David Purley - Top Racer, Top Bloke

FB

Not my cup of cake
Valued Member
Following Siffert Fans Rob Walker article I thought it worth posting a thread on one of F1's other gentlemen. I have to admit to having borrowed the title from here, a link well worth following to see some great cars from the 60's and 70's. I have some personal recollections of Purely and his life and career as he came from Bognor Regis, only a few miles away from my home town.

For those that don't know about David Purley, he is famous in F1 circles for two incidents. The first happened at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1973, a particular low point for F1. Roger Williamson crashed on lap 8, his car turned upside down and caught fire. Purley parked his car close by and ran to try and get Williamson out who was still alive. Despite there being a marshal's station close by they weren't equipped with fire resistant clothing and Purley was unable to turn the car over on his own. A fire truck, only a few hundred metres from the crash was not allowed to to drive against the direction of the race and Williamson died in the fire. For his efforts Purely was awarded the George Medal for bravery, not much consolation for the loss of his fellow driver.

In terms of his racing career Purely was quite successful in F3, F2 and F5000 - winning the British F5000 title in 1976. He first tried his hand in F1 in a rented March at Monaco in 1973, with backing from his father's LEC refrigeration company. His highest placing was ninth at the Italian Grand Prix. He entered 1 race, the British Grand Prix, in 1974 but failed to qualify.

For 1977 Purely commissioned Mike Pilbeam (he of the hill climb cars fame, amongst other things) and Mike Earle (Purley's team manager in F5000) to build and enter an F1 car under the LEC Refrigeration banner. The team had barely started on the F1 trail before Purely had a huge accident at Silverstone whilst practising for the British Grand Prix. The throttle stuck open and he hit a wall at over 100 mph, the car stopped in 66cm and this, for many years, was considered to be the highest G Force ever survived by a human being at 179.8G. The wreck is on display at the Donington Park museum (I'll post picture when I track it down). It is astonishing to think anyone could have survived this accident.

Amazingly Purley went on to race again in the Aurora AFX British F1 championship in 1979. This was his last hurrah in a racing car and Purley instead turned to running the family business and flying stunt aircraft. He died in a plane crash in 1985 in his stunt plane.

Apart from being a Top Racer and Top Bloke Purley, in his formative years, was in the parachute regiment and saw active service in Aden.

Quite a life and quite a man.
 

Chad Stewarthill

Champion Elect
Contributor
FB said:The throttle stuck open and he hit a wall at over 100 mph, the car stopped in 66cm and this, for many years, was considered to be the highest G Force ever survived by a human being at 179.8G. The wreck is on display at the Donington Park museum (I'll post picture when I track it down). It is astonishing to think anyone could have survived this accident.
Yes, I went to the Donington museum earlier this year and couldn't believe anyone could have survived in that wreck. It's like the car had been put through a scrapyard vehicle crusher.

And I still have vague memories of the Roger Williamson crash; I would have been a teenager then, in my formative years in F1 terms. It's easy to forget just how lethal the sport was in those days.
 

siffert_fan

Too old to watch the Asian races live.
Contributor
Great posting. FB

I wasn't aware that Purley had received the George Medal, which he richly deserved. Just as Mike Hailwood did for his actions in similar circumstances.

The Williamson accident was terribly similar to the one that claimed the life of Jo Siffert at Brands Hatch. He survived the impact but was trapped in a burning car. None of the marshalls had working fire extinguishers so Siffert died of smoke inhalation. It was very disturbing to me at the the time of the Williamson accident that seemingly nothing had changed.

I have never understood why they did not throw a red flag and stop that race so the fire tender could get to the scene sooner. Any info on that?
 

cider_and_toast

Exulted Lord High Moderator of the Apex
Staff member
Premium Contributor
The most comprehensive account of the tragic loss of Roger Williamson's life I have ever read is in a book called "The Lost Generation" that looks into the deaths of not only Roger Williamson but also Tom Pryce and Tony Brise. Its a superb book and well worth getting.

If I remember correctly, all though race control could see smoke on the far side of the circuit the telephone at the nearest marshalls post wasn't working.

Most of the cars that drove past the scene of the accident saw David Purley standing by the car and assumed that the crashed car was his and that he was out and ok hence none of the others stopped to help.

