Estimated time to read: 5 minutes
For such a small country, Wales has an incredible sporting heritage particularly in sports such as Rugby. However, motor racing is not a sport with which the country is often associated. This all looked set to change in 1974 when Tom Pryce, from Ruthin, made his Formula One debut.
In his short three year career, Pryce became the only Welshman ever to win an F1 race when he triumphed at the 1975 Race of Champions, before his untimely death at the age of 27 during the 1977 South African Grand Prix.
Read on as we take a look at the little known Pryce’s career, legacy and highlight what marked him out as being a true Welsh Legend.
The Welsh Wizard started to make a name for himself in the early 1970s in the Daily Express Crusader Championship, which consisted of aging Formula Ford cars. Pryce sold his Mini Cooper and sought extra money from his parents to afford the £35 race entry fees. He ultimately won the series and went on to dominate various other junior formula with “embarrassing ease” according to Motorsport writer David Tremayne.
Pryce was awarded a prize F3 drive for 1972 where he was expected to compete against an all star field consisting of future superstars, including the 1976 World Champion James Hunt. Despite such strong opposition, he dominated the opening races of the championship to the point where his rivals falsely accused him of running an illegal car.
Future McLaren boss, Ron Dennis, was running the Token Racing Team. He recognised Pryce’s talent, offering a seat and promoting the Welshman to the sports premier series just five years after he sat in a racing car for the first time. Pryce made his F1 debut at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix where he qualified a creditable 20th in noncompetitive machinery.
He was refused entry to the Monaco race that year on account of his inexperience, but secured a drive in the supporting F3 race which he promptly won by over 20 seconds so as to prove a point to the organisers. This performance was enough to secure a graduation…
Shadow F1 team manager Alan Rees, had watched that F3 race in Monaco and was amazed by Pryce’s determination and speed. He choose Pryce as a replacement for his driver Peter Revson, who had been killed in a testing accident in what was a dangerous period for the sport. He scored his first points for Shadow at that years German Grand Prix and qualified a stunning 3rd for the French race.
1975 was his breakout year when he became the first and so far only Welshman to win a Formula 1 race. The scene was the non-championship Race of Champions event held at Brand Hatch, in appalling conditions in an event, which was marred by heavy rain and even snow prior to the start. It was in difficult conditions such as these that Pryce excelled, showcasing his natural talent and the skills which marked him out as a potential champion. Pryce held off competition from future champions Emerson Fittipaldi and Jody Scheckter who had more competitive machinery at their disposal to win by over half a minute.
In spite of these heroics, Shadow did not have the largest budget, meaning that they would rarely be able to compete at the front under normal conditions. It was only in the wet where driver skills became of as much importance as car performance that Pryce was able to overcome his car deficiencies to secure the results he deserved. This continued to be the case over the next two seasons with the plucky Northamptonshire based team as Pryce waited for his chance with a front running squad.
The first day of the South African Grand Prix weekend in 1977 was wet, providing Pryce with the perfect platform to showcase his skills as he set the fastest time in the practice session ahead of the eventual 1977 champion Niki Lauda in his Ferrari. Lauda recognised Pryce’s talent and declared him to be “one of the best drivers out there”.
Dry conditions for qualifying meant that Pryce could do not better than 15th on the grid. Things got worse at the start when a poor getaway relegated the Welshman to 22nd and last. However, he fought back and by lap 18 had dragged the Shadow up to 13th position.
On lap 22 trackside marshals ran to assist a driver whose car had caught fire following an engine problem. To do this they had to run over the brow of a hill on the actual race track. On the other side of this hill was Pryce who tragically struck one of the marshals with both being killed instantly.
Lauda went on to win the race, the first since his own traumatic accident, where he suffered severe burns during the previous years race at the Nurburgring. The Austrian later commented:
“I remember when I came onto the podium and they gave me the laurels and I asked what happened in that accident and the guy said Tom Pryce was killed. I just left the podium. I was upset because he was a real nice guy and I knew him well. Afterwards I saw the accident and it was ridiculous. It was terrible”.
Pryce’s place in the Shadow team was taken by Australian Alan Jones, who would go on to become the 1980 World Champion with the Williams team. It is more than feasible that Pryce would have gone on to become equally as successful given his widely recognised talents, marking him out as one of our undoubted Welsh legends.
When you stay at one of our North Wales holiday parks, we’d recommend heading up to Pryce’s home town of Ruthin and visiting the memorial at the centre of the town, which was unveiled in 2009 to commemorate a driver who could quite feasibly have gone on to become the only Welshman ever to win the Formula 1 World Championship.
Check out the Tom Pryce Memorial the next time you are in the region. You can book a holiday in North Wales with Darwin Escapes online, and also look into holiday home ownership in North Wales at our four 5 star holiday parks in the region.
We will be continuing to mark the Wales’ Year of Legends throughout 2017. To be one of the first to read our latest posts in this series make sure that you like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and like us on Instagram !