Formula 1 and Its Most Disgraceful Moment: When Lives Meant Virtually Nothing

Matt HillContributor IIIDecember 9, 2010


Formula 1 is a dangerous sport. Many people have died in Formula 1 cars and despite the now 16-year gap since the fatality, it will happen again.

A few months agao I wrote a piece about the death of Ayrton Senna. The second half of the title for that piece was "when Formula 1 lost it's remaining innocence". The key word of that is "remaining". The original innocence was taken in the incident that this piece is about.

Safety is one of the most paramount features in Formula 1 car and track design, and it has to be like that. Finding the line between safety and excitement is virtually impossible. I would love to see the old Nurburgring Nordschleife on the calendar, but there is no way it will happen as it is far too dangerous.

As the decades have gone on cars have generally gotten faster and safety needs to be maintained, but sadly on occasions it has failed. For me there is one moment in Formula 1 which is possibly the most disgraceful moment in the sport's history. This moment happened in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

The 1970's was the era when big business really began to get involved in Formula 1. Sponsorship money funded development, and as the development occurred, cars naturally became faster and faster. Safety was still very basic and the tracks had little to no basic medical facilities in case something did go wrong.

In other words cars were getting quicker and the tracks weren't changing to meet the needs of the cars. The cars themselves, despite getting faster, were still incredibly unsafe. They were one of the most dangerous cars of any of the main types of F1 car.

Each decade has seen a drop in the number of people killed driving Formula 1 cars. In the 1950's 15 people were killed, the 60's saw 12 deaths, the 1970's saw 10 drivers lose their lives, the 80's saw four die and the 90's two.

In the early days of Formula 1, death was simply accepted. People didn't seem to value the driver’s lives.

In America things weren't any better. In Dr. Steve Olvey's book, it spoke of an occasion when a driver was taken to hospital with suspected brain injuries. The nurse told Olvey the neurologist wasn't there, and wouldn't appreciate being dragged all the way to work "for some racing driver."

To me that attitude is totally disgraceful. Just because the person was a racing driver, suddenly their life became worthless?

In 1966 Jackie Stewart at the Belgian Grand Prix had a very severe crash in his BRM, and ended up pinned under the wreckage of the car with petrol pouring on to him. One spark and Jackie would have been burnt alive.

The marshals had no equipment at all to get him out and it took two fellow drivers to get Stewart out from under the wreckage. Now that story tells you how under-prepared the marshals were, and you would have hoped that they would have learnt and be better prepared in the future.

That is why the story I am about tell you seems even more disgusting than it would otherwise be.

As I said earlier this horrific moment occurred at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at the Zandvoort track. In that race, a young British driver by the name of Roger Williamson was taking part in just his second Grand Prix for the March team.

He was considered by many to be a great talent and had been particularly successful in the British club racing scene. In his first race at Silverstone, he got caught up in the melee caused by Jody Scheckter's crash, which took out a few drivers including Williamson.

Williamson was desperate to race in Zandvoort and somehow his car was mended and he could compete. After qualifying a very respectable 18th in his March, things looked good and he was looking forward to having a second attempt in a Formula 1 race.

After the opening few laps, he settled down into a race with fellow Brit David Purley. The two were by all accounts having a good scrap for position with Williamson having the better of it. Williamson gradually began to pull away and settle into the race.

It was Lap 8 when the tragedy occurred. Williamson got a puncture at one of the fastest parts of the track doing around 140mph and he span straight to the Armco barrier. The Armco wasn't fitted properly and acted something like a springboard, firing the March back across the track and upside down. Already a lack of adequate track preparation had made the accident worse than it should have been.

Whilst sliding across the track, Williamson's car caught fire and the burning wreckage eventually came to a standstill. Williamson was trapped under the car, fully conscious and shouting for help. David Purley stopped his car, got out and ran towards the wreckage and began to try and turn the car over.

Despite his best efforts he couldn't do it. Whilst this was going on the track marshals who did have fire extinguishers just stood and watched. Some marshals ran towards the car and decided just to stand there, not using their extinguishers. Two marshals did try briefly to help over turn the car with Purley but gave up very quickly.

The crowd seeing what was happening began to race forward and it was it this point the marshals began to act. Not to help Williamson, but to keep the crowd back.

Purley got a fire extinguisher but it wasn't quite enough to put the fire out. The fire raged on with Williamson screaming to Purley to get him out. Purley once again tried to flip the car over but he just wasn't strong enough. The marshals weren't in fire proof clothing, so they couldn't help lift the car but did nothing to put the fire out either.

After a few minutes it fell quiet from the car. Williamson had died not from burns, but from asphyxiation from the smoke.

A distraught Purley was dragged away by a marshal, who had done nothing to help, and Purley reacted incredibly angrily to the person. A fire truck was just 150 yards up the road and didn't move for a good five or six minutes after the crash occurred. The fire truck was told not to drive the wrong way around the track, and for good reason. But this was just yards and it wasn't even backwards, more diagonal.

The race wasn't stopped.

Some people criticized the other drivers for not stopping during the accident to help. However, they assumed it was Purley trying to right his own car. It was common then for privateers such as Purley to try and save their cars from damage, and when they saw Purley they assumed he was doing it to save his car, not someone else's life.

The marshals who saw that it wasn't Purley's car had no such excuse.

Williamson should never have died in that crash, never. But due to the ridiculously poor standard of preparation and safety, he did.

Why didn't the marshals have fire proof clothing?

Why weren't the Armco barrier fitted properly?

Why didn't the marshals use their extinguishers?

I hold this as the one of Formula 1's worst moments. It was preventable in nearly every way. But due to mix of laziness, apathy towards safety and some would say even cowardice by some, a driver was killed.

A lot of people talk about how Formula 1 should be made more exciting and I have nothing wrong with that. But if you gave me a choice of a slightly duller yet safer race or more exciting but with a higher chance of death or injury, there is only one winner

Formula 1 drivers are people, not robots.

The footage of this event is on YouTube. For those who think they can watch it, do so and you will have a better understanding of something that I found hard to put into words.