The amazing story of David Purley

Our sport is full of legends, those that have won championships, races, pole positions and those that won the adoration of the fans for their race craft and skill.  If we go to any F1 site or blog today and we  are able to read about those drivers who have stats and statics that show their footprint on the record books of Formula One, but there are a few characters that are not in those lists of F1 greats that truly deserve their position in the history of our sport and none more so in my view than the story of British racing driver David Purley.

First off, Purley has a less than distinguished record at the top level of world motor sport.  Being born in to a family business, he was able to fund his career from support from the refrigeration company LEC which his parents owned. He competed in just 11 Grands Prix of which he actually drove in 8, but his story of bravery and character stands out strong amoungst any in Formula One or any other sport.

David started his F1 career in 1973 and it was in the Dutch Grand Prix of this year that the actions of David Purley earned him the George Medial, awarded to members of the public for outstanding bravery.

On Lap 8 of the race Purley was first to the scene of an accident involving fellow British driver Roger Williamson. Williamson had gone off at high speed on a right handed bend, somersaulted and landed upside down while skating upside down across the track.  That on its own would have been bad enough, but as in the 1970’s, the car caught fire, and engulfed Williamson who was trapped helpless under the burning car.

In tragic scenes, Purley fought for the life of Williamson all on his own.  Despite the close attention of at least 4 marshalls, Williamson was left to try and turn the burning car over or at least put the fire out in a bid to save Williamson. Purley was able to take a fire extinguisher off a marshall crossing from the far side of the circuit, but with the race so early and the cars loaded with fuel, Purley alone was never going to be able to beat the flames, yet no other marshalls or fire teams joined him for minutes.  Even worse the race continued around him, despite his frantic gesticulations to get them to stop to help or at least convey the message to race authorities that the race needed to be red flagged so official assistance could get to get to the stricken March, which was by now completely engulfed in flames.

The story doesn’t have a happy ending.  Purley was unable to put the fire out or gather enough help to extract Williamson from the wreckage.  It took over 4 minutes until official assistance arrived, by which time Williamson would have died from the fire.

Images of Purley’s bravery were broadcast around the world as the race was being shown on live TV, and award winning photographer Cor Mooij caught the sequence of events unfold, and a time line of the powerful images were awared first prize in the a category of World Photograph of the year, depicting Purleys bravery and the tragedy as it unfolded.

Purley tries in vain to gather assistance to help his colleague

More of these dramatic images can be seen by clicking here

Despite the the tragedy in Holland, Purley raced on however only finishing a hand full of times, his best result being 9th place at the Italian Grand Prix in 1973.

After a bleak 1974 where he wasn’t able to qualify for any races due to substandard machinery, Purley headed back to Formula 2, where he had moderately more success, and in 1977 Purley was back in Formula 1 after being able to raise the funds to enter his own LEC chassis.  While trying to pre qualify for the British Grand Prix of 1977, Purley suffered a stuck throttle, apparently due to a chemical reaction when  elements in his fire extinguisher and surplice fuel mixed together to create a mixture that seized like cement around his throttle mechanism.  Purley was driving at just over 100mph when he arrived at Becketts corner and slammed in to the barriers head on.  This dramatic impact with the barriers stopped the car dead in less than half a meter, generating an impact of approximately 197.9G! Which at the time was the largest known accident in which a human had survived.   The car was squashed to nearly half it’s length with the driver inside the car.  Amazingly, Purley was not killed and was extracted from the accident but with massive rib, leg and pelvic injuries.

The remains of David Purleys LEC after his accident at Silverstone

Purley spend months recovering from these horrific injuries, but was seemingly determined not to lead a conventional life.  Having spent the early part of his life in the Parachute regiment as part of the British Army,  David took up aerobatics and it was in 1985  while flying over the sea of the British coastal town of Bognor Regis that his plane crashed and killed the Englishman.

What struck me about the story of David Purley was his amazing bravery and determination.  Not just in the Williamson accident that demonstrated unrivalled character to stop and help a fellow driver, while everyone raced on, but also in his determination to recover from his mind blowing accident at Silverstone.

David Purley certainly wasn’t the best F1 driver ever, he wasn’t even probably the bravest, but he deserves to be remembered for his courage in trying to save the life of a fellow driver and in his bid to recover from near life threatening injuries.

I have included a video of the Williamson accident. Those that feel they want to see the awful scenes  may want to watch it, however I do not wish to be seen to be callously and disrespectfully promoting a video of the death another person, however I felt truly moved after seeing the heroic actions of Purley from that day.

Sources for the article


World Press Photo Archive