Tom Pryce PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 28 October 2008 11:28

Thomas Maldwyn Pryce

Born: 11 June 1949

Died: 5 March 1977

Age: 28

Cause of death: Bizarre racing accident where 19 year old marshal ran across track carrying 40 pound Fire extinguisher, to be hit at 170 mph, causing decapitation of the driver.

Notable because: Trophy hunters ghouls stole the wedding ring from his body whilst in transit to hospital.


Tom Pryce was a British racing driver from Ruthin, Wales. He was famous for winning the Brands Hatch Race of Champions (a non-championship Formula One race) in 1975 and for the circumstances surrounding his death. Pryce is the only Welsh driver to have won a Formula One race and is also the only Welshman to lead a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix: two laps of the 1975 British Grand Prix.

Pryce started his career in Formula One with the small Token team, making his only start for them at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. Shortly after an impressive performance at the Formula Three support race for the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix, Pryce joined the Shadow team and scored his first points in Germany in only his fourth race. Pryce later claimed two podium finishes, his first in Austria in 1975 and the second in Brazil a year later. Pryce was considered by his team as a great wet weather driver. During the practice session for the 1977 South African GP, run in wet conditions, Pryce was faster than everyone, including world champion drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Pryce's third full season at Shadow was cut short by his fatal accident at the 1977 South African Grand Prix, where he collided at high speed with track marshal Frederik Jansen Van Vuuren.

In 2007, it was announced that a statue of Pryce would be erected in his home town of Ruthin by the local council to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. On the 23rd January 2008, the Trust Fund members met in the Rhuthun Castle Hotel, under the chairmanship of David Richards (Prodrive), to discuss the progress of the intended memorial to be placed in Upper Clwyd Street in Rhuthun. After a positive meeting, moves are afoot to have this monument in place before the end of this year.

Tom Pryce was born in Ruthin, Denbighshire, Wales to Jack and Gwyneth Pryce. Jack had worked in the Royal Air Force, as a tailgunner on a Lancaster bomber, before joining the local police force. Gwyneth was a district nurse. Pryce's older brother, David, died at the age of three leaving Tom an only child for much of the time he was growing up, although his parents did foster a young girl called Sandra for a while.

Pryce took an interest in cars while driving a baker's van at the age of 10, before informing his parents that he wanted to be a racing driver. However, during an interview with Alan Henry in 1975, he stated that he had wanted to become a pilot, but thought he was not intelligent enough. Like many future Formula One drivers, Pryce had a childhood racing hero. In his case it was Lotus' Scottish driver Jim Clark. Pryce's mother recalled that he was very upset when Clark died at the Hockenheimring in the Spring of 1968. His father also noted that "he was very upset when Jochen Rindt was killed, too". After he left school at 16, Pryce's mother insisted on him taking an apprenticeship as a tractor mechanical at Llandrillo Technical College, giving him "something to fall back on", as she put it, if his career as a racing driver was not successful.

In 1975 Pryce married Fenella, more commonly known as Nella, whom he met at a disco in Otford in 1973. Following the death of her husband, Nella went on to run an antiques store in Fulham with Janet Brise, Tony Brise's widow.

Tom Pryce's helmet design was, in comparison to later drivers', basic. His helmet was white all over until, in 1970, when Pryce was racing at Castle Combe, his father asked Tom to make his helmet stand out more so that he could identify him in a pack of cars. Pryce added five black vertical lines to his helmet, placed just above his visor. From that time the only change to this design was the addition of a Welsh flag to the side of his helmet in 1974. Goodyear was the only sponsor name ever to appear on Pryce's helmet.

Pryce's first steps into motor racing came at the Mallory Park circuit in Leicestershire when he was 20 years old. Pryce was put through his paces by Trevor Taylor, an ex-Team Lotus driver and old team mate of Pryce's childhood hero Clark. He later became a star in the Formula 5000 series. From there, Pryce went on to compete in the Daily Express Crusader Championship, a series run by Motor Racing Stables for racing school pupils using Lotus 51 Formula Ford cars. Races alternated between the Brands Hatch and Silverstone circuits, Pryce made his debut at the former. "The races were £35 a time. But I sold my Mini and my parents offered all the help and encouragement I could wish for" Pryce recalled to Alan Henry.

The prize for the overall winner of the series was a Formula Ford Lola T200 worth £1,500. The series was decided at the last round, held at Silverstone, the day before the 1970 Formula One International Trophy. Pryce qualified on the third row for the race, which was held in rainy weather. Jack Pryce remembered that his son was rubbing his hands in delight: "he always loved racing in the rain". The early part of the race was led by a driver called Chris Smith but then heavy rain started and Pryce was able to catch up to Smith and overtake him before winning the race by a comfortable margin. He was given his prize Lola by Sir Max Aitken.

