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A look back in time on the day that changed GP racing's views on safety
July 29, 1973: the day duty won over heroism



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Roger Williamson, David Purley


March-Cosworth 731, Lec March-Cosworth 731




XXI Dutch GP (July 29, 1973)


The Zandvoort track returned to the GP calendar in 1973 after it had been taken off to allow for modifications. The overhaul amounted to the creation of the Panoramabocht (named after Holland's infamous 70s tittie magazine Panorama), introducing a speed-reducing tight righthander in the fast Bos In ("Into the Woods") section three-quarters around the track. Apart from that, the seaside circuit was lined with Armco rails, whereas before there were no guardrails at all. In addition, the pit area was patched up, including the erection of a control tower, and several stretches of track were resurfaced. In all, track owner CENAV sailed through inspection, leaving track director Johan Beerepoot and race organizer Ben Huisman well satisfied and confident of a stunning 1973 race.

The German motorsport association ONS offered its newly developed safety system just days before the race. This so-called ONS Feuerschutz-staffel (Fire Protection Relay) system led by ex-Porsche test driver Herbert Linge consisted of 16 fully equipped fire-engine cars that were strategically positioned on the track, with their engines running and connected with race control through continuous radio communications. These cars were available for any race weekend and meant a giant leap in track safety. The crews - consisting of a sportscar driver and a fireman - were able to turn a burning car back on its wheels within 20 seconds and put out a fuel fire using a single squirt of Halon extinguisher. Safety discipline Jackie Stewart first saw the ONS team at work during the Nürburgring 6-hour touring-car race in Germany, where he requested crew leader Ernst Harmening to be present at Zandvoort. Harmening took to work preparing a scenario which also involved stationing one of his cars at the high-speed Tunnel Oost corner. He compiled a unit of four cars and offered his services by telex for the amount of DM 2595. Huisman declined on the offer, answering that he didn't need them because of the military support he would already get. "I didn't feel the slightest bit worried about it. We had built a great track, with a great pit and paddock area. We were on top of the world. In hindsight, we must have felt the same as the people who built the Titanic."

The Hondenvlak up-and-down sequence of fast corners at the back was left untouched. This was the stretch of track where Piers Courage’s De Tomaso had become unstuck in 1970, resulting in a violent crash which probably killed the young Briton on impact, or at least knocked him unconscious. The car caught fire and if he had still been alive he didn't stand a chance. Another young Englishman's life was taken two years earlier when on the same spot Clay Regazzoni's Tecno and Chris Lambert's Brabham touched each other in the European F2 Trophy. Lambert didn't survive. Only in 1980 the slow Marlborobocht was inserted to break up the flow of Hondenvlak, which was a shame, as better run-off areas and decent Armco could have done the job equally well. None of this was in place, though, when Roger Williamson charged through Hondenvlak on lap 8 of the 1973 Dutch GP. Approaching Tunnel Oost leading to the Panoramabocht Roger’s March 731 got off-line and smacked into the barriers. This is where it all started to go wrong. Very wrong.

That is, it had already gone wrong when a suspension bush had been machined from an extruded tube instead of from solid material. As motorsport author Doug Nye recalls, "The extruded tube had a grain to it and like a piece of softwood it appeared simply to split along its length and fall away, allowing the suspension to lose control of that particular wheel."

A simple part failure spiraled into an unlikely concatenation of events. First and foremost, the Armco didn’t absorb the impact. Instead, the car ran around the rail and was thrown back onto the track, flipped over. Slowly it was coming to a halt at the exit of Tunnel Oost, on the inside of the track. The March wasn’t on fire yet, but the fuel pipes had burst on impact, and fuel was leaking out.

The first licks of fire were grabbing the engine bay when David Purley in his similar 731 stopped on the left side of the track to come to Roger’s rescue. Having run across the track towards to the burning March the first thing David tried was turning over the car by pushing the upward left rear wheel, which wasn't on fire yet. At the same time the two nearest marshals crossed the track. Purley heard an anxious Williamson cry as the two marshals stood there, posing as interested on-lookers but not in the least showing any attempt to help. One of them, Gerard Brammer, later recalled that he was instructed by Huisman to look after himself first. As Huisman said to them in the marshals briefing, "These guys are paid to do a high-risk job and know what they are up against, I don't expect you, being volunteers, to be as heroic as they are." Which instruction, paired with their lack of fire-proof clothing, led to their declining to act before Brammer realised he should be warning the oncoming traffic, and so he rushed off with his yellow flag.

Meanwhile, the fire had begun to take hold and was enveloping the cockpit. A third marshal, accompanied by a policeman, approached from the left side of the track. As soon as Purley spotted him, he ran towards him to grab his fire extinguisher. Aided by the policeman David got it working, and for a moment it looked like they were succeeding in their mission. The second marshal still stood there, glued to the ground.

But it was too little too late, as the remainder of the fuel exploded to engulf the car in flames. The heat was staggering, the fuel vapors intoxicating, and momentarily David stepped back, before he began another attempt at turning the car over. This time, the rescue workers approached him, not to come to his aid but to pull him away from the burning wreck. In his frustation, David hit out at one of them. Roger was still in there - and in the worst of agony, as he tried to unbuckle himself in vain while the fire-proof overalls were giving up their final resistance.

Purley later recounted that Williamson’s endless screaming kept coming back in his mind to haunt him at nights. Yet in the immediate aftermath, he had no recollection of the accident, and remembered neither stopping his car and running across the road nor anything else. He did have an unreserved opinion of the marshals' inability to tackle the fire, as he told Autosport reporter Nigel Roebuck in preparation for the German GP one week later. "If you want to talk safety, that's where I do have strong views. One of those guys was wearing a plastic mac! If he goes near that car, he's dead, isn't he? And something like that I found totally unacceptable. If a bloke does have an accident, he should have the right to expect that everything possible will be done for him."

