Today is Saint David’s day, Wales’ celebration of their patron saint, so Badger is casting an eye back in to motor racing’s days of yore and taking a look at the greatest Welshman to grace the world of Formula One.
Unlike the other British nations Wales has never had a Grand Prix success story. England can boast a record eight world champions, including the last two; Scotland has two in triple-champion Jackie Stewart and the brilliant Jim Clark; whilst Northern Ireland can lay claim to two championship runners-up in Eddie Irvine and John Watson. Wales has produced just three Formula One drivers, none of whom managed a race win. However one of them was a brilliantly talented racer, and would surely have gone on to great success had his life not been cut tragically short at the South African Grand Prix of 1977.
That man was Tom Pryce. Born in the North Wales town of Ruthin in 1949, Tom began racing in the late sixties, climbing the ladder to F1 via Formula Vee and Formula 3. Whilst chasing his grand prix dream Tom also did an apprenticeship in tractor mechanics. In typical pragmatic Welsh fashion his mother had insisted on this, as a fallback should his F1 plans not come to fruition.
But Pryce’s talents were too great to go unnoticed and by the mid-seventies he’d reached Formula One. His debut came at the Belgian Grand Prix of 1974, driving for the underfunded Token team. At the next race in Monaco he was denied entry due to fears over his lack of experience, and so took a step down and competed in the supporting Formula 3 race. He won it convincingly, putting an end to any questions over his ability to compete in F1.
He also bagged a better drive, switching to the Shadow team from the Dutch Grand Prix onwards. Third on the grid at the following race in France, behind only Niki Lauda and Ronnie Peterson, impressed many, though his race ended in a tangle with James Hunt. He took a single points finish that year with 6th at the German Grand Prix and remained at Shadow for 1975. It was a year that showed yet more promise, with 5 points finishes, including a podium at the Austrian Grand Prix. During that season Pryce also won the ‘Race of Champions’, a non-points paying event held in July, where he beat F1 stars Ronnie Peterson and Emerson Fittipaldi to claim victory.
1976 started brightly, with 3rd place at the opening round in Brazil. However it would not be until the ninth round of the championship, at his home race in Britain, that Pryce added more points. 4th place there and again at the Dutch Grand Prix saw him finish the year on 10 points, and 12th in the championship.
For 1977 he remained with Shadow, a team he felt very much at home with, and had high hopes for the season ahead. At 27 he was still young, had shown great promise and was increasingly coming to the attention of some of F1’s big hitters. The first two rounds, in Argentina and Brazil, had both brought non-finishes, and so Pryce arrived at round 3 in South Africa hoping to kick-start his season.
Things started well as Pryce posted the quickest lap in the wet practice session, but he qualified a disappointing 15th on the grid. 22 laps in to the race a tragic set of events would see Pryce and a young fire marshal lose their lives.
On lap 21 Pryce’s teammate, Renzo Zorzi, parked by the side of the track, his car smoking ominously. The Italian leapt from his stricken racer and was joined by a fire marshal. Another marshal, 19 year-old Jansen van Vuuren, was making his way to the scene, running across the track- but a dip in the circuit left him unsighted by Pryce. As he began lap 22 The Welshman hit the marshal, was knocked unconscious by the fire extinguisher and, with his throttle jammed open, continued down the circuit before connecting with a wall. Both were killed almost instantly.
His peers described Pryce as quiet, down-to-earth and honest; someone who endeared himself to the jet set personalities of Formula One without ever losing touch with the people of his hometown. His death was a tragic accident- no driver error, no mechanical failure, just plain bad luck.
In recent years calls for a permanent memorial to Pryce in his hometown of Ruthin began to grow. Among those supporting the plan were former Benetton and BAR team principal- and fellow Welshman- Dave Richards, with whom Pryce had competed in rallying during the seventies; 1996 Formula One world champion Damon Hill; and his local newspaper the Denbighshire Free Press. Money was raised by auctioning tickets and paddock passes for Grand Prix, provided by F1 teams, during the 2009 season.
On June 11th that year, what would have been Pryce’s 60th birthday, the memorial- an engraved bronze mural of the man and his cars- was unveiled. His mother Gwyneth and his widow Nella were joined at the unveiling by Richards and former F1 rival John Watson. It stands on the junction between Clwyd Street and Upper Clwyd Street in Ruthin, a lasting tribute to a much-missed husband and son, and a lost star of Formula One.
So today, on the day his country remembers her patron saint, Badger is remembering Tom Pryce, the great-unfulfilled talent of British motor sport.
Thirty years on Wales is yet to produce another F1 driver, but Formula 3 hopeful Alex Jones is hoping to put that right. He talked exclusively to Badger, and you can read all about it here.
Badger would like to sincerely thank Bob Costain, member of the Tom Pryce Memorial Trust, for the images of Tom’s memorial and details, and Natalie Jones of the Denbighshire Free Press for assistance and kindness.