just 19 years old, and he was killed instantly by the impact of Pryce's Shadow. The injuries he suffered were so severe that the only way they could establish the identity of the man was by rounding up all the other marshals after the event and working out who was not present. There are fuller accounts to the injuries suffered by Van Vuuren, but I have decided not to put them into this piece as some may find them disturbing.

In another horrific piece of misfortune, Van Vuuren when he was running across the track was carrying a 40lb fire extinguisher. When Pryce's car hit Van Vuuren the fire extinguisher hit Pryce in the head pushing his head up with such force it took Pryce's crash helmet clean off his head. The force had been enough to cause the chin strap of Pryce's helmet to nearly decapitate the driver, killing Pryce instantly.

Pryce's car continued moving and ended up hitting Jacques Laffite's car into the first corner, Crowthorne. Laffite angrily climbed out of his car unaware of what had happened, and it was only when he got to Pryce's car he realized something tragic had happened.

The actual moment of the horrific accident is on Youtube but I have decided that I do not wish to place any footage of the crash in this piece. 

Tom Pryce died at age 27.

Had things been fractionally different for Pryce I think he could of been a championship race winner (he did win a non-championship event). Whether he had the talent to of been a world champion, I simply don't know. 

I will leave you with this quote about Pryce written by John Watson.

"I think people who are involved in motor racing and have achieved something, have an ability to spot talent. It was abundantly clear that Tom's ability was above and beyond his contemporaries"

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