40 years ago today, the motorsport community lost a rising star. A quiet, unassuming but supremely talented Welshman, Tom Pryce was killed in the most bizarre of circumstances at the South African Grand Prix, held at the Kyalami race track.
After a successful career in junior formulae, Pryce made the step up to Formula One in 1974 with newly formed Token Racing Team. Whilst some sited the financial backing of Titan Properties, it was evident that Pryce was a natural talent, despite his lack of experience. The underpowered Token, coupled with a lack of track time, led to two DNF’s and an exclusion from the Monaco Grand Prix of 1974, due to ‘inexperience’. However, Pryce attended the race, drove in the F3 category for Ippokampos Racing in a March 743 – and won the race by 20.8 seconds.
Following on from that brilliant F3 victory Pryce was signed to Shadow to replace Brian Redman (who himself, replaced Peter Revson). At the Dutch Grand Prix, he qualified 0.4 seconds slower than his team mate – who’d been with the team since the start of the 1973 season. Pryce was quick, reliable and drove the Shadow to the extent of his ability – even if that mean colliding with competitors to protect his corner. He achieved his first point of his career later that year at the Nurburgring, finishing 6th after an event filled race.
1975 arrived and Pryce stayed on at Shadow, even if speculation abounded that he was to join the Lotus Team under the leadership of Colin Chapman. Financial difficulties were the reason cited, however it never eventuated – and Pryce stayed with Shadow. It was in 1975 that Pryce won the non-championship ‘Race of Champions’ at Brands Hatch, the first Welshman to do so. As it was a non-championship round, it is not classified in the history books – which is a real shame.
The Shadow DN5, vastly improved from the DN3, allowed Pryce to qualify on pole position for Silverstone and on the front row of the grid in Monaco. It also allowed him to stand tall on the podium, finishing third in an extremely wet Austrian Grand Prix. More points finishes rounded out a year of mixed results, including a race at the Nurburgring that almost left him blinded after race fuel continued to leak into the cockpit of his car.
In 1976, Pryce started the season in full fighting spirit, finishing third at the Argentinian Grand Prix. At Kyalami and Long Beach, he was competitive, however changes in car regulations meant the Shadow DN5B had to be heavily revised, further complicated by having to use Goodyear tyres. This made for a difficult season for Shadow, with Pryce scoring his final world championship point after the introduction of the DN8 at Zandvoort in the twelfth round of the season.
Tom Pryce was to begin his final race weekend at the 1977 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. He set the fastest time of the day during a practice session in wet conditions on the Wednesday, a time of 1.31.570, a full second quicker than 1976 champion Niki Lauda. However as the week went on and the track dried, Pryce slipped down the order, qualifying in fifteenth for the race.
At the start of the race, the Shadow DN8 bogged down, sending Pryce to the back of the grid. Over the course of the next few laps, skillful driving saw Pryce pass Brett Lunger and team mate Renzo Zorzi with ease and carve his way through the field. By lap 18, Pryce had moved from 22nd to 13th place.
By lap 22, a series of events would unfold that would take the life of the talented Welshman.
After having problems with his fuel metering unit, Zorzi pulled off to the left hand side of the track. With fuel flowing uninhibited into the engine, Zorzi desperately tried to free himself from the cockpit, trapped by his oxygen pipe that was connected to his helmet. As Zorzi struggled to free himself, the DN8 burst into flames.
Watching on from the opposite side of the circuit, two young fire marshals leapt into action. Against the rules of the time – and against better judgement – 25 year old Bill and 19 year old Frederick sprinted out from behind the safety of the concrete walling and across the circuit, both carrying 18kg fire extinguishers. Bill made it safely across, just as Hans Joachim Stuck and Tom Pryce came over the brow of the rise in the circuit.
Pryce was following Stuck, charging hard and expecting to overtake in the first corner. As Stuck topped the apex of the brow, he saw Bill and then Frederick, acting quickly to miss the second marshal. From his position, Pryce could not see why Stuck deviated and was unable to react.
At approximately 270 kilometers per hour, Pryce collided with the 19 year old Frederick.
Frederick died on impact, his lifeless body catapulted into the air, landing at the side of the circuit by the stricken Zorzi. The 18kg extinguisher that Frederick had been carrying smashed directly into Pryce’s head before striking the Shadow’s roll hoop, sending it airbourne into the carpark. The force of the impact was at such a force that Pryce’s death was instantaneous.
Pryce’s Shadow DN8 continued at speed down the main straight after the impact, veering to the right and scraping the metal barriers before darting back out on the circuit and colliding with the Ligier of Jacques Laffite. Both cars speared off the circuit, coming to rest in the gravel trap at turn one.
Pryce’s death – and its horrific nature – were met with shock and grief from all of those who knew him. Pryce was a rising star in Formula One and had a great deal of respect within the Formula One Paddock. His unassuming nature, his can-do attitude and his natural ability were all pointers towards a long career in the series.
Tom Pryce is buried at St Bartholomew’s Church in Otford, Kent.