Racing alongside the likes of James Hunt & Niki Lauda, Tom Pryce briefly looked like he might be one of the breakthrough stars of the 1970’s. Unfortunately, Pryce is better remembered for the crash in which he lost his life. On this, the 38th anniversary of his death on March 5th 1977, let’s look back on the life of a prominent newcomer in 70s F1.
As observant fans may have noticed during the Ron Howard movie Rush, the name ‘Pryce’ features on the list of race results during the film, but the driver himself is not acknowledged beyond that. Even during the driver’s meeting at the Nurburgring, in which the drivers argue with Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda, Pryce is not seen, not heard, and doesn’t feature even as a background character. A somewhat forgotten man, then, although perhaps discretion from the filmmakers was employed, based on the circumstances of Pryce’s death. Where Pryce is not forgotten though, is in the hearts of anyone who knew him, or saw him race, as the popular Welshman was a star in the making back in the mid-1970s.
Thomas Maldwyn Pryce was born in 1949 in Ruthin in Wales, son of Gwyneth and Jack. From a young age, Tom showed an interest in cars, especially once he managed to get behind the wheel of a bakers van in his hometown when he was ten. One of his childhood friends, Trefor Williams, remembers the early years of Tom’s career:
“We started off on our bicycles, even back then speed was the name of the game. We knew all the bumps in the road, where all the best hills were. Of course when we were 17, we got into cars. We probably could be described as naughty boys, or boy racers, speeding up and down the country lanes, although I wouldn’t recommend that now.
We had to watch out because the police would be forever after us, and Mald’s (Tom’s nickname) father was a policeman. He stood no messing. Even back then Mald seemed to be better than the rest of us, though we wouldn’t admit it at the time.”
Pryce began his motorsport career by entering the British Racing School, where ex F1 driver Trevor Taylor taught Pryce the basics of racing. Tom took to it straight away, and began competing in a series set up by the Motor Racing Stables specifically for racing school pupils. Using Lotus 51 Formula Ford cars, Tom won this series in 1970, and for his efforts, was given a Lola T202 to race.
It was at this point that Tom decided to give racing a go as a career, and left his farming job to relocate near Brands Hatch. Moving at breakneck speed through categories, he won the Formula F100 championship in 1971, and then Formula Super Vee in a Royale RP9, racing for Team Rumsey Investments.
Pryce was given a works F3 drive for 1972, driving for Team Rumsey, and won first time out. Racing at Brands Hatch in the support race for the Formula One Race of Champions, Pryce took a win so convincing, that many rivals, including James Hunt & Roger Williamson complained that the Welshman’s car must be underweight. It eventually transpired that the weighbridge at the circuit was incorrectly calibrated, and that every car in the race had been underweight!
Impressing, but retiring from the following two races at Oulton Park & Zandvoort, Pryce broke his leg at Monaco. Coming to a stop with an electrical problem in Casino Square, Tom was out of the car attempting to remedy the issue, when rival Peter Lamprough ran into the Royale, and Pryce himself was knocked clear, straight through a shop window, resulting in the injury. Fortunate to escape without anything more serious, he was back racing within weeks. Pryce also wrapped up the Super Vee championship, before Royale entered him into Formula Atlantic, where he won the final race of the year.
Royale had plans to enter Formula 2 with Pryce, but plans fell through, and with the owner of the company leaving, Pryce had to look elsewhere to continue his meteoric rise. He got his wish, racing in Formula 2 in 1973. Driving a Motul M1, Pryce was driving for Rondel Racing, which was run by ex-Brabham men Neil Trundle and Ron Dennis. Despite a relative lack of success, where 2nd place was his best result, Pryce won the Grovewood award that year for his driving efforts…an award he didn’t want, as he felt it was a ‘jinx’ on a driver’s career.
1974 arrived, and with it, Pryce got the call to Formula One. He entered with the Token Racing team, a team that rose from the ashes of the wound up Rondel Racing outfit. While it wasn’t a full campaign, Pryce got to drive at a non championship event at Silverstone, where a lack of aero parts, as well as reliability, saw Pryce retire early after lapping considerably off the pace. Monaco provided a high and a low point for Tom, as he was refused entry to the F1 race due to his inexperience, but raced in the F3 race instead for Ippokampus Racing, which he won by over twenty seconds.
Tom’s performance in 1974 were enough to cause Shadow Racing reason to sit up and notice this ferociously fast Welshman. He made his debut for the team midway through 1974, at Zandvoort, although he didn’t get far, colliding with Hans-Joachim Stuck on Lap 1.
Showing patches of speed, Pryce was almost as erratic as his cars pace, getting caught up in incidents with James Hunt, spinning off by himself at the Osterreichring, as well as mechanical problems in Canada and USA. However, Pryce did score his first F1 point, finishing 6th at the Nurburgring.
