Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary since former F1 driver David Purley lost his life – aged 40 – when he crashed into the sea piloting his Pitts Special stunt plane.
Purley was a driver who left behind memories far greater than the sum of his achievements in Formula 1: he was a model of great courage, a fine sportsman, and a committed racing driver.
Born in Sussex, Purley was a soldier in the elite Parachute Regiment, seeing action in Aden in the mid-1960s, as well as surviving a partial parachute failure during one of his jumps!
He started out racing a Cobra in 1968, before moving onto a Chevron GT. His open-wheeler debut came in Formula 3 in 1970, driving a Brabham backed by his family’s Lec Refrigeration company. Certainly a little wild, Purley loved the thrill of racing on the more dangerous circuits, and he won the daunting Grand Prix of Chimay three times between 1970 and 1972.
Before the end of 1972, Purley had progressed to Formula 2, and one of his highlights included a fighting podium finish on the streets of Pau. In 1973, he dropped back to Formula Atlantic, but by the mid-year, he’d rented a March to make his Formula 1 debut.
He hit the headlines soon after when his fruitless attempts to save the life of his friend and fellow-F1 racer Roger Williamson were broadcast around the world during the Dutch Grand Prix. Williamson was trapped upside-down inside his blazing car after it crashed against the barriers, and poor Roger burned to death in front of millions of viewers while a desperate Purley – without any assistance from marshals or fellow drivers – tried vainly to save his friend. An award of a George Medal for his bravery was a valid recognition for his actions, but it did nothing to bring back poor Williamson.
Purley left F1 in 1974, going on to win the Shellsport Formula 5000 title before deciding to re-enter F1 in his own bespoke Lec F1 car, which he raced in 1977.
But not Purley, who fought valiantly through months of rehabilitation, and he incredibly returned to the British Aurora F1 series in 1979. He may only have competed in four races in the end, but a fourth place at Snetterton was considered by many to be an incredible achievement.
Purley then cut his racing down to the odd club event, but his desire for speed and thrills still remained, leading him to buying that Pitts Special biplane.