Remembering Ronnie Peterson 01 Sep 2005
The fearsome reputation that the original Monza circuit enjoyed was well deserved - in addition to spectacular racing, the Italian track was also the scene for many horrendous accidents.
In 1928, with the circuit barely six years old, a terrible crash saw both Emilio Materassi and 27 spectators die after his Talbot ploughed into a grandstand. In 1933 no fewer than three top-flight Grand Prix drivers died in a single weekend there (the Czech aristocrat Count Czaykowski, also Italians Giuseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini). Both Alberto Ascari and Wolfgang Von Trips were killed there, the Italian while testing in 1955 and the German after a crash with Jim Clark sent him cartwheeling into the crowd, killing himself and 13 spectators.
And by the 1970s, as Formula One racing entered what would prove to be its most dangerous phase, Monza was the scene for more tragedy. First came the death of Jochen Rindt in 1970 after a massive crash at the Parabolica (and while leading the world championship). And then, in 1978, another tragic loss - that of Ronnie Peterson.
Despite being a quiet man when not racing, Ronnie Peterson was one of Formula One racing's most exuberant characters on the track - famous for the spectacular car control that allowed him to drive the fearsomely fast machines of the day considerably beyond their natural limits. The Swedish driver made his mark in spectacular style when he switched from the March to Lotus teams in 1973, winning four Grands Prix that year and three more in 1974. In 1976, driving for March again, he had won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza from an eighth place grid position after a hard-fought race saw him cross the line 2.3 seconds ahead of Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari.
By 1978 Peterson had rejoined the Lotus team and, with the ultra-competitive ground-effect Lotus 79, he and team-mate Mario Andretti were dominating the season. By the time they got to Monza, Peterson had already claimed victories in South Africa and Austria and Andretti had taken six wins and was well on the way to taking the drivers' championship.
At Monza, Andretti sat on pole position, but Peterson had been forced to qualify the older Lotus 78 after mechanical gremlins struck, and was down in fifth place. His position in the middle of the pack was to prove disastrous. As the race began, Riccardo Patrese and James Hunt touched as they raced for position in the run up to the first corner - with the Englishman's McLaren then clipping Peterson's car and sending him into a heavy collision with the barriers. Before anything could be done Vittorio Brambilla's Surtees, starting from the back of the pack, had run into the wreckage of Peterson's car, the Lotus instantly bursting into flames.
James Hunt heroically pulled Peterson from the burning car. The Swede's legs were very badly broken and he had suffered from mild burns, but his condition did not appear to be life-threatening. The confused rescue response led to a delay before an ambulance arrived, but then Peterson was quickly transferred to the track's medical centre and then onwards by helicopter to hospital - where x-rays showed his legs were broken in 27 places. Surgeons operated to pin the broken bones back together and, by the evening, he was reportedly stable and facing what would have been a long recovery.
Disaster struck early the following morning when Peterson was killed by an embolism - fat from his damaged legs blocking blood circulation and starving his brain of oxygen. The shock throughout the Formula One world was intensified by Peterson's reportedly stable condition the night before - and the sport fell into mourning for one of its great lost talents.
Yet some good did come from this horrific misfortune. Peterson's death was one of the critical milestones in improving the safety of Formula One racing. Medical intervention was improved under the direction of Professor Sid Watkins, with the principle of the medical car introduced. Marshalling and fire-fighting procedures were also reformed, while the impact protection of cars also benefited from increased emphasis.
The tragedy being, of course, that Peterson never got to benefit from any of the reforms his untimely death brought about.