Pryce took his new car to Brands Hatch, where he was allowed to house it in one of the old stables at the bottom of the paddock. Pryce soon abandoned his farming career and moved to a guesthouse in West Kingsdown, near the Brands Hatch circuit. Pryce continued to make a name for himself during 1971, entering a new twin-seater Sportscar category called Formula F100, which he won with what was described by motorsports author David Tremayne as "embarrassing ease". He then moved up to Formula Super Vee, driving the then choice car a Royale RP9, for Team Rumsey Investments, and soon made his Formula Three debut for the same manufacturer at Brands Hatch.

"I was fiddling about with the car when I suddenly saw Peter Lamplough coming straight towards me. I just couldn't believe it - I froze on the spot. The next thing I remember is being picked out of a shop window, where my car had been hurled by the impact"
Tom Pryce

In that race at Brands Hatch, Pryce took an unfancied Royale RP11 to first place in the Formula Three support race for the 1972 Formula One Race of Champions against many established Formula Three drivers such as Roger Williamson, Jochen Mass and James Hunt. So large was Pryce's advantage at the end of the race, many of the other teams voiced an opinion that Pryce's car had run the race underweight, although it turned out that the circuit's weighbridge certificate had expired and everyone's cars had in fact been underweight. Pryce retired from the leading group in the following two rounds at Oulton Park and Zandvoort, and then during practice for the support race of the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix his car came to a stop at Casino Square after a wire had come loose. He had exited his car to correct the problem when Peter Lamplough lost control of his car and struck the Royale RP11. Pryce was knocked into a shop window and broke a leg.

The Welshman was back in action two weeks after his incident in Monaco. Pryce also ran in the Formula SuperVee series, winning the series by a comfortable margin, "I won just about every race I went in for" Pryce recalled. A run with Royale's Formula Atlantic works team was also in store for Pryce during 1972, where he took pole position for the final three rounds of the championship and won the final round at Brand Hatch.

He continued racing in Formula Atlantic in 1973, winning three races. Royale soon had plans to enter Formula Two, such was the Welshman's talent. The ambition to run in the Formula Two championship was planned to be financially fuelled by a Liechtenstein driver Manfred Schurti. However, these plans only resulted in one of Royale's F2 cars being built before the project was scrapped and Bob King, the head of Royale, leaving the company.

Following an invitation to test of his cars, Pryce found himself racing in the Formula Two series with Ron Dennis' Rondel Racing outfit, his best result for the team came at the Norisring where he was leading the race until a brake failure meant he had to give up first place to team mate Tim Schenken. At the end of 1973, Pryce won the Grovewood award for his efforts during the year. Jack Pryce recalled that his son did not want to win the award, as he thought it was "a jinx on a driver's career".

At the age of 25, Pryce graduated to Formula One, the highest category of circuit racing defined by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), motorsport's world governing body, joining the newly formed Token Racing team. The team itself was created by Tony Vlassopulos and Ken Grob after the original Token team closed down in 1973 due to a lack of financial backing; which lead to the end of the Rondel Racing outfit. Pryce was given the seat thanks to his backing from Titan Properties and, what David Tremayne described as, "evident promise". Pryce made his debut for the team at the BRDC International Trophy, a non-championship Formula One event held at Silverstone, but lack of an airbox and an engine cover, along with his shortage of experience in the car, made him the slowest driver of the 16 competitors during qualifying: 26 seconds slower than James Hunt's Hesketh in pole position. The Welshman retired 15 laps into the race with a gear linkage problem. Pryce's World Championship debut came at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix, where he qualified in 20th place, 3 seconds slower then the fastest time set by Clay Regazzoni. Once again, he failed to finish, completing 66 laps before retiring after a collision with Jody Scheckter's Tyrrell left the RJ02's front-left wishbone broken.

Pryce was refused entry to the 1974 Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, as he was deemed "inexperienced". Instead, Pryce took part in the supporting Formula 3 race, driving for Ippokampos Racing, in a March 743, which he won by 20.8 seconds.


Following his impressive drive in Monaco, and a short spell in Formula Two, Pryce was signed by Shadow as replacement for Brian Redman, who had in turn replaced the late Peter Revson. Pryce made his debut for the team at Zandvoort; retiring on the first lap after a collision with Hans Joachim Stuck. Pryce qualified fourth in his second Grand Prix for the team in France, but a collision with James Hunt meant yet another early exit. Later in the season, Pryce received 100 bottles of champagne for finishing fastest in the practice session for his home Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. He went on to qualify on the fourth row of the starting grid.

