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As the Formula One circus arrived at Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, all eyes were on the Championship battle. Jackie Stewart had 44 points, and the two-time World Champion was fighting the reigning World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi for the Championship of 1973. He had 41 points.
Also the talk of the track were the events at Silverstone two weeks earlier. At the end of the first lap, Jody Scheckter spun in his Ferrari, an accident which resulted in the collision of 9 cars. It was the biggest pile up in Formula One history. Yet the only injury was to Andrea de Adamich. Formula One was a dangerous sport which was beginning to improve its safety. Many cars failed to arrive at Zandvoort though due to car repairs, notably Ferrari and Surtees.
Another talking point was the upgrading of the track at Zandvoort. The track was changed after an accident in 1970, which was in truth nothing to do with the circuit. Piers Courage was trying a new fuel, which was apprently superior to the others' fuel due to its improved rate of burning. Sadly, when Courage crashed, he saw the improved rate of burning at close quarters. It cost him his life. A fast flowing circuit, it had been relayed, and sections altered to improve safety. They even had new Armco barriers to stop cars flying into the trees at some corners. The pit facilities had been improved. Zandvoort hadn't hosted a Grand Prix in 1972 because of these updates, but it was back with a bang in 1973. Nobody considered the circuit dangerous, in fact, it was a soft warm cushion compared to the likes of Nurburgring, Monza and Spa Francorchamps. The improvements were greeted well.
The race also became part of the growing TV interest in the 1970s. The BBC had begun showing the British Grand Prix to a British audience, and other countries were following suit. Dutch television decided to televise the Dutch Grand Prix that year, posting many cameras around the circuit in order to beam coverage across the nation.
Qualifying passed smoothly, with lovable Swede Ronnie Peterson taking pole in the Lotus ahead of the Tyrell pair of Stewart and Frenchman Francois Cevert. Emerson Fittipaldi would only manage 16th in his Lotus, nearly 3 seconds behind. He crashed his car into the new barriers, and suffered an injury which prevented him from driving well. He lasted just 1 lap of the race.
In the race itself, and Peterson led, and the two Tyrells were giving chase, led by Stewart.
Roger Williamson was a young British driver who had gone through the ranks in motorsport. He developed thanks to a good friend he had at Donington Park, a circuit in his home city of Leicester. In 1972, he won the British Formula 3 Championship, considered to be a good springboard into other motorsport. 1973 saw Williamson win a Formula Two race at Monza, and he was given the chance to race for March at the British Grand Prix that year. Sadly, he was eliminated at the multi-car pileup on the opening lap. It was no fault of his own. On the back of this success, Williamson was given the chance to drive at Zandvoort for March, keen to give him a chance in their cars.
He qualified 18th for the Grand Prix, just behind Emerson Fittipaldi and double World Champion Graham Hill. At the end of the 7th lap, Williamson had moved up the field into 13th place.
David Purley was a British driver, born in Sussex, whose thrill for life led him into Formula One. Well, that and his good friend, David Bell.
In 1970, he rode for Brabham in Formula 3, and won the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay ahead of the likes of future World Champion James Hunt. Purley made his F1 debut at Monaco, but a fuel leak meant he couldn't finish the race. He didn't make the start in Britain, but arrived at Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix. He wasn't having a good weekend for March, qualifying 21st, three places behind his team-mate, Roger Williamson.
On lap 8, Roger Williamson's March suffered tyre deflamation, which caused his car to flip upside down. Fortunately, the car had a bar sticking up to prevent his head being the first point of contact to the ground. Unfortunately, his car was upside down, and he was sliding across the track. Furthermore, the fuel cell had cracked, and the car was on fire. Williamson rested by the Armco barrier on the inside of a corner, upside down and on fire. Marshalls were powerless.
Williamson's team-mate, David Purley arrived on the scene a few seconds later. He immediately stopped his March, and ran across the circuit to the aid of his team-mate. Dutch TV were delighted, it appeared that Purley had saved himself from his March as it burst into flames. They thought nothing of it, and nor did any of the other drivers. The commentators assumed it was Purley's car that was upside down (he was in the same team as Williamson), and until the camera panned out, they didn't realise Purley had gone to help him.
