Tom Pryce (11/6/1949 – 5/3/1977)Written by Αναστάσιος Ίσαρης
Translated by Nikos Arvanitis
Tom (Thomas) Pryce, an authentic and forgotten Formula 1 rain master...
Born in June 11th 1949 in Wales, Great Britain, he started his career as the hero of the neighborhood, as aged only 10 years old, he was driving with skill his father’s bakery truck.
His parents tried to prevent him from the desire of being a race driver, using as an example the death of his favorite driver (Jim Clark) as well as Jochen Rindt’s death in 1970.
Tom loved driving in rain and he developed such great skill that in the beginning of his career was completely invincible in these conditions, better than well-known Formula 3 drivers of that era, like Roger Williamson, Jochen Mass and James Hunt.
His difference in rain was so big, that rival teams repeatedly complaint that his car should be underweight, but their hopes proved to be pointless.
In all lower categories he competed (Formula Super V, Formula Atlantic etc.) he was literally invincible.
He had great difficulty in convincing his parents to take part in Formula 3 in 1974 with a small team, Token Racing (that was co-owned by Tony Vlassopoulos and Ken Grob).
He raced at the Grand Prix in Spa that year and thanks to his great performance in the Formula 3 race that was held as a supporting event prior to the main race in Monaco, he attracted Shadow’s interest.
When their driver Peter Revson died due to a suspension failure during the practice of the 1974 South African GP, Don Nichols, the owner of Shadow, chose Tom Pryce as his replacement.
Driving for Shadow he won his first point at the German GP in his fourth appearance in Formula 1, finishing in 6th place (having started from 11th).
Problems with the car and retirements let him finish 18th at the final standings, at the same place with Graham Hill and Vittorio Brambilla.
In 1975 with Jean-Pierre Jarier as his team-mate, he took part at the Race of Champions that was held at Brands Hatch with Formula 1 cars and starting from pole, he managed to win the race, but unluckily for him this was a non-championship race.
In Austria he managed to finish 3rd (starting from 15th) because the race was held under heavy rain (got stopped at 29th lap) which was his advantage.
In Nurburgring he finished in 4th whilst he maintained 2nd place comfortably behind Carlos Reutemann a leak of the fuel tank on the penultimate lap caused him severe burns at his… sensitive area and his legs while the fumes blinded him totally.
For his heroic effort to finish, he was later awarded with the Swiss Rouge et Blanc Jo Siffert award that had been established in honor of the Swiss driver.
Seatfitting for Ronnie Peterson in Shadow DN3, 1975 Brazilian GP.
A really interesting story from this year is the unsuccessful driver swap attempt between Lotus and Shadow, which was supposed to be done like this: Tom Pryce would exchange seats with Ronnie Peterson.
As John Player Special had cut her backing to 50% compared to 1974 and Peterson’s unhappiness from the incompetitive Lotus 76, Colin Chapman tried to offload Swede’s expensive contract before the Brazilian GP, bringing the less expensive Pryce, hoping that JPS would invest more if a British driver drove for Lotus.
Peterson was keen to move to Shadow (Pryce was reluctant, though), however the deal fell through as John Logan, president of the UOP and main backer of Shadow, refused to compensate Lotus for Peterson’s buy-out.
At the first race of the 1976 season in Brazil he had one more podium finishing in 3rd place, taking advantage of the spin his team-mate Jean-Pierre Jarier had because of oil on track.
Both Shadows DN5B were relatively competitive at the next couple of races (in Kyalami he was 7th and in Long Beach he retired), but regulations changed during the season, changing the height of the airbox behind and above the driver, modifying as well the rear wing complex so that it would not stand out much of the car, something that weakened the team’s cars.
Despite all that, Pryce finished 4th (starting 11th) at Brands Hatch and with the newer version of DN8 at Zandvoort he finished 4th again (starting 3rd).
At the end of the season he finished in 12th place with 10 points, against 69 the champion James Hunt had.
Tom Pryce alongside a Lancia Stratos, with which he took part in a welsh rally, having David Richards as the co-driver.
In 1977 Jean-Pierre Jarier quit the team moving to ATS and the Italian Renzo Zorzi replaced him.
Tom’s efforts in Argentina and Brazil ended up in retirements.
In South Africa practice under heavy rain, he was a whole second faster than second-placed and future champion of the season Niki Lauda.
In a dry qualifying though, he was 15th , 2 seconds behind poleman James Hunt.
He started badly and at the end of the first lap he was last (23rd) when he started his comeback overtaking 4 drivers in 2 laps, including his team-mate.
On lap 18 he had already climbed to 13th and he was keeping up the attack, when on lap 22 Zorzi with a problem on his fuel metering unit, stopped after a curve in a part of the circuit that had low visibility.
When fuel pumped directly onto the engine, it caught fire.
He did not get out of the car immediately because he was not trained in disconnecting the oxygen pipe from his helmet and as a result, two marshals ran to assist him CROSSING the circuit from the opposite side.
That moment the cars of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Tom Pryce, Jacques Laffite and Gunnar Nilsson appeared in this order.
The first marshal managed to cross the circuit in the nick of time, but the second though, 19-year-old Jansen Van Luuren delayed because he was carrying a 20kg fire extinguisher.
Stuck saw the 19-year-old marshal and instinctively moved to the right passing inches away from him, but Pryce who was right behind him (almost at the slipstreaming zone) had no visibility crashed onto him at a speed of 270 km/h, tearing him literally apart.
The fire extinguisher the marshal had got stuck at the car’s roll bar, after smashing the driver at the top of his helmet, while the strap underneath his chin almost beheaded him.
The car continued its way on the main straight (with the dead driver apparently in his seat) and moving steadily to the right it hit the barriers and returned destroyed on track.
Incoming Jacques Laffite crashed him, ending up with his Ligier along with the debris onto the barrier.
Thus, a real rain master passed away, chasing the dream of the pilot-symbol of the era (Jim Clark), being a part of that generation of British drivers that were sacrificed in an effort to follow his steps.
The tragic irony is that the shocking way he died, made him more known to the world than his accomplishments at the time.
Race winner Niki Lauda, already distorted from the horrible accident he had in Germany last year, first told that it was the best win of his career, but as soon as he learned about Pryce’s death, he said on podium “nobody can feel happy after this”.
June 11th 1949 – March 5th 1977
Active years in Formula 1: 1974 – 1977
Teams: Token, Shadow
Pole Positions: 1