Autosport 70: The British rising F1 star lost too soon – F1

This week in 1973 Roger Williamson was killed amid terrible scenes during the Dutch Grand Prix. At the end of the previous season, in which he had won two F3 titles, Williamson spoke to IAN PHILLIPS for the 14 December 1972 issue of Autosport magazine.

At the age of 24, following two very successful Formula 3 seasons, Roger Williamson is currently one of the hottest properties in British motor racing.

In two seasons the little figure crouched over the steering wheel of Tom Wheatcroft’s F3 March and GRD has won all three F3 championships in Britain, scoring 32 wins altogether. He has raced F2 and F5000 cars on occasions and just recently put in impressive times testing an F1 car.

Williamson’s introduction to competition came at the age of 11 in cycle speedway “but I was never very good because my legs were too short”. He then moved into karting and, after twice being runner-up in the British championship, won it at the third try.

In 1968 he moved into cars and, after a successful year with a Mini and an abortive attempt at F3, got himself a Ford Anglia for 1970. He was beaten only once in that year and wound up with the Hepolite Glacier Championship. He was on the road to the top.

Despite everything that has happened over the past two years Roger remains genuine and sincere, almost unaware of his success. He spends all the time he is not driving racing cars at his father’s garage, North End Motors of Leicester, and he is very quick to point out how grateful he is for the support during this time of his parents, his fiancée-of-five-years-standing (below), and, of course, to Wheatcroft whose guidance and experience has ensured his future in big time motor racing.

I spoke to Roger recently about his F3 experiences and his hopes for the future.

Ian Phillips: You really came to prominence in 1970 when you won the Hepolite Glacier Special Saloon Car Championship with your Anglia. Was it always your intention to move into single-seaters?

Roger Williamson: Well, no, not originally, I wanted to stay in something with closed wheels. When we had finished with the saloon car, we wanted something like a two-litre sportscar, but when we got down to the pounds, shillings and pence we decided that would be much too expensive.

Then we thought of a big saloon, something like a Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang, but then this same problem arose. I think it was going to cost something like £9000 or £10,000.

So then we went down to the Racing Car Show and we just walked round there and decided on F3. The price was about right, you could buy a complete car for about £3000 or £4000, and you’ve got a brand new complete car instead of something second-hand. Also it was something vaguely resembling karts, which I had been brought up on and we thought that might be the way to go.

“I wanted an international formula. I wanted to get on to the Continental circuits and get myself about a bit. Once we had decided on F3 we wanted to get where the big boys were” Roger Williamson

IP: Did you consider any other single-seater formulas other than F3?

RW: F3 was the only thing that I could really afford and I wanted a new car. Formula Atlantic at the time was not proven as it was brand new; F5000 was too expensive; Clubmans did not appeal to me at all.

I wanted an international formula. I wanted to get on to the Continental circuits and get myself about a bit. Once we had decided on F3 we wanted to get where the big boys were.

IP: You were successful almost immediately in F3, was it easier than you expected?

RW: It was really. When we started the season we planned on midfield positions after a race or two just to get ourselves sorted out. We did not expect to do that well until the following season, but things went better than expected.

I picked a good car as it happened and we had good engines; I’m not saying we had the best engines, but we had good, competitive engines. At the time there were not that many variations on tyres and we had Dunlop, which were just as good as, if not better than, Firestone. Actually I think it was a lot more luck than judgement that things came about right. Everything that we picked came right for us.

We had some unfortunate things happen early on in the season but the main problem was money, keeping up with everybody.

IP: How did Tom Wheatcroft (above) become involved?

RW: I think Tom first saw me race at Mallory Park early on in the season and he came into the transporter with somebody; I didn’t know who he was then. As you know we’ve always got tea on in the coach and we just asked him if he wanted a cup of tea, which was quite normal, we did it to everybody.

The next time I saw him was at Monte Carlo and after the race there, we finished seventh, after coming from the back of the grid, and he just came to me and asked if I would like another engine. He asked me why I hadn’t put a fresh engine in for the race. I said, ‘Well I haven’t got one, this is all I’ve got’. I’d got no wings at the time or wet tyres either.

He said would I like another engine and I said, ‘well, yes’. I still did not really know who he was! One thing led to another and we’ve just got on like a house on fire, right from the word go. Everybody keeps saying to Tom, when does Roger’s contract finish with you, but we don’t need a contract; we just go by word of mouth and that’s good enough for us.

IP: Other than the financial aspect, has he played a big part in your success in other ways?

RW: Yes, I think so. His contacts, I think more than anything, probably not in as much as the racing because that’s down to me anyway. But I have met a lot of people that I would not have met apart from knowing Tom.

IP: Does he decide on tactics or anything like that or advise you in any way before a race?

RW: No. The race is left entirely to me. Once we’ve got out from the marshalling area it’s all mine.

IP: You were successful enough in 1971 (below) to move on to other things, why did you decide to stay in F3?

