Wednesday, May 16, 2012

F1 1978 Monza Ronnie Peterson fatal crash

The 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza started badly for Peterson. In practice he damaged his Lotus 79 race car beyond immediate repair and bruised his legs in the process. Team Lotus had a spare 79, but it had been built for Andretti, and the taller Peterson did not fit comfortably inside. The team's only other car was a type 78, the previous year's car, which had been dragged around the F1 circuit that season with minimal maintenance.

At the start of the race, the race starter threw the green light before the field was ready. The cars from fourth row onwards (Peterson started from the third) were rolling when the green light came on and got a jump on those ahead, resulting in an accordion effect as the cars approached the chicane, bunching them tightly together. The front four, Andretti, Villeneuve, Jabouille and Lauda, were far enough ahead to avoid any drama, but Peterson had made a poor start from fifth and was immediately passed by Alan Jones, Jacques Laffite and John Watson.

Ronnie Peterson

Jody Scheckter and Riccardo Patrese, starting 10th and 12th, had moved to the right across the line that separated the Grand Prix front straight from the approach to the old Monza banking. While Scheckter's Wolf was able to rejoin the track well ahead of the bunching pack, Patrese moved back in just ahead of James Hunt, who feinted left and collided with Peterson, with Vittorio Brambilla, Carlos Reutemann, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Patrick Depailler, Didier Pironi, Derek Daly, Clay Regazzoni and Brett Lunger all involved in the ensuing melee.

Peterson's Lotus went into the barriers hard and caught fire before bouncing back into the middle of the track. He was trapped in the burning wreck, but Hunt, Regazzoni and Depailler managed to free him before he received more than minor burns. He was dragged free and laid in the middle of the track fully conscious, his severe leg injuries obvious to all. Hunt later said he stopped Peterson from looking at his legs to spare him further distress.

At the time there was more concern for Brambilla, who was hit on the head by a flying wheel and was slumped comatose in his car (he later recovered and drove on in F1 until 1980). Peterson's life was not seen to be in any danger. The injured drivers were taken to hospital in Milan and the race was restarted when the track had been cleaned up.

At the hospital, Peterson's X-rays showed he had seven fractures in one leg and three in the other. After discussion with him, the surgeons decided to operate to stabilize the bones. During the night, bone marrow went into Peterson's bloodstream through the fractures, forming fat globules on his major organs including lungs, liver and brain. By morning he was in full renal failure and was declared dead a few hours later. The cause of death was given as fat embolism.