The demands of the season being what they are, I spend less time in my house in Normandy than I would like; but whenever! do get over there, a few laps around Rouen Les Essarts are essential to my well-being.
Not used for Formula One since 1968, and for racing at all, sadly, since ’93, this is among the greatest road circuits the sport has known. Mention of it conjures, of course, the image of Fangio’s Maserati 250F, blithely steered on the throttle through the downhill swerves, but when I am there, I think first of David Purley.
As you come past the pits, the road falls away, then plunges right If you’re going reasonably hard, this is scary in a road car; in a single-seater it must have been something else again. Purley, second there in the F2 race in 1974, said he had his own way of coping with the fear. “When we did bayonet training in the Army, we were taught to scream as we lunged forward to help take our minds off what we were doing, I suppose. At Rouen, we’d come past the pits at about 160mph, and then that incredible sequence of downhill sweepers would begin. For the last couple of hundred yards before them, I’d scream into my helmet, to give me more courage, to keep my foot from lifting. Helped a lot, I found.”
Even 25 years ago, David’s views on safety were hardly mainstream. I liked him enormously, not least as he reminded me of Innes Ireland. Both were tough men, genuine 5, tough, but also compassionate and kind, with a laconic sense of humour aimed, not infrequently, at themselves. Trudging through the sodden paddock at Zolder after the 1977 Belgian GP, I noticed Purley in conversation with Nilci Lauda, and clearly, from their expressions, it was an interview of some heat. At its conclusion, I asked David what it had been about “Well, first of all, come in out of the rain and have some soup,” he smiled.
For Purley the afternoon had been memorable for the fact that briefly he’d led a GP in his privately-entered Lec. Granted, the circumstances had been freak he had been in front because he stopped later than most to change tyres but led he had.
Later in the race Lauda was striving to hold off Gunnar Nilsson, and complained that Purley had held him up, causing him to spin. “He said I was in his way that rabbits like me ought to strip to let aces like him through…”
And your response?
“I told him to bugger off! I said that if an ace in a works Ferrari couldn’t pass a rabbit in a Lec without spinning, he wasn’t a bloody ace in my book…”
At the next race, Purley turned up with a white rabbit sticker on his car. Even the Rat had to laugh.
It was in the dreadful circumstances of Roger Williamson’s fatal crash at Zandvoort in 1973 that the name of David Purley became known across the world, a fact he rather resented. Television viewers witnessed his attempts to release the trapped driver from his burning March.
“What surprised me is no other drivers stopped to help. There was all this talk of ‘Purley trying to rescue his friend’ and so on, but that wasn’t the case — I didn’t know Roger well at all. What happened was a reflex action. In Aden, if one saw a burning tank one tried to help those inside, and it was the same at Zandvoort. A matter of a man needing help. That car burned for several laps, and all the ‘safety crusaders’ just kept on bombing through the accident scene without even backing off…”
David had no recollection of the accident. He remembered neither stopping his car nor running across the road. What maddened him was the marshals’ inability to tackle the fire. “If you want to talk safety, that’s where I do have strong views.
“One of those guys was wearing a plastic mac! If he goes near that car, he’s dead. And something like that! found totally unacceptable. If a bloke does have an accident, he should have the right to expect that everything possible will be done for him.” That said, Purley’s views on safety were otherwise unfashionable, to say the least. He had contempt for a society increasingly hell-bent on protecting people from themselves. Who can imagine what he would made have of tonyblair.com?
“I don’t suggest,” he said, “that we should race in shirtsleeves and linen helmets, or drive cars that aren’t safe as they might be. That would just be stupid. But once you’re togged up as well as possible, strapped into a good, sound car, it’s you against the other blokes, your skill against theirs — and frankly I don’t think you should be able to make mistakes with impunity.
“If you’re on a dangerous track you just make damn sure you don’t put a wheel off. If you do, you know you’re done. For me, that was the added spice of places like Rouen or the Nurburgring.”
Over time other drivers suggested Purley’s apparent fearlessness was abnormal, that he had a death wish. I never thought that true, but undeniably David liked to test himself. Did he think, I asked him once, he was attracted to danger for its own sake?
He was silent for a few seconds. “If I’m being honest about it, I would have to say yes,! suppose! am. I loved those F3 races at Chimay, for example. Public roads…no guardrails…very quick. I used to be very frightened there, and I think — in my case, anyway — you have to be a little frightened to drive a racing car properly.
“I don’t want to die in one, God knows. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in the thought I’m alive because of my skill, my ability to cope. I don’t want to see F1 become slot car racing.” Purley had no doubts that his racing philosophy had its roots in his time in the Army — particularly with the Paras in Aden. Towards the end of the final evacuation there, he remembered that things got very hot
“We had everything chucked at us — mortars, grenades, Kalashnikovs — and nothing ever frightened me so much. I think probably I learned to control my fear there. I was a young officer, and you couldn’t let it show.
“It was the same with parachuting. When you’re standing in an aircraft by an open door at night, 800 feet up, the ‘plane bucking around, that’s very scary. Everyone would be standing about, yawning from fear, cracking un-funny jokes and so on. After that racing was a bit of an anti-climax.”
David’s biggest regret was that he never drove a competitive F1 car. The Lec project was inevitably underfinanced, and had a sadly short life. Anyone at Silverstone that July day in 1977 can remember the awful silence over the place as the news of Purley’s accident came in. Although he somehow survived the colossal impact with the bank at Becketts, he never raced regularly again, and he missed it. “I can’t find anything else that gives me the same buzz as racing,” he would say, “but aerobatics gives me a lot of pleasure.” He had bought a Pitts Special, and it was in this, shortly before the 1985 British Grand Prix, that he died.
He loved to tell ‘flying stories’. “I went down to Nigeria once, on a sales trip with another bloke. I was 17, and hadn’t had my licence long. We went all down the western coast if Africa in this single-engined Commanche, and as we were nearing Sierra Leone we had to fly over swamps for about 500 miles. One morning we took off very early, at about five, to see the crocodiles eating.
“I was flying very low — about 300ft — and as the sun came up so, too, did the temperature. The engine began to misfire. I remember that vividly, the two of us sitting there with sweat running off the end of our noses. Eventually, after I’d turned on all the emergencies, we gained a bit of height, and the engine began to clear itself. That was a great relief. We’d gone there to watch the crocs eating. We could have had a very close view…”
After Purley’s death, some swiftly concluded he had got what he was asking for, that early death was inevitable for a man who so embraced risk. To them! have nothing to say. I liked him for his absolute integrity, about racing — “People found cheating should be out for two years, at least” — as well as everything else.
Once I mentioned to him the words on Peter Revson’s ID bracelet: “Everything is sweetened by risk”. “That’s it,” he responded at once. “That’s it exactly…”
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