He died in a ball of flame on the 21st June, 1970 in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. That first sentence is not meant to sensationalise his story, far from it. It is just a statement of fact.
Piers Raymond Courage was an Essex boy. He was born in Colchester during the war on 27th May, 1942. He was born into a dynasty. The eldest son and heir to the Courage brewing family he attended Eton College.
To most people this would be enough. To be born into a successful wealthy family, being the next in line to take on the mantle and run the business, which would go global. No. This was not in the plan of Piers Courage. He wanted to race and not for the money, he wanted to race because he bloody well enjoyed it.
Like a few other drivers of the era, he began racing his own Lotus 7 and he had his moments in the early days with a few hair-raising spins but he quickly moved on to tour the European Formula 3 circuit and he competed in his first full season in 1965. He drove a Brabham and this is where the friendship began with Frank Williams. Williams himself was driving for team boss Charles Lucas and also acted as a mechanic. Williams and Courage struck up a friendship. There were some good results and Piers Courage started to get noticed. One person who sat up and saw the enthusiastic talent of this driver was none other than the legendary Colin Chapman.
Piers Courage was offered a seat at Lotus for the 1966 Formula 3 season. He wouldn’t be as competitive as those around him, said the experts, the Brabham’s would dominate the series and go on to take the accolades. Courage performed to such an outstanding level that he was stepped up to Formula 2.
In 1967 he signed for BRM to drive alongside Chris Irwin. He crashed a lot. Piers Courage had this maverick driving style that would see him spin out or crash more than what was acceptable in motor racing. He was labelled reckless, some said that because he was racing just for fun that he was not taking the sport seriously. He was dropped after the Monaco Grand Prix in 1967. He competed the rest of the season in a Formula 2 McLaren M4A and managed to finish fourth in the drivers’ championship, which at that level was unclassified.
For 1968 he was offered a drive at Reg Parnell Racing in a BRM P126. He performed well, he scored points at the French and Italian Grand Prix’s and aside from this he still competed in Formula 2 for his friend Frank Williams. It was in 1969, when Frank Williams decided to step his racing empire up to Formula One that Piers Courage got his shot at being the first choice driver.
Two podiums at Monaco and the United States Grand Prix saw him finish 8th in the Championship, the third best British driver behind Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. Some say that the finest race of his career came in this season at Monza.
Courage had a difficult start to the 1970 season. The Williams team had switched to a newly designed chassis from De Tomaso. It was overweight, it was unreliable and it just didn’t work. Piers Courage struggled to get any points, but things looked like changing at the Dutch Grand Prix when he qualified 9th on the grid. He started the race well, but disaster struck.
Depending on what report you read it was either the front suspension or the steering that broke on the bump at Tunnel Oost. Courage’s car went hurtling straight on up the bank and broke apart. The engine broke loose and the monocoque burst into flames. The De Tomaso chassis was made of magnesium and it just burned.
Piers Courage died at the age of 28 at Zandvoort. It is said that he died on impact from a broken neck or fatal head injury.
I have not posted pictures of the crash because I want to celebrate his fun, yet short, life, not his death.
In an era of British drivers that had produced Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart to name but a few, Piers Courage is largely a forgotten man. He never won a world championship or a grand prix. He never posted a fastest lap or a pole position. Yet, at a time when death was accepted in Formula One, he gave his life doing just something he truly loved.
Piers Courage did not need to race cars. He certainly did not need the money and fame that came with Formula One, but he chose to do so because it was his passion. He loved racing, he loved life and he loved being surrounded by those people who loved it too. It is said that Frank Williams has never truly recovered from the death of his friend.
Whether that is true or not, on that fateful day in Zandvoort, British motor racing lost one of its most iconic and fun characters. He had the ability to win races and possibly even a championship, but he was just taken too soon from our world.
Piers Courage, no longer the forgotten man.
See you at the chequered flag.