Despite a tumultuous 1974, Pryce found himself at the centre of the driver market for 1975, with Lotus & Shadow vying for his services. Financial difficulties at Lotus meant that they wanted to replace Ronnie Petersen for Pryce, while Shadow wanted to keep Pryce, but also wanted Petersen for the publicity he could bring to a fledgling team. Ultimately, both stayed at their respective teams, and Pryce soon showed that he was a force to be reckoned with, winning the non championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Qualifying 2nd at Monaco, and taking pole at Silverstone, Pryce’s star was in the ascendancy, and he very much looked to be the new British star on the rise. He also scored his first World Championship podium at the infamously wet Austrian Grand Prix, and wound up in 10th place in the championship at season end.
1976 was a year of ups and downs for Pryce. Third place in the opening round in Brazil was good, but he would only score points on two more occasions throughout the year, in Britain and Holland. The blame for the lack of competitiveness was put down to changes in technical regulations, as well as Shadow failing to bring out their new car until Round 12 at Zandvoort, scene of Tom’s final points position.
Shadow had begun to struggle financially by the start of 1977, although the signing of sponsored driver Renzo Zorzi eased some of the troubles away. No points were scored during the first two races of 77, and it was off to Kyalami in South Africa for Round 3 of the 1977 Championship.
Tom Pryce’s final race weekend got off to a good start, with the Shadow driver fastest in practice, even ahead of reigning Champion James Hunt. The rain eased off for raceday, and so did the competitiveness of the Shadow. On Lap 22, Zorzi pulled the sister car off to the side of the track with an engine failure. With flames at the back of the car, Zorzi was quickly out of the car, as marshals raced to attend to the scene. One of those marshals was 19 year old Jansen Van Vuuren, who ran across the track with a fire extinguisher.
The collision that ended Pryce’s life was shockingly violent. The pit straight at Kyalami rose to the crest of a hill, before descending down a straight into Turn 1. Zorzi’s car was pulled over just at the crest of the hill, and Tom Pryce, who was barrelling down the straight at full speed, crested that brow to find Jansen Van Vuuren running across the track. With nowhere to go, Pryce collided with the marshal, who was thrown to the side of the track, a mangled unrecognisable bloody mess.
Pryce might have survived the impact, if it hadn’t been for the fire extinguisher the marshal was carrying. The extinguisher struck his helmet with enough force to almost decapitate him, and that was the end of Tom Pryce. His car continued down the track, colliding with Jacques Laffite’s Ligier, before coming to a halt at Turn 1. The unrecognisable remains of the marshal were identified only once all the track marshals were assembled at race end, and a process of elimination determined the poor young man’s fate.
Hans Joachim Stuck, who was racing Pryce at the time, said: ‘As we got to the top I suddenly sensed this marshal running across the track from my right, carrying an extinguisher. I took a big chance and I don’t know how I got away with it. There was no time, I just reacted on pure instinct.’ David Tremayne, a British journalist and Pryce fan, said: ‘The tragedy itself – the sheer randomness of it – is so hard to take and still is. You tend to focus your anger on someone and for a long time it would be focused on a 19-year-old kid, called Jansen van Vuuren, who ran across the track.’
Childhood friend Trefor Williams said: “A few of us were planning to make arrangements to surprise him by turning up in the pits at Brands Hatch and shouting to him in Welsh. Sadly that never happened – it has always been my biggest regret.
I remember sitting at home watching Wales in the rugby when the match was interrupted by a bulletin breaking the news about Mald’s death. It was a devastating blow. I was asked to be a pall bearer at the funeral but I couldn’t do it, I was just too emotional.’
Tom Pryce left behind a widow, Fenella, who he had married in 1975. Two years after his wedding, he was buried in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s, the venue for his nuptials. Wales introduced the Tom Pryce Award, an award which is given to Welsh companies or persons who have made a valuable contribution to motor engineering, motoring, or transport in general.
Ruthin, Pryce’s hometown in Wales, commissioned a memorial plaque to Tom in it’s town centre, and this was unveiled on the 11 June 2009, on the date of what would have been Tom’s 60th birthday. Dave Richard’s of Prodrive, as well as Team Principal of BAR Honda in the early 2000’s was a member of the fundraising committee for the memorial, and Bernie Ecclestone also helped to raise money for the cause by auctioning race passes in 2008.
The question marks over what Pryce could have achieved had he lived are numerous. His replacement at Shadow following his death was little known Australian driver Alan Jones. Jones was to win a race before year end, and was World Champion three years later, racing for Williams. Pryce’s early formula involvement with Ron Dennis may also have meant an involvement with McLaren when the Project 4 era began in 1980, assuming that Pryce had maintained his ever upward rise in motor racing. Could he have been one of the big names of the late 70s/early 80s, and would his name have been uttered in the same breath as the likes of Lauda, Andretti, Scheckter & Villeneuve?