A look at one of the unsung heroes of Formula One…
David Purley. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that name but perhaps that shouldn’t be the case. David Purley competed in just 11 grand prix (qualifying for 7 of them) and never scored a championship point; in fact his best finish was a mere 9th place in the 1973 Italian grand prix at Monza. However, if world championships were handed out for bravery and heroic actions then there would have been no need to hold another world championship event after the Dutch grand prix of 1973; they would have declared David Purley world champion then and forever more.
Bravery has always played a part in Formula one; it’s a necessary character trait in order to be a successful racer and it’s partly the reason why grand prix drivers are idolised and respected by so many fans. However, the definition and levels required have changed over the decades with the advancement of safety within the sport. In 2011, potentially the bravest thing we witnessed was Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso battling side by side and wheel to wheel through Eau Rouge, arguably motor racing’s most daunting corner. The slightest error or misjudgment by either driver would have seen both involved in a huge accident. But what we have come to expect is that both drivers will climb from the wreckage, shake fists at each other and walk back to the pits.
Walking away from an accident hasn’t always been an option and to show bravery hasn’t always been the simple decision whether to overtake or not…
At the time David Purley entered formula one it was calculated that you had a 1 in 3 chance of not stepping out of an F1 car once you had stepped into it. Fatalities were part of the sport and a risk that all who took part accepted. Drivers would crash and drivers would die but the show would go on, albeit often with muted celebrations out of respect for those who had perished. David Purley however, was not ready to accept death as part of the sport so willingly and showed, in remarkable fashion, at the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 that there are things more important than motor racing. If the show must go on then nobody told David Purley.
The Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 saw the return of the Zandvoort race track, absent from the previous year’s calendar due to revisions being made to the facility in order to improve safety. It also saw the second Grand Prix start for the young, promising, British driver Roger Williamson. Whilst Purley was considered as just another British peddler having a stab at F1, Williamson was seen as something altogether more special: he’d won Formula Three titles in Britain in 1971 and ’72, and his ascension to F1 in ’73 was seen as the beginning of a great career at the top of the sport.
However, during the race Williamson suffered a sudden tyre deflation, which pitched him into the barriers at high speed, flipping the car upside down and catapulting it 300 yards across the track against the barriers on the other side. Williamson’s car came to a rest upside down and ablaze with the young driver alive but unable to extricate himself from the burning car.
Having witnessed the dramatic collision and with no regard for his own race result or indeed his own safety, Purley parked his car at the side of the track and ran with the instinctive courage expected of the former officer in the British army towards the inferno that was Williamson’s March 731. Inept and poorly equipped Marshals and rescue crews stood by helplessly as Williamson could be heard screaming for help from within the wreckage, while Purley hurled himself repeatedly at the burning heap in an attempt to right the car and free Williamson.
Drivers had reacted this way before and men had been saved; Graham Hill famously abandoned a healthy car to free Jackie Stewart from his over turned BRM in 1966 but never before had images of such heroics been caught live by television cameras and broadcast to thousands. The images of David Purley’s attempt to save the life of a fellow racer sent home the message that this was a dangerous sport and young men risked their lives in the pursuit of glory, all to satisfy a powerful passion.
Sadly, Purley’s attempts at righting the car and extinguishing the fire with the sole extinguisher available were futile and Roger Williamson died from asphyxiation. Formula One had lost another prince from within its kingdom of speed and while success wouldn’t arrive for Purley, respect most certainly would, along with the George Cross medal for gallantry but all that would be scant consolation for the loss of a fellow racer.
The 23 year old Williamson had a bright future ahead of him and his loss along with others in motor racing that year became a catalyst for a new focus on safety in Formula One. At the final race of the 1973 season, Formula one lost another rising star in Francois Cevert, team mate to Jackie Stewart, prompting the immediate retirement of the triple world champion and the start of his efforts along with others to improve the safety greatly within the sport. Things would change and thankfully the actions of David Purley would no longer be needed but that time of remarkable improvement was a long way away and sadly too late for Williamson and the other drivers who would perish behind the wheel of a racing car.
At the British Grand Prix of 1977 safety hadn’t improved by much and so during pre-qualifying when Purley’s throttle jammed opened he hit a wall at an estimated 108mph. Reports from the time suggest he decelerated to nought within 26 inches and it was believed Purley suffered G-forces of around 180g, the highest a human being had ever survived. Purley recovered from fractured legs, pelvis and ribs to race again but not in top flight motorsport.
Following his retirement from motor racing, Purley turned his attention to another passion; competition aerobatics, no surprise for the man who had once been Britain’s youngest pilot. On the 2nd of July 1985 his Pitts Special aerobatic biplane suffered a technical fault and crashed into the sea near Purley’s birth place of Bognor Regis. The man who had been considered a hero on many occasions died instantly.
Today he is remembered largely for his actions at Zandvoort in ’73; for the look of desperate hopelessness on his face as he walked away from Williamson’s burning car and for his heroic attempts to save the life of a fellow competitor.
Memorials do exist for David Purley but perhaps a greater memorial would be to remember him when considering the great drivers our sport has seen; a man’s greatness is not always measured by his success but rather by his depth of character, and David Purley had plenty of that.