Several fans attempted to jump the fence and cross the track to assisst Purley in his efforts however a couple of police or security men pushed them back and prevented them from getting anywhere near the car.
 

FB

Not my cup of cake
Valued Member
Not much I can add to CaT's summary of what happened although you might be interested to read the report from the John Player Yearbook for that year on Williamson's accident:

"Two laps later, the race itself became an irrelevancy as a sequence of bitter and needless tragedy began.

The chill, unemotional facts are these. Roger Williamson, in thirteenth place, swerved into an outside guard rail. There is photographic evidence which clearly suggest that a tread stripped from one of his tyres. The much vaunted guard rails bent back at a useless angle and the March ran along the rail, ripping away one of the fuel pods to land upside down on the track. The car caught fire and Williamson was trapped. Only David Purley rushed to his aid. He appealed to spectators to help him in his grim task but they were reportedly held back. There was a fire engine parked just dwon the road but, as the race wasn't halted, it didn't attempt to come to Williamson's aid against the flow of race traffic. So Purley was left to fight alone against a fire which suddenly gained hold and rendered his personal heroism useless.

It was an horrific catalogue of ineptitude that was justifiably painted as callousness in the sad and savage bout of recriminations that followed. But nothing that was said could disguise the fact that a young and immensely personable driver had perished in cruel and needless circumstances. The horror was compounded by the distressing TV pictures ever recorded at a motor race. No one present had much stomach for the rest of the proceedings but the race went on despite the frantic fist waving of Denny Hulme who made his feelings known to the officials in fierce fashion"

On Purley, attached a couple of pictures of the LEC before and after his accident at Silverstone.
 

slickskid

Points Scorer
Supporter
Great post :thumbsup:

It's almost ironic that whilst looking on youtube at the weekend for items completed unrelated i stumbled upon several relating to the Roger Williamson incident some with more graphic photography than others, hardly suprising given it was television coverage at the time. It just acts as a stark reminder of how dangerous the sport is and how far safety measures have come since then.

I've posted one of these below not for the incident itself but for his brief comments the day after the event (at the end) but first is an interview with one Murry Walker in 79 about his silverstone crash in 77 and upcoming outing in the race at Brands Hatch.


 

Flood1

Rookie
I do not know what to say. I find it easy to talk about a driver's bravery, he was truly a great man who had a very good understanding of what a man should do. But I find it difficult to talk of the poor performance of race officials, and I am stunned at Purley's perfect effort was unsupported. Even though he did not save Williamson, he put in an effort that shamed everyone else.

Like others here, I have watched races where very good men died. I understand the risks, but I personally felt every death. Each lost driver hardended my hearrt, and when Jackie Stewart stepped forward to promote change, and when Doc Watkins followed through and forced change, I then could watch F1 knowing that good men would not die due to inepitude.

It is dangerous and men will still die, but it will not be because the officials, the doctors, the marshals, the rescues crews are not prepared. It will be cause of freak circumstances.

I can accept that fact. I cannot accept that a lack of preparation, planning, and expertise leads to deaths. Today, that is not a concern
 

sportsman

Sidecar racers have the biggest cojones
Contributor
And even today some people say F1 is too safe.
I remember that day only too well.And Purleys brave efforts to rescue Williamson.And yet still nothing was done by the FIA to improve safety.

This not my own report although I actually witnessed this truly horrific sight live at Monza in 1978.
The sight of James Hunt appealing for help and Sid Watkins being forcibly kept back by the police I never wish to see again.

"It is hard to believe that 22 years have passed since Ronnie Peterson died, following a multi-car pile up at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. This accident was a milestone in Formula One safety, and despite the tragic loss of one of the greatest drivers of the Seventies, many good things happened in the aftermath of the accident."

http://www.atlasf1.com/2000/ita/preview/peterson.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHb8xHfs0e8&NR=1
I left the video as link so the mods can delete it easily if they think it breaks house rules
 

teabagyokel

#dejavu
Valued Member
I have to say it is heart-renderingly tragic that this article praising F1's safety came in a preview of the 2000 Italian Grand Prix.

It just shows that complacency should be avoided at all costs.
 
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