"I think that people who are involved in motor racing and have achieved something, have an ability to spot talent. It was abundantly clear that Tom's ability was above and beyond most of his contemporaries."
John Watson

Pryce scored the first point of his career in the 1974 German Grand Prix, after finishing 6th from 11th on the grid, he then qualified in 16th for the next Grand Prix in Austria, but spun off on lap 22, ending his race. Although he qualified in 22nd place for the Italian Grand Prix, Pryce finished 12 places higher. However, the season ended miserably, with an engine failure in Canada, and the Shadow severely off the pace in America. At the end of the season Pryce was equal 18th in the Drivers' Championship with Graham Hill and Vittorio Brambilla.

Pryce drives his Shadow at the 1975 United States Grand Prix.
Pryce drives his Shadow at the 1975 United States Grand Prix.

At the start of the 1975 season, Pryce's future was subject to much speculation. Rumour linked him with a drive at Lotus, the team run by Colin Chapman, who had been keeping an eye on Pryce's progress throughout 1973 and 1974. At the time, Lotus was experiencing financial difficulties and reports suggested that Shadow and Lotus would swap Pryce and Swede Ronnie Peterson. The trade was viewed as a good acquisition for both teams, as Pryce was considered a driver of the same ability as Peterson, but would cost Lotus less, while Peterson could attract sponsorship to the relatively new Shadow team. The deal never materialised, however, although Shadow team manager Alan Rees claims that it came very close to being completed.

Pryce's Shadow team mate, Jean-Pierre Jarier, outqualified him in the early part of the 1975 season, as the French driver had the new Shadow DN5 car, while Pryce was in the older DN3. It was not until the third round, the South African Grand Prix, that Pryce was able to use a DN5. The team's fourth race of the season was the non-championship Race of Champions held at Brands Hatch. Pryce qualified on pole position and, following a poor start, passed Peterson and Jacky Ickx before closing an eight second gap to race leader Jody Scheckter, whose engine failed while Pryce harried him, letting Pryce through to become the first Welshman to win a Formula One race. Pryce showed other signs of promise during the season, most notably in Monaco and Britain where he qualified on the front row of the grid, the latter being in pole position. Pryce also achieved his first World Championship podium finish, in extremely wet conditions at the Austrian Grand Prix and finished in the points four more times. The highest of those came in Germany where he finished fourth, despite the fact that fuel had been leaking into the cockpit of his DN5 during the final laps around the Nürburgring, reportedly "searing his skin and almost blinding him with fumes". The Welshman later received the Prix Rouge et Blanc Jo Siffert award, named after the Swiss Formula One driver, for this achievement.

The Lotus 79 (pictured) was used by Mario Andretti on his way to the 1978 title. In his book The Lost Generation, David Tremayne asked what Pryce might have achieved in the same car had he accepted the move to the team in 1975.
The Lotus 79 (pictured) was used by Mario Andretti on his way to the 1978 title. In his book The Lost Generation, David Tremayne asked what Pryce might have achieved in the same car had he accepted the move to the team in 1975.

Prior to the start of the 1976 season, Pryce and Dave Richards, future head of the Prodrive motorsports engineering company, entered a Lancia Stratos in the Tour of Epynt, a rally event contested by many established rallying names. Unfortunately for Pryce, he crashed into a bridge only 10 miles (16 km) into the first stage, but he still competed in the afternoon stages after his car was rebuilt.

Once the Formula One World Championship season got under way Pryce instantly added a second podium finish to his tally, at the first round in Brazil. This came at the expense of continuing team mate Jarier, who was caught out by oil on the track from James Hunt's McLaren. Both Shadows enjoyed reasonable competitiveness during the next two races at Kyalami and Long Beach. However, changes in car regulations, meaning that teams had to lower their airboxes and mount the cars' rear wings further forward, along with revised Goodyear tyres, meant the Shadow DN5B lost much of its competitiveness although Pryce achieved a second points scoring finish of the season in Britain. The new Shadow DN8 was not introduced until the twelfth round at Zandvoort, where Pryce qualified the new car in third, and finished the race only one place lower in fourth: it would be the last points scoring finish of Pryce's career. The Welshman finished his last full season 12th in the Drivers' Championship with 10 points, 59 points behind World Champion James Hunt.


