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Unnecessary casualty



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Roger Williamson, David Purley


March-Cosworth 731, Lec Refrigation Team March-Cosworth 731




1973 Dutch GP


And they said the 'Ring was an unsafe place.

Considering the tragedies which occurred in 1970 and 1973 Zandvoort was a considerably more fatal place than the old Nordschleife. Still, it had this air of a great racing track which didn't look like the obvious 22kms anomaly to modern GP racing the Nürburgring was. Or, for that matter, the old Francorchamps track - with its farm houses immediately lining the track at blatantly dangerous sections like Masta and Burnenville.

Having said that, after the 1971 event the Dutch track was under fire from the drivers and the GP was taken off the 1972 calendar. Track owner CENAV used the year off to overhaul the circuit to modern standards - its main accomplishment being the creation of the Panoramabocht (named after Holland's infamous 70s tittie magazine Panorama), which introduced a speed-reducing tight righthander in the fast Bos In ("Into the Woods") section three-quarters around the track. But in many other ways the multi-million dollar renewal was in fact a token effort to patch things up. The marshalls were still without fire-protective clothing and the armco posts were secured just as tight as the wind screens on the nearby beach.

But apparently, CENAV sailed through track inspection - it must have been pretty impressive that the seaside circuit now had guardrails lining the track at all! Thus Zandvoort, with its narrow pit lane and crummy fencing was kept on the GP calendar until 1985, when Bernie's professionalism finally caught up with the track.

However, those remarks are not to the detriment of the classic circuit in the dunes. Of course it was a glorious place to race. It had this huge straight and Tarzan - still intact in the new track lay-out - which was the track's plain and simple answer to overtaking opportunity. Zandvoort's most dangerous part was undoubtedly the run-up from Hugenholtz corner - the tight 180-degree bend turning back towards the main straight before curling away towards the back part of the track - followed by the uphill Hunzerug straight and the fast left/right Wijkerveld section (now the Rob Slotemakerbocht) upsetting the car's balance just before entering Scheivlak, a daunting balls-to-the-wall righthander giving you all sorts of camber and apexing trouble.

It is frighteningly easy to lose it coming out of Scheivlak, immediately preparing yourself for the ultra-fast back section of Hondenvlak. Many drivers - inexperienced as well as talented - have. Turning into the apex you can simply get into oversteer and lose the back end - which is a repeating occurrence in the lower formula and touring car races still held at Zandvoort. The opposite also spells out danger - understeer will invariably push you wide on the sandy bits (and Zandvoort has a lot of those!). Then, if you get tempted into overcorrecting your error the slippery off-line surface will immediately punish you, whiplashing your car into the barriers.

The sequence of fast corners that follow has caught many drivers by surprise - the Hondenvlak righthander was precisely the place that took Piers Courage's life - but no one suffered the consequences more cruelly than young Roger Williamson in 1973. And the way his fatality came about should still leave many Dutch faces glowing with shame.

It was on lap 8 of the 1973 Dutch GP that Williamson, approaching Tunnel Oost and the Panoramabocht, misjudged the Hondenvlak sequence and was pushed off-track - but it could also have been tyre failure. Whatever the reason, his March hit the fencing at an unusual angle, forcing the car back onto the track and into a barrel roll which burst the fuel tank.

Following was ex-paratrooper David Purley in a similar 731, privately-run by his family business Lec Refrigators, which four years later was to enter a Mike Pilbeam-designed Lec CRP1 (CRP being his father's initials) for Purley. Singlehandedly the thrill seeker from Bognor Regis tried to roll the burning car back onto its feet but his efforts came to no avail. Indeed, the man who eventually died in an aerobatics accident knew no fear. Later, David was to receive a George Medal for his valiant bravery.

