A look back in time on the day that changed GP racing's views on safety
1970 Dutch GP: advance warning
- Mattijs Diepraam
- October 13, 2006
- 1973 Dutch GP - A look back in time for the Purley Williamson Memorial Foundation, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Piers Courage - Heir to an empire, cash-strapped natural, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Clay Regazzoni - Late bloomer gone too soon, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Roger Williamson - Unnecessary casualty, by Mattijs Diepraam/Raimon Durán
- Zandvoort - The quintessential GP track in the dunes, by Mattijs Diepraam
Part of the sadness surrounding Roger Williamson’s death in the 1973 Dutch GP is its lack of inevitability. Roger wasn’t the first to die at Zandvoort, and at that particular spot. In the five years ahead of the televised accident that caused a sea change in track safety two of Williamson’s countrymen were also killed at the sea-side circuit. But instead of these accidents creating a breakthrough in the protection of driver lives the probable lack of safety precautions were quickly brushed under the carpet, laying the blame squarely at the deceased drivers’ feet.
Chris Lambert was a talented young Englishman who raced in F2 during 1968, having climbed the ranks together with Tony Dowe, the man who later was to mastermind TWR America and other Walkinshaw enterprises such as the final incarnations of the Ligier and Arrows teams. Being neighbours, the Somerset duo started racing go-karts together, and when Lambert started to become serious about car racing, Dowe followed him as a mechanic. Still a teenager, Tony prepared Chris’s Brabham BT15 in Formula 3 and the pair teamed up with none other than Max Mosley to create the London Racing Team as a vehicle to further both Mosley and Lambert’s driver careers.
In 1968, LRT ran Cosworth FVA-engined Brabham BT23Cs in F2 for the future FIA President and Lambert. Chris being the better prospect – Mosley hung up his helmet in 1969, having switched to Frank Williams’ F2 team to be team mate to Piers Courage for a while – he started off the season in fine form, taking fourth on aggregate at Hockenheim by scoring a third and a fifth in the two-heat event. He had bitter luck in the races to follow, retiring with mechanical problems on every occasion. At Zandvoort, Lambert’s luck seemed to turn as he finished a competitive fifth in his heat, qualifying for the final with ease.
It all went wrong on lap 10, however. Lambert was trying to fend off Clay Regazzoni’s Tecno, which had started just in front of him but had stalled on the grid and was clawing his way back through the field. Speedworld described the incident that followed in a matter-of-fact style that was typical of the old days: “Although a lap behind the whole field to start with Regazzoni was blazing a trail through the rear of the field and came up to overtake Lambert as they approached the right-hander over the East Bridge. He tried to take the Englishman on the inside but the cars touched and Lambert shot off the track into the guard rail. Unfortunately some straw bales had been placed in front of the rail and these naturally compressed into a ramp and Lambert's car went over the top and dived onto the pedestrian path below. Lambert was killed instantly along with a woman spectator. Regazzoni's car was inverted, but the driver crawled out almost unscathed.”
In the backlash of Lambert’s fatal accident it was the easy way out to blame the driver that couldn’t respond to the incrimination that followed. And so, initially, the Englishman had to take the rap for his own death. This didn’t sit well with Lambert Sr, who wanted justice for his son and tried everything in his might to absolve Chris from blame. This unavoidably meant that an overzealous Clay Regazzoni had been at fault, an accusation that rested on his shoulders for years to come. In search for proof John Lambert contacted the eye witnesses present at the scene. One of the marshals at post 10, located on the outside of Tunnel Oost, supported Lambert's view that Clay was to blame, starting off controversy that was to rage on for several years. In the end, the FIA inquiry led to Regazzoni being exhonerated, the ruling body not imposing any sanctions on him, while it was also accepted that young Lambert hadn't had any part in the accident either. (For more on the Lambert affair, see our article on Clay Regazzoni.)
The news of Chris Lambert’s rehabilitation never reached Dutch soil officially, though. Instead, the rogue marshal became a controversial figure within the marshals association but despite of it all he remained on duty at post number 10 – which in the 1970 Dutch GP delivered a grandstand view of yet another fatal accident…
It thus happened that he again became a prime witness of an accident that reached the annals as a driver error. On June 21, 1970 Piers Courage lined up an encouraging 9th on the grid of the Dutch GP, aboard his Williams-run De Tomaso-Ford. He was in 7th place when on lap 23 the car veered off-line and dug into the sand banking adjacent to the circuit. The car rolled, cracking the fuel tank, with Piers trapped inside. The exploding tank caused a blaze compared to which the Roger Williamson inferno was a mere camp fire. So Courage simply slid wide on that dauntingly fast righthander at the back of the track? And cruelly burned to death?