Jarier left Shadow before the start of the 1977 Formula One season, for ATS, and was replaced by Italian Renzo Zorzi. Zorzi was later rated by Jackie Oliver, who was part of the managerial team at Shadow, as "the worst driver we [the Shadow team] ever had". However, the new signing brought in sponsorship from Italy, easing Shadow's financial position. Pryce started the first race of the year in Argentina in ninth place and stayed with the leading group until a gear linkage failure on the 45th lap of the 52 lap race. Following a long pit stop to fix the fault, he was not classified. Pryce qualified 12th for the second round in Brazil, but on lap 34 retired from the race, while running in second place, as the result of an engine failure.

Tom Pryce began his final race weekend, the 1977 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, by setting fastest time in the Wednesday practice session, held in wet weather. Pryce posted a time of 1 minute 31.57 seconds with the next best, the eventual 1977 World Champion Niki Lauda, a full second slower. The weather dried up prior to the Thursday session, and he slipped back down the grid to fifteenth place, almost two seconds slower than James Hunt's pole position time.

The Welshman's DN8 made a poor start to the Grand Prix and by the end of the first lap was in last place. Pryce started to climb back up the field during the next couple of laps, overtaking Brett Lunger and team mate Zorzi on lap two, and Alex Ribeiro and Boy Hayje the following lap. By lap 18 Pryce had moved from 22nd to 13th place.

The area just after The Kink is where Pryce and Jansen Van Vuuren collided and the Crowthorne corner where Pryce and Jacques Laffite's cars collided.
The area just after The Kink is where Pryce and Jansen Van Vuuren collided and the Crowthorne corner where Pryce and Jacques Laffite's cars collided.

On lap 21, Zorzi pulled off to the left side of the main straight, just after a brow of a hill and a bridge over the track. The Italian was having problems with his fuel metering unit, and fuel was pumping directly onto the engine, which then caught fire. Zorzi did not immediately get out of his car as he was experiencing trouble in disconnecting the oxygen pipe from his helmet.

The situation caused two marshals from the pit wall on the opposite side of track to intervene. The first marshal to cross the track was a 25-year old panel beater named William (Bill). The second was 19-year old Frederik Jansen Van Vuuren, commonly known as Jansen Van Vuuren, who was carrying a 40 lb fire extinguisher. George Witt, the chief pit marshal for the race, said that the policy of the circuit was that in circumstances involving fires, two marshals must attend and a further two act as back-up in case their extinguishers were not effective enough. Witt also recalled that both Bill and Van Vuuren crossed the track without prior permission. The former made it safely across the track, the latter did not. As the two young men started to run across the track, four cars driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck, Pryce, Jacques Laffite and Gunnar Nilsson were exiting the final corner and coming onto the main straight.

"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."
Hans-Joachim Stuck

Pryce was directly behind Stuck's car along the main straight, Stuck himself sensed Van Vuuren and moved to the right to avoid both marshals, missing Bill by what Tremayne reports to have been a matter of "millimetres". From his position behind Stuck, Pryce could not see Van Vuuren and was unable to react as fast as Stuck. He struck the teenage marshal at approximately 170 mph. Van Vuuren was thrown into the air and landed yards in front of Zorzi and Bill. He died upon impact with Pryce's car. The fire extinguisher smashed into Pryce's head, before striking the Shadow's roll hoop, which threw it over the adjacent grandstand. It came to earth in the car park to the rear of the stand, where it hit a parked car and jammed its door shut.

The impact with the extinguisher had wrenched Pryce's helmet upward, and he had been partially decapitated by the strap. Death was almost certainly instantaneous. Pryce's Shadow DN8, now without a driver or a roll hoop, continued down the main straight towards the first corner, Crowthorne, coasting slowly. The Shadow left the track towards the right, scraping the metal barriers before veering back onto the track after hitting an entrance for emergency vehicles. The Shadow then hit Laffite's Ligier putting the latter out of the race. As for Van Vuuren, the injuries to his body were so severe that he was identified only by exclusion after the race director summoned all of the race marshals and Van Vuuren was not among them.

The eventual race winner was Austrian Niki Lauda, his first win since his near fatal accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix. He later announced it was the greatest victory of his career, but was told on the podium of Pryce's death and said that "there was no joy after that".


Pryce's death was met with grief from all those who knew him during his career, none more so than his wife Nella, his parents Jack and Gwyneth and the Shadow team. His body was buried at St Bartholomew's Church in Otford, near Sevenoaks, Kent, the same church where he and Nella were married two years earlier.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 June 2012 17:32

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