The Lost Generation
by David Finlay (23 October 2006)
Between the careers of Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell, only one British racing driver was able to win the F1 World Championship. James Hunt's success in 1976 made him a national figure, but while his name lives on it is not accompanied in the national understanding by those of anyone who could have followed in his immediate footsteps.
And yet, with due respect to the drivers from other shores who claimed the title over more than the next decade, their success might have been harder to achieve if Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce had survived long enough to fulfil their potential. It is their combined story which author and journalist David Tremayne tells so movingly in his latest work, The Lost Generation.
I'm led to believe that this volume has been described as "a big 30 quid book about dead racing drivers". It is so much more than that. Tremayne reveals their individual talents by describing their early careers in perhaps more detail here than a non-enthusiast reader would care for, but you would have to be less than human to read through, for example, the chapter on Williamson's death and emerge unchanged.
Williamson was the first to become recognised as a great driver, and the first to die. Tremayne reveals that he was being considered as World Champion Jackie Stewart's replacement at Tyrrell when hardly anyone apart from Stewart and team owner Ken Tyrrell knew that the Scot was going to retire at the end of 1973. That in itself is enough to demonstrate how highly he was rated.
He didn't live long enough to take the opportunity. Like all racing drivers, he feared above all other things the prospect of burning to death in a car from which he could not escape; like only a few, he expressed this to his closest friends. And yet that is what happened.
In an era in which Stewart (who had seen more colleagues die than he was prepared to accept) was being vilified for his insistence on increased safety at race tracks, it may be a little unfair to single out Zandvoort, host venue for the Dutch Grand Prix, as being unusually dangerous; but the fact is that a combination of safety issues at the circuit led first to Williamson's car being pitched upside down, and then to him being left inside it as it burned in front of several track officials and hundreds of spectators.
It is now part of motor racing legend that the bravest man at Zandvoort that day was David Purley, who stopped his own car nearby and tried, without any outside assistance whatever, to rescue Williamson. One man on his own can not put an upturned F1 car back on its wheels, and for that simple reason Williamson - screaming to be let out before he finally succumbed to the inhalation of hot gases - failed to survive what should have been, by the standards of the day, a relatively minor accident.
David Purley won the George Medal for his heroism, but for the lost generation it was one down, two to go.
The next chapter in the tragedy belongs to Tony Brise. Like Williamson, Brise appeared to be destined to follow a World Champion. It took a long time, and much agonising, for Graham Hill to realise that his own career was over, and when he signed up Brise as a driver for the Grand Prix team he formed in the early 1970s it appeared that he had come to terms with the fact and appointed his successor.
As with the other drivers of the lost generation, Brise never raced at the top level in a fully competitive car. But he drove the Hill at least as quickly as it wanted to go, and in doing so fulfilled the promise he had shown as he made his way through the ranks to Formula 1.
The terrible irony is that Hill himself inadvertently brought Brise's career and life to an end. He was piloting the plane that was bringing Brise and several other team members back home from a test session, and he nearly made it. Confused in foggy conditions, though, he misjudged the distance to the airfield and crashed into trees at a nearby golf course. Nobody survived.
And so to Tom Pryce, who may have been the shyest person to compete in top-level motorsport, and who was certainly the most successful Welsh racing driver there has ever been. Modest to the point of invisibility outside a race car, he was dazzlingly exuberant behind the wheel, and was beginning to combine his innate talent with the measure of control required to turn him into a World Champion.
His performances in a none too competitive Shadow assured F1 insiders that he was one to watch, but it all came to an end in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. Rushing to a car that had stopped by the side of the track and was smoking ominously, two marshals ran across the pit straight unaware that several other cars were thundering towards them over a blind crest.
One of them made it. The younger one - just 19 - was narrowly avoided by the car in front of Pryce's Shadow, but Pryce himself had no time to react. At 170mph, he ran head on into the marshal and the fire extinguisher he was carrying. Mercifully, neither of them can have felt any pain, but the horror continued as the Shadow - still running flat-out with its dead driver's foot hard on the throttle - roared down towards the next corner before crashing heavily.
The picture, accompanying Tremayne's account, of its uncontrolled death charge does not reveal Pryce's own state (and I'm as sure as I can be of anything that Tremayne would not have let it be included if it did), but it is nevertheless one of the eeriest motor racing images I have ever seen.
Tremayne was so impressed by the personal qualities of the quiet but immensely talented Welshman that he named his own son after him. Perhaps this reveals that Pryce was his favourite driver of the lost generation, but if so he does not let that affect his treatment of Williamson and Brise in the smallest degree.
On the contrary, his description of their early careers, his account of their deaths, and his sensitive discussion of how those around them were affected - described in a simple, undramatic way which is all the more moving as a result - make this book an even-handed and worthy monument to three men who are now almost forgotten, but who might each, if the world were a better place, have been properly acknowledged as a hero.
The Lost Generation: The Brilliant But Tragic Lives of Rising British F1 Stars Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce, by David Tremayne, is published by Haynes at £30.00. ISBN 1 84425 205 1. More details at www.haynes.co.uk.