There are reasons for doubt.
Lambert’s accident hadn’t changed a thing at Zandvoort. The back stretch remained a hairy, flat-out section that kept exhilirating the talented and intimidating the flawed, with its combination of uphill and downhill twists and turns. In its 22 years of existence the dunes on which the back stretch had been asphalted, had dropped a few inches under the weight of the tarmac. The tunnel construction at Tunnel Oost, however, was still in its unchanged concrete shape, creating a bump that caused the hard-sprung Grand Prix cars to jump up in the air as they thundered over the tunnel at 200kph, causing the revs to momentarily climb. The lap-by-lap buffeting on the bump amounted to a huge strain on the rear. In fact, Ronnie Peterson’s rear wing simply fell off during practice for the 1974 Grand Prix, and it took all of the Swede’s magic powers of car control to keep the Lotus on track.
With Armco not in sight until the woeful 1973 race, the circuit was lined with catch fencing that once started out life as the latest vogue in track-side protection, but was hopelessly outdated by 1970. The precise spot where Courage went off hadn’t seen any replacement fencing since local driver Harry Kievit’s Lotus Elite went off sometime in the early sixties.
In fact, Brabham and Rodriguez both crashed at the same place in practice. Jackie Stewart and others asked for the wire fencing to be replaced with Armco but the organizers claimed this was inpossible due to the sandy soil. Strangely, this did not seem to be an objection two years later.
It was both tunnel bump and the inadequate catch fencing that probably conspired to Courage’s untimely death. As the De Tomaso came up to Tunnel Oost on lap 23 and hit the bump, the marshals at post 10 saw the car drive on in a straight line, spearing off the circuit, ploughing through the fencing as if it hadn’t been there, and finally drilling its way into the dunes right behind it. As a cloud of sand obscured their vision they could not see whether the car had rolled or not. Eventually the sand cloud came to a standstill some 200 yards off the marshals post, and two objects appeared from it – a wheel and Piers’ helmet…
Reconstructing the accident, the marshals concluded that something must have broken at the back of the De Tomaso, and reported so. The fact that they clearly saw the driver’s helmet rolling towards them was enough evidence to convince them that Courage had already died of his crash injuries. Several people later theorised that a post from a fencing must have detached the back end of the car which came back into the cockpit to hit Courage on the head, ripping his helmet off.
The events that followed are a clear demonstration of the era’s attitude towards safety. None of the things that went wrong on that day in 1970 led to improvements that could have prevented Roger Williamson’s death. Here’s how it all panned out.
First of all, apart from the odd firefighter and Red Cross medic there were no significant numbers of officials present around the circuit to help in case of heavy accidents – but it wasn’t part of the marshals’ job either. The official job description of a Zandvoort marshal included the waving of flags, the provision of verbal accident reports through use of the track telephone system and written incident reports on dangerous driving and accidents, track and track-side cleaning and repair, and last but not least helping drivers get out of their stranded or crashed vehicles. This latter task emphatically did not include fire-fighting, as the marshals were neither trained nor equipped to do so. But neither was Zandvoort’s voluntary fire brigade, which was given the responsibility for putting out fires.
The marshals’ help at Tunnel Oost was further compromised by the way track posts were organized back then. Today, the post’s senior marshal is in charge of communication with race control while directing his track-side colleagues. It was the other way around in 1970. The most experienced marshal handled the blue flag – a crafty, skilful job – with the second man in charge of yellows, while the junior man, new on the scene that year, was left with the phone and the oil and white flags. Furthermore, number 10 was phoned right before the start of the race that number 11 was unable to communicate, so number 10 was requested to take this into account.
The moment Courage veered off the track and ploughed into the dunes, the entire arrangement proved wholly inadequate. Not that it would have helped the Englishman – remember that he had already died during the crash, his helmet having been hit by the stray wheel. But it certainly underlined why Williamson had to die three years on.
