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1977 South African Grand Prix crash led to death of F1 driver Tom Pryce

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Remembering the 1977 South African Grand Prix crash that led to death of British F1 driver Tom Pryce and safety marshal Frederik Jansen van Vuuren.

Formula 1 is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous sports on earth. Drivers are travelling at breakneck speeds where one wrong move could prove fatal. Over the years, we’ve seen a number of tragic incidents. Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 and Jules Bianchi in 2014 at Suzuka are two of the most well-known deaths in F1. However, the 1977 South African Grand Prix crash, which led to the deaths of Tom Pryce and Jansen Van Vuuren, is less well known.

Grand Prix of Monaco
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Tom Pryce was a promising driver with two podiums

British driver Tom Pryce was known as a great wet-weather driver, who had already make his mark in F1 throughout the early 1970s.

The Welshman started his career in Formula One with the small Token team, before making his debut in at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. He switched over to Shadow Racing Cars, and went on to claim two podiums with the team, his first in Austria in 1975 and the second in Brazil a year later.

Grand Prix of Great Britain
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The 1977 South African Grand Prix crash that led the death of Pryce and a teenage marshal

The 1977 South African Grand Prix crash will live long in the memory of F1 fans, as it claimed the lives of Tom Pryce as well as safety marshall, Jansen Van Vuuren.

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At the fan-favourite Kyalami circuit, Pryce had clocked the fastest time during wet practice sessions but dropped down to fifteenth in qualifying. Pryce then lost ground at the start of the race, leaving him 22nd, although he quickly gained back some places, and was 16th by the end of lap six.

However, on lap 22, Pryce’s teammate, Renzo Zorzi, pulled off to the left side of the main straight and parked the car after suffering problems with his fuel metering unit. Fuel was pumping directly onto the engine, which then caught fire as Zorzi attempted to disconnect the helmet oxygen supply.

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At this point, two safety marshals, one of whom was Jansen Van Vuuren, crossed over to the other side of the track to help Zorzi while carrying fire extinguishers.

At this same time stage, Pryce, and another driver, Hans-Joachim Stuck, came racing towards them. Zorzi’s car was stopped right at the crest of the hill, making it impossible for the oncoming drivers to spot the marshalls. Stuck was in front and managed to move and miss the marshals by ‘millimetres’.

However, Tom could not see van Vuuren and was unable to react as quickly, and struck the marshal while travelling at approximately 270 km/h (170 mph). According to reports, the marshal’s body was torn in half when it was hit by Pryce’s car and he was badly mutilated, being killed instantly by impact.

Furthermore, Pryce was hit in the head by the fire extinguisher that the marshal had been carrying and was partially decapitated by his helmet strap. He also died instantly according to reports.

A statue of Pryce was erected in his hometown in Wales

Niki Lauda went on to win the race but it was completely overshadowed by the deaths of Pryce and van Vuuren. Following the accident, the FIA introduced multiple safety measures to make the sport safer, including the mandatory use of fireproof suits and helmets.

Tom was only 27 at the time of his death, while van Vuuren was just 19. Following his tragic passing, the Tom Pryce Trophy was started as an award for Welsh individuals for their remarkable contribution to motorsport.

Pryce is the only Welsh driver to have led a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix. A statue of him has been erected in his hometown of Ruthin in his remembrance.

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