RW: Really this was Tom’s idea, but then I had to agree with him afterwards. We had not done that many racing miles in 1971. We had done a lot of races, but not that many miles. We had not done a lot of testing.

Although we probably put ourselves in a funny position carrying on, we still had not won everything we could have won. There were things that we had missed out and we thought it would be good experience. We hoped to do some F2 races anyway.

IP: It seemed that after having a fair amount of success in 1971 you would be the man to beat and the target for everybody else in 1972. Have you found that there has been a lot of aggression towards you?

RW: When I have allowed them to, yes. When things got a bit tight, I felt it a bit and you do feel it in the paddock. You always get this with drivers. I enjoy the competition; if you’re the man to beat, you’re the man to beat.

“If you can just break that two seconds, just to keep yourself out of the tow, then they all fight and fall over each other and really then they won the race for me” Roger Williamson

If somebody else was the man to beat I would be the same. They are there to be beaten and that’s what everybody tried to do, that’s what I expected them to do.

IP: On a number of occasions it looked quite easy for you. You got a fairly good lead on the first lap and just pulled away. Was it really that easy?

RW: I think that was just my own tactics. I geared myself up for a quick start and tried to get away on the first lap but it didn’t always work. It all depends how much the people behind fight among themselves. If you’ve got people behind you who knew what you were going to do, they would just follow you and there was nothing you could do about it.

But if you can just break that two seconds, just to keep yourself out of the tow, then they all fight and fall over each other and really then they won the race for me.

IP: What do you consider as being your best race in F3?

RW: Oh, blimey, a difficult question! I think there are probably one or two. One that sticks out in my mind in 1971 was the one where I beat Dave Walker at Oulton Park. The nice thing about it was how well David took it afterwards. He didn’t walk the other way in the paddock when he saw me, we were still good friends and he came over and said: “If anybody was going to beat me I’m glad it was you.”

We’ve always got on well but that was the day to beat him. He did take it well. He did not get all barney and say it was the car or the engine; it was just a good race and one where I came out on top and he came second. He’d had his fair share of beating me.

I think probably another one was Anderstorp this year, which I enjoyed, and Clermont-Ferrand (below).

IP: Beating the Alpines?

RW: Yes, on their own ground. Especially being surrounded by Alpines, especially when they tried to cut the practice session by 10 minutes when they saw we were getting quicker.

IP: Do you think F3 is a good training ground, or do you think it is underpowered and too easy to drive?

RW: I would not say that it was easy to drive and I would not say it was underpowered, not when you’ve climbed out of the cars that I’ve climbed out of. Probably it is underpowered compared with F2s and F1s but when you get in it first time it feels like there is plenty of power there then, although the same as in anything, once you get used to it, it loses its kick and the feeling of power.

IP: You did just one Formula Atlantic race and a limited number of F2 races. Would the transition to F2 have been easier if you had the experience of FA power behind you in an F3 car?

RW: No, I don’t think so. This is a funny thing with single-seaters; when you move up to Atlantic you have a bigger engine but you also get bigger wings and bigger tyres, and the impression of speed is absorbed by the wings and tyres and brakes that are bigger. Everything is bigger to accommodate the job and you don’t really get that much difference.

IP: Although you had a lot of mechanical failures in F2 were you happy with your performances?

RW: Yes, really, considering we had not got all the gear. We were dropping into F2 races between F3 races, the mechanics had not got used to the car. We had not geared up on the engines. I think we went two or three races without a spare, which was not the way to go.

But all we wanted was the competition, to feel what the power was like and feel what the competition was like. We started to get used to everything. I think we only did four races, but we started to get the pattern of things and it will probably help us quite a bit when we start next year. We do know which way it is going, whereas if we had not done it at all it would be like starting from scratch. Plus the fact that you get to know the people a little, it does help a bit.

IP: Why did you decide to do F5000 at the end of the year, just for the Tarmac Championship or to get in something with power?

RW: F5000 I don’t think I would like to do. All we did it for was really the Tarmac Championship. We did think we had a big chance of winning it; what licked us really was a couple of accidents that I had. But we thought that we might just be able to pinch the championship at the last minute if we could steal some points with the F5000.

“Still I want to get the experience, still I want to have a feel of F2 and still I want to have a crack at the European championship” Roger Williamson

There was a possibility by doing F5000 and Atlantic, of us getting quite close to Frank Gardner for the Tarmac, and with £2000 at stake it was worth a go.

IP: What did you think about F5000?

RW: It’s OK, but if you’re going to drive a car like that you might as well drive an F1. F5000 is a good formula if you’ve got up to the top and are coming down hill again.

IP: After your impressive performances in F5000 did it occur to you to go straight into F1 for 1973?

RW: Yes, a lot of people said that we ought to, but still I want to get the experience, still I want to have a feel of F2 and still I want to have a crack at the European championship. That’s the real basis behind it, we have not had that much F2 experience but we shall probably take some F1 races in and mix F2 and F1 like we did F2 and F3 this year.

IP: If things don’t work out in F2, if you don’t have success, will that prevent you from moving into F1 in 1974?