As time went on however, it became apparent that there was something badly wrong. Williamson couldn't free himself from the car, with its weight on top of him. He shouted at Purley, begging to get him out. Purley tried to right the car, but he couldn't lift it. Marshalls were standing in attendance, unable to assist. They were not wearing the same fireproof overalls that Purley was wearing. Indeed, they were dressed in suits. They couldn't help Purley in his efforts to save Williamson.
Purley's next attempt was to put the fire out, in order for the marshalls to flip the car the right way. Sadly, the marshalls had no fire extinguishers, so Purley had to go to the fire engine to get one. Fortunately, it was only 200 yards away up the track, so Purley was quickly able to get it and return to the side of Williamson's car. Sadly, the sole extinguisher was not enough to put the fire out. While this was going on, the marshalls were waving the other drivers by, to continue with the race. When Purley saw that he couldn't put the fire out, he began to desperately wave at the other drivers, to get them to stop and help him. Sadly, the marshall won the battle to control the other drivers.
After a final effort to right the car, he couldn't help. By now, spectators in the area began to climb into the track, but marshalls kept them out of the way.
At that stage, the fire engine set out to help Williamson. As was the rule at the time however, he was unable to go against the direction of the track. So, rather than go 200 yards against the grain, the driver was forced to complete a 2.6 mile lap of the circuit at 40mph to get to Williamson. It took nearly 10 minutes. During that time, Purley made further futile attempts to aid his team-mate, but he was forced to bow to the inevitable. Williamson was dead. It wasn't the weight of the car that killed him, nor was it the fire. Williamson died of asphyxiation, which means his death could have been saved had the marshalls been better equipped.
Purley then drove his car slowly back to the pits, where he would retire from the Grand Prix. When the fire engine arrived at Williamson's car, they put the fire out. Rather than attempt an awkward lift to safety, they decided to leave his car there, covered in a flame retardant sheet for the remainder of the race. Williamson was still in the car as the race went on. The Grand Prix was won in a formation finish for Tyrrell, with Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert recording the 1-2.
In the aftermath, pressure from riders like Stewart forced a change to safety regulations. Williamson's enduring legacy to Formula One was the introduction of the safety car in dangerous situations. Had their been a safety car at Zandvoort, then the fire engine could have got to Williamson within 30 seconds, and undoubtedly saved his life. The first time it was used in Formula One would be in Canada that year. The safety car driver was told to pick up the leading driver should it be needed. Unfortunately, it was an unsuccessful debut. When the safety car was called, everybody pitted. Because there was no car radio, the safety car driver now had no idea who the leader was as they all left the pits. Irrespective of that, the timekeepers (no electronic timing in those days) had no idea who was winning, so it was guesswork on everybody's part that Peter Revson was winning. Emerson Fittipaldi wasn't too happy with it (most of the crowd thought he was winning). This led to the safety car being removed again, although it was reintroduced shortly afterwards. Tragically, there would be another death at Watkins Glen (Francois Cevert) at the season ending race, prompting Jackie Stewart into retirement.
I don't believe the blame for the accident was officially accredited to anybody. It wasn't the marshalls fault that they were illequipped to help - their equipment was par for any motor racing course. It wasn't the fault of race control, because he had no camera showing him what had happened. All he saw was the fire, which could have been caused by anything. The problem was that in circumstances such as these, there were no provisions for safety. It didn't occur to anybody at the time that something might go this wrong.
David Purley won the George's Medal, the highest honour available to people who show bravery. Purley lived up to his reputation, however. He survived his own epic crash, a force calculated at nearly 200G, but then lost his life in an accident while flying his aeroplane.
Zandvoort is still used as a racing facility these days, but further changes to the track have taken place since then. The section of the track where Williamson crashed was changed in 1980, a chicane was added. It was felt necessary, as it was where Courage was killed when he lost control in 1970 and crashed into the dunes, resulting in his death. In 1986 however, F1 left Zandvoort. In the 1990s, Zandvoort became little more than a club circuit, but in 2000, it was revived to its former glory, with a new section of track designed to modernise the circuit. Formula One hasn't returned, but it's considered one of the better non-Championship circuits by racing fanatics.
Williamson is still remembered. At his home track Donington Park in Leicestershire, a statue was built to commemorate him, and it will be on full show when the British Grand Prix and Formula One returns to Donington in 2010.