With no help forthcoming from the marshals, Purley yelled and waved at the crowd on the opposite side of the track, who were eager to jump the fences and charge across. Now, two of them had made their way through, but they were held back by the policeman still observing the vehicle, as he felt it important to keep the madmen at bay who were invading the track. By now, piles of black smoke were mixing with the flames, as the tyres caught fire too. David Purley, his arms hanging from his shoulders in utter dismay and disbelief, finally walked away from the scene. In the words of Pedro de la Rosa’s manager, Raimon Duran, who was present at the scene: “Not a nice sight for a 17-year-old motor racing fan who had travelled almost 2,000kms by train and hitch-hiking to see his heroes, Williamson among them, at the Dutch GP...”

Meanwhile, although the tower of smoke was visible miles out at sea, it had taken some three minutes for the emergency message to reach race control. On the main straight Denny Hulme was making frantic gestures, urging the organisers to stop the race. However, Huisman had been given the report that the driver was seen standing next to his car. After the race, this explanation was also given by Gijs van Lennep. "We were passing every one-and-a-half minute, racing past the accident location in a flash. We just assumed that Purley was the man who had escaped from the wreck." He, as well as the others, simply hadn't noticed Purley’s black Lec March standing to the left of the track before David climbed back in to return to the pits. A tragic misunderstanding.

As the flames refused to subside, Huisman decided to send out the fire engine that was standing at the Panoramabocht, but it had to circle almost the entire track, as it was deemed too dangerous to go against the flow of traffic still at racing speed.

Finally, it arrived at the scene, accompanied by an officials’ car. The fire engine sparked another flame in Purley's heart, as he led the fire crew in their attempts to extinguish the fire. Slowly they succeeded in their task, as the marshals went back to their duty of waving yellow flags to the oncoming racing cars. David was the first to crawl under the car to gaze into the horrible sight of Roger’s arm sticking out of the cockpit, burned to charcoal. Only then did it dawn upon him that they had all allowed Williamson to burn to his death.

Still, he helped roll the car back on its wheels (or what was left of them) and cover it with a blanket. The wreck remained there for the rest of the race – with Williamson’s remains still in it. It was only after the race that the police turned up with a coroner. With the marshals and medical staff still not daring to come near, a mortified and stunned Tom Wheatcroft was obliged to extricate Roger’s body from the car himself and put it straight into a coffin.

Doug Nye, also the erstwhile advisor to Wheatcroft's Donington Collection, was present to report on the race. He remembers the evening well: "I walked round the block that night in tears. I was Wheatie's consultant at that time and knew him very well indeed and Roger too."

The race wasn’t stopped. Apart from Purley, no other driver pulled over to offer help. Niki Lauda’s infamous post-race quote said it all: “I am paid to race, not to stop.” As Purley related to Roebuck, "What surprised me was that no other drivers stopped to help. There was all this talk of 'Purley trying to rescue his friend' and so on, but that wasn't the case - I didn't know Roger well at all. What happened was purely a reflex action. In Aden, if one saw a burning tank one tried to help the people inside, and it was exactly the same at Zandvoort. A matter of a man needing help. That car burned for several laps, and all the 'safety crusaders' just kept on bombing through the accident scene without even backing off..."

A damning remark towards the Grand Prix Drivers Association, that wasted no time in organising a press conference in which the drivers were harshly critical of Ben Huisman and his decision not to stop the race. It would cost him his job. "Looking back the GPDA was right in claiming that our safety precautions had been lacking", Huisman recalled. "It was the total package of decisions that was wrong. Today, with the current communications systems, we would have had an altogether different approach. But it was another age - you would only wave the red flag in case the track was blocked. But the drivers just kept on racing. And what about sending home 65,000 people? Later all hell broke loose on that chaotic press conference in which Denny Hulme raised his voice to shout 'Bullshit!' across the hall. I liked Graham Hill better for his reaction. He came up to me afterwards and simply uttered a typically British understated 'Not good, Ben'. That said it all. Talking about the events of 1973 is still sending shivers down my spine."

Still, Huisman is able to put them into the perspective of the time. "It was correct that I was forced to give up my job. Many things went wrong that day, and I was responsible. But the event made such an impact on a grand audience because it was televised live. That had never happened before. And we had no chance to make any quick sure-fire decisions back then. Race direction didn't have any communications. The police did, as did the OCA's timing marshals. They would give us a note in case of an emergency. So when we saw that pillar of smoke there was no way for us to know that the driver was still in the car. Then we heard that someone got out of his car. Later this turned out to be David Purley. Furthermore, the accident happened at Tunnel Oost, at the exact spot where two of our marshalling posts could not make eye contact."

As already said, it would take until 1980 before the Marlborobocht was cut in to reduce speed on the hairy Hondenvlak back stretch. In the track’s defense, its safety standards weren’t worse than those at other tracks and it’s difficult to apportion blame in a proper and fair way. Perhaps the most tragic lesson learned from the events of July 29, 1973 is the way people are trained to stick to duty and procedure - thus all cooperating to a human being’s wholly unnecessary demise. Yes, they all “did their job”, but to what end?

For poor Williamson it must have been a gruelling and inexplicable final experience. It was only Roger's second GP. David Purley was to receive a George Medal for his valiant bravery.

Other 1973 Dutch GP pages