RW: No, I don’t think so, because I think we might have a problem with engines in F2 next year and that’s where it all balances on really. If you pick the right engines you’re there, if you don’t you’re out. What I want really is experience and racing miles.

IP: You have been testing F1 BRMs at Silverstone recently and going extremely quickly yet have decided to concentrate on F2 next year. Why?

RW: Well, we decided on F2 a little while ago and we’d like to have a go at the European championship, just to say we’d had a go at it. With BRM we would have had to sign for two years and that would not have allowed us to do F2, which we had got to do, so that really just held us back.

Autosport 70: The shambles, success and demise of Britain’s first big F1 team

IP: BRM did offer you a contract for F1?

RW: Yes, but it had to be for two years.

IP: Have you had any offers from other teams?

RW: We’ve had a couple of enquiries, that’s all I can say at the moment.

IP: You do hope to some F1 races next year?

RW: Yes, probably half a dozen or so.

IP: Rumour has it that you were offered a Gulf Mirage sportscar drive and turned it down. Can you confirm this?

RW: John Wyer was good enough to offer me a sportscar drive, which made me feel very good. I would say it is probably the best sportscar drive that could be offered, including Ferrari, and I felt a bit flattered by it. But we had to refuse, not that I wanted to refuse, but we had decided on F2 and they wanted us to miss two races of F2 and two of their races but that was difficult.

It might have been the two races that I had to miss in F2 that were important for the championship. I would not like to think that they have forgotten me, because I would like a sportscar drive.

IP: If you had the opportunity would you like to drive a sportscar or big saloon instead of, or as well as, a single-seater?

RW: I would like to drive big sportscars; three-litre ones, where you are balanced out on power as per an F1. When we have moved up to that level I would like to keep the power about the same. But I’ve always had a little soft spot for saloons, that’s what I started off in. Probably in something like a long-distance saloon, a big Ford Capri or something.

“I don’t like second places. I don’t mind second places, but I prefer a first place. If I can see it hanging there, I want to try to grab it” Roger Williamson

IP: In F3 you were able to race virtually every weekend, do you think this is important?

RW: Yes, that’s really why I don’t want to move just into F1. Everybody says move into F1 now, you’re ready. Probably we were ready on performance but if I’d have moved into F1 now all I would have got would have been F1 races and probably missing weeks here, there and everywhere. I did not feel that I had got the experience for it.

IP: Do you have strong views on motor racing safety?

RW: Not particularly. It’s the same for me as everyone else. You like it a bit safer obviously, but if everyone else will race there I’ll race there as well. I would not back out and say, ‘unless you do so and so I’m not racing’. I’ve always been brought up to race on whatever circuit you’ve been entered on.

I like to see a bit of true scenery, none of this artificial stuff. I don’t like trees, I’ve had some nasty moments with trees, but every time I’ve aimed towards a tree, luckily I’ve missed it. Paul Ricard is a bit uninteresting; I’d sooner have somewhere that is a little bit more natural like Oulton Park or the Nurburgring. The ‘Ring I enjoy just to drive round, let alone race there.

IP: Would you agree that your driving on occasions was to win or nothing? There have been occasions when second or third place was a certainty and first very much the outside bet yet you have always taken the chance.

RW: My biggest problem is that I go to races to win. That’s what you’re in it for, to win, and if I can see a little glimmer of hope that I can get there I’ll go. Sometimes it has paid off, sometimes it hasn’t.

I don’t like second places. I don’t mind second places, but I prefer a first place. If I can see it hanging there, I want to try to grab it.

IP: You’re not satisfied with anything but first place?

RW: No. I like the kit to be number one and unless I’m giving number one performance then you can’t expect to win.

2020 vision

Williamson certainly started 1973 with the wrong kit in F2 – a GRD-Ford. But after Wheatcroft provided him with a March-BMW, he once again showed his pace.

Finishes were hard to come by, but he did take victory from pole at Monza, beating future grand prix winner Patrick Depailler.

PLUS: Roger Williamson – Britain’s new hope wasted

Two weeks later he made his world championship F1 debut in the British Grand Prix, driving a hired factory March. Williamson qualified 22nd of 29 at Silverstone, in front of John Watson and Graham Hill, but was eliminated in the infamous multi-car crash triggered by Jody Scheckter at Woodcote.

He started 18th at Zandvoort and had climbed to 13th in the Dutch GP when a tyre failure sent the March into the barriers. Williamson was not seriously hurt by the impact, but he was trapped underneath the car, which caught fire.

Only fellow racer and team-mate David Purley tried to come to Williamson’s aid as the race continued but – in footage that remains some of the worst ever recorded in sport – he was unable to free the 25-year-old, who died of asphyxiation.

Williamson’s death was one of the most tragic and needless fatalities in F1 history and was a contributing factor in the push for better safety in motorsport, which continues to this day. Purley was awarded the George Medal for gallantry and in 2003 Wheatcroft unveiled a statue in Williamson’s honour at Donington Park.

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