Then the fire really took hold of the fuel and the car was engulfed in flames. At the side of the track hundreds of spectators were willing to climb the fences and charge across the track but they were held by policemen who obviously felt it was more important to keep the madmen at bay who were attempting to invade the track than to come to the rescue of a dying man. There was still a race going on! You could get hurt crossing that track! On top of that, disgracefully, there was not a single marshall daring to come near. Only when the blaze had begun to die out one finally came up with a fire extinguisher. Meanwhile, it took over three minutes for the emergency message to reach the control tower while the tower of smoke was visible miles out at sea. And it took until 1980 before the Marlborobocht was cut in to reduce speed on the hairy Hondenvlak back stretch. "Better safe than sorry" is not one of Holland's most used proverbs. "Filling up the well after the cow has drowned" is.

For poor Williamson it must have been a gruelling and inexplicable final experience. It was only Roger's second GP.

Two weeks before, he had been unlucky when his car was eliminated in the famous Scheckter pile-up at Silverstone's Woodcote corner. Williamson had been a pupil of racing enthousiast Tom Wheatcroft, who is the current Donington track owner and had just bought Donington Castle, and lept to the opportunity of a "works" March drive after Jean-Pierre Jarier and Henri Pescarolo deserted the No.14 car in one of March's worst seasons ever.

The "731" was in fact an adapted F2-style 721G, the same car that had been pioneered by Mike Beuttler for the Clarke-Mordaunt-Guthrie-Durlacher team. Things were looking promising for Williamson, who was playing himself in for a full season in 1974. The STP March/Tom Wheatcroft Racing entry had been changed into works status for the Dutch GP, which fitted well with Williamson's status as "one-to-watch". He had been extraordinary in F3, cleaning up the British championships in 1972, having already taken the Lombank title the year before. At first, 1973 was intended exclusively to be a year of F2. A slow start with the underperforming GRD was followed by a magical win at the Monza Lotteria race after a switch to the dominant March chassis. He was well on his way to victory at Misano when engine problems intervened but he had now truly established himself as a star of the future. Thus mentor Tom Wheatcroft rented the vacated F1 March works car to get some top-level experience under Roger's belt, which could be of good use for 1974.

There is no doubt he could have gone on to achieve great things. But Zandvoort cruelly put an end to that thought. A thought it will always remain.

Reader's Why by Raimon Durán

The picture shows Brit Roger Williamson ahead of countryman David Purley. Both were driving almost identical March-Ford Cosworth 731, a sort of hybrid F2/F1 that was very successful those years. While Roger was driving a "works" one (sponsored by his mentor Tom Wheatcroft, the owner of Donington Circuit and F1 Museum), David Purley was driving his own privateer entry sponsored by his family business, LEC Refrigerators. At the same race, James Hunt was driving a similar car, although highly modified by Dr. Harvey Posthlewaite, belonging to Lord Hesketh. He eventually finished 3rd.

This picture is very special because, minutes later after this picture was taken, on lap 8 to be precise, Roger went wide on a right hander on the fast zone of the circuit and spun off. His March crashed against the fence, then rolled and caught fire. David Purley had to brake not to collect his predecessor and he stopped his car spontaneously to help his rival. He tried to un-roll Williamson's March but the fuel exploded. There were no marshals nearby. There was a single fireman with an extinguisher that was useless. There was no public on that inner side of the track. However, some spectators jumped the fence on the opposite side and tried to go down the dune to help to overturn the car and save Williamson from the blaze. Policemen with dogs stopped them and David Purley (and hundreds of spectators) had to see powerless the fate of the British driver.

Finally, when it was obvious that Roger had not survived, an old fire engine arrived. They could only extinguish the fire, roll the car back on its wheels and cover it with a blanket. It remained there for the rest of the race. The race wasn't stopped. Not any other driver stopped not when it happened, not even when it was obvious that the crash had been fatal. For over 50 laps Peterson led the race followed by the Tyrrell pair of Stewart and Cevert. With few laps to go, the Swede had to retire and Tyrrell won 1-2. Third was Hunt, as said. After the race, the police turned up with a judge and the body was moved straight into a coffin...

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...