• South African Grand Prix

Pryce tragedy overshadows Lauda victory

ESPNF1 Staff
March 5, 1977
A subdued Niki Lauda on the podium after being informed of the tragic death of Tom Pryce © Sutton Images

Niki Lauda recorded his first victory since his horrific crash at the Nürburgring the previous summer, but the South African Grand Prix was overshadowed by the tragic death of the highly-rated young Welshman Tom Pryce.

Pryce had set the fastest time on the first day of practice, but it was defending champion James Hunt who again took pole. Unlike Interlagos, where he had started poorly, he capitalised on Carlos Pace's wheelspin as did Lauda, who eased into second and immediately started harrying the McLaren. Even though the evidence suggested the Ferrari was slower on the straights, Lauda was easily able to take the lead after six laps and the suggestions were that the McLaren team had miscalculated the wing angles.

On lap 21, Renzo Zorzi's Shadow stopped in front of the grandstand with a split fuel pipe and flames licked the rear of the car. As he scrambled clear, two marshals ran from the opposite side of the track to attend to the blaze just as Hans Stuck and Tom Pryce came over the brow of a hill side-by-side travelling at 180mph. Neither driver had any chance of swerving and Pryce struck one of the marshals who was killed instantly, but the extinguisher he was carrying then hit Pryce in the head. He died almost immediately but his Shadow, which was not damaged, continued down the straight before colliding with Jacques Laffite's Ligier and then the barriers. His wife of two years, Nella, was sitting watching in the grandstand.

The race continued but there was little drama at the front, although in the aftermath of Pryce's crash Lauda's lead over Jody Scheckter was cut from six seconds to a car length, but he slowly moved clear again. "Niki certainly eased off after the accident," Scheckter said, "but once he got back into his stride I could do nothing to catch him."

Lauda ran out the winner from championship leader Scheckter with Patrick Depailler feet behind in third. Hunt, still in the old M23 after he had crashed the new M26 in testing a week earlier, was back in fourth.

But on a black day for the sport the South African organisers faced some tough questions and Britain mourned the loss of a bright young talent.

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