On impact the senior marshal dropped his blue flag immediately and ran to the rescue, trusting that his colleague – who became the chief marshal present at the Williamson ordeal – would be waving the yellow flag. But once he saw the helmet and the wheel appear out of the dust bowl before the car exploded into bits, he realised there was nothing he could do. Turning back he suddenly gazed right into his junior marshal’s face, who was shouting ‘What number? What number?’ The new boy had followed him to the crash scene, still holding his telephone, of which its cord by now had been roughly disconnected from the handset… With no way of communicating with race control, the two senior marshals decided on damage control, and started waving more yellow flags, amidst the heavy smoke covering the track. This didn’t stop the drivers from breaking the lap record – race leader Jochen Rindt and his nemesis Jackie Stewart kept on hammering past the crash scene.
Meanwhile, the track announcer was telling the crowd over the PA that Courage was unhurt, which must have been a relief to Sarah Courage sitting in the pits, but only tragically so once she learned the truth. Sadly, it transpired only later that the driver walking back to the pits had been Jo Siffert, who also came to a standstill on the same lap, but at Scheivlak.
Back at post number 10 the blaze continued unabated, and there was still no sign of a fire-fighting truck. The spectators at Tunnel Oost could hear its sirens, however, but the sound seemed to go away from them, then stalled and didn’t seem to near for what appeared to be hours (in reality the delay was between 20 and 30 minutes). It later transpired that the truck had moved round the outside of the circuit instead of right across it – in a twisted prelude to the fire truck circumnavigating the entire track before finally reaching Williamson’s burnt-out wreck in 1973 – but then got stuck on the road leading to Tunnel Oost, as it was blocked by parked cars. So the decision was made to turn back and take the short route across the track after all!
When it finally arrived on the scene, the fireworks of the explosion following the crash got a spectacular repeat when the fire-fighters attempted to extinguish the glowing magnesium alloy tub with… water. Unable to stop the colourful display the firemen decided to bury the entire wreck, Piers Courage’s lifeless corpse still in it. Finally, the column of smoke faded out – the water had been effective in putting out the grass fire while the most of the flammable material on the car had simply burned out.
After the race, which turned into a Jochen Rindt and Lotus 72C demonstration run, the car and Courage’s remains were dug out amidst the silent presence of the marshals and their boss. Once the body was retrieved from the wreckage it became apparent that the Nomex overalls had done their job – its general shape had remained virtually intact. This allowed the team to assert that Piers had been facing his engine as soon as the wreck came to a standstill. It proved that chassis and engine had been separated on impact, causing a rupture in the fuel line. As automatic fuel feed cut-off hadn’t been introduced in 1970, the effects had been horrendous.
Inevitably, the marshals were requested to keep their mouths shut. Once more, it showed the safety conundrum of the old days: the motor racing world regarded deaths as a nuisance, a professional hazard at most. Even a lack of track maintenance – which in this case caused the Tunnel Oost bump to appear – was regarded as being part of the deal. It was another matter for the family of the bereaved driver, and only by keeping silent could motorsport’s tough code of honour be upheld.
That all changed on July 29, 1973.
This reconstruction is by no means intended as a condemnation of the erstwhile race organizers. With the benefit of hindsight it should be noted that their actions can be fully understood in the light of the antagonistic atmosphere between the general press and the community of motorsport journalists, causing race organizers to be extremely careful in releasing details on the causes of accidents. On the one hand, the general press used to direct their full attention to fatal accidents, neglecting to report on any detail of the race itself. On the other hand, the specialized press made factual mention of a casualty before continuing with their business-as-usual race report.
The fact that the general press made such a fuss about race deaths didn’t sit well with motorsport journalists, who reacted strongly by supporting the part-of-the-deal mentality in the paddocks. Legendary GP reporter Denis Jenkinson used to mock racing drivers wearing seat belts – and that’s just one of many statements that kept the attitude alive that motor racing is dangerous and should remain so. In defense of their sport, race promoters understandably held back on creating transparency for the general press, as they took no pleasure at being publicly vilified in newspaper columns left, right and centre.
So the events surrounding the deaths of Lambert and Courage can only be seen as bad management through our 21st-century eyes. At the time it was the logical thing to do, protecting the vested interests of track owners, team owners, ruling bodies and even drivers. They had all chosen to be in this sport. As they say, you pays yer money and takes yer chances.