Formula One racing currently has a sterling reputation for safety. After decades of increasing safety regulations and technological innovations, there are no rubberneckers left. Nobody watches an F1 race hoping to catch a deadly crash live. Only real fans of F1 racing tune in, knowing that even a nasty wreck will likely end in the driver walking away with few injuries.
Safety measures have risen in racing, as horrifying tragedies sent racing on a path of reform. But drivers and fans have long pushed back against certain safety improvements. It took an era of deadly accidents to convince F1. One of the worst was the heartbreaking loss of superstar driver Roger Williamson.
Roger Williamson’s Formula One rise
Williamson was, as reported in ASAG, a rapidly rising young star in the rarefied air of the 1970s F1 scene. Born February 2nd, 1948, he grew up racing karts, race minis, and eventually a Ford Anglia. In 1971, he switched gears to Formula Three and quickly racked up three titles. That caught the attention of the wealthy investors required to work up into F1 itself.
Millionaire Tom Wheatcroft got to the front of the line by buying Williamson his first F1 engine. Soon after, as the pair got to know each other, they became friendly. Wheatcroft became a mentor figure for Williamson, helping him through his racing life while giving advice on his personal life.
His young driver’s F1 debut was marked by a foreboding incident. After qualifying at 22nd — a big accomplishment for a first-time entrant — the race itself ending in a massive nine car pileup. Williamson’s was in the middle of the mess. Unhurt, he prepared to get back to the track as soon as possible.
The terrible day that ended Williamson’s career
The arc of Williamson’s career continued to swing upwards. Two weeks after a crash robbed him of his first F1 race, he qualified 18th for the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Circuit. This was, by F1 standards, signs of a phenom emerging. The mental setback of his maiden race being dashed did nothing to stop his consistent rise.
It was the inaugural race at the renovated track, which had been rebuilt to higher safety standards after a lethal wreck involving driver Piers Courage, Twisted Sifter reports. Courage died from a suspension breakdown and was killed instantly in the collision. His car burst into flames shortly afterward.
That kind of scene should’ve been familiar to the proprietors of the track. Williamson made it through eight steady laps, then his rear-left tire gave out. The resulting crash caused his fuel tank to rupture, engulfing him in flames. But unlike Courage, he was not killed on impact.
Roger Williamson’s horrifying, preventable death
As flames and smoke billowed from Williamson’s wreck, race officials simply deployed yellow caution flags. This act of thoughtlessness would haunt the sport for years to come. Instead of the people tasked to care for their drivers’ safety, it was another driver who realized the severity of Williamson’s situation.
Vice Sports‘ retelling of the incident points out that while officials waved drivers to slow down and move on, driver David Purley had to take it upon himself to act. He pulled over his car and darted across the track, attempting to lift the flaming vehicle with his hands. It was too heavy for him to handle on his own.
But no help came. Due to the yellow caution flags, emergency vehicles weren’t deployed. Purley, now hurt himself, had to retreat. He heard Williamson’s shouts for help as he did so. Race marshals, with no protective gear, stood in shock. The incident became widely considered a preventable death, the tragedy compounded by the victim being just 25 years old.
Losing Williamson was too much to bear for Wheatcroft. “He didn’t just lose a driver, he lost part of the will to live; he lost part of the passion for motorsport,” his son Kevin said in Vice Sports.
F1, for its part, attempted to plan for similar disasters, but the breadth of the problem was too big. After a series of infamous driver deaths, culminating in Ayrton Senna in 1994, a combination of technology and a new resolve to keep drivers safe led the sport to new territory. Only one driver has died during an official F1 event since.