Case study #1, The death of Ronnie Peterson.

September 10th 1978. Italian Grand Prix, Monza.

Ronnie Peterson was one of the stars of Formula One. He was the fastest driver on the circuit, and one of the most likeable personalities in the industry. Born in Orebro, Sweden on 14th Feb. 1944, he started on the road to the pinnacle of motorsport at an early age. At 19, he was the Swedish Cart champion, a title he successfully defended for four years, before moving up into Formula 3, then eventually, Formula One in 1970. At the 1978 Monza Grand Prix, he had contested more International Formula One races than any of the other drivers at the time, 124, including 14 pole positions (24 front row starts), 10 wins (26 podium finishes), and held 9 track lap records. He had come second in the world championship in 1971, his second year of F1 racing, and was coming a close second to team mate Mario Andretti before the Monza race. Already that year, he had won the South African and Austrian GP's, come second in Belgium, Spain, France and Holland, third in Sweden, fourth in the US, and fifth in Argentina. His race car was the factory backed Lotus 79, powered by a 3.0 litre Ford V8, producing around 480 brake horse power at 10,500 rpm, about 20bhp down on power of the Ferrari 312's of Gilles Villenueve and Carlos Reuterman, but still just as competitive.

The lead up to the race at Monza had not gone well for Peterson. The first day of practice had seen him well off the pace with tyre problems. Day two wasn't bringing any joy either, with engine problems keeping his times back from the leaders. As if this wasn't enough, only allowing him to qualify 6th fastest, on the morning of the race, his brakes failed on the ultra-fast Lotus 79, causing him to damage the car beyond repair on a fence. He walked away from that accident with only minor bruising, and had to start the race in the spare car, the older Lotus 78.

At the start of a GP, the starter is meant to wait for all vehicles to be stationary before giving them the green light. It appears though in Monza, that the field had become too spread out during the warm up/parade lap, leaving the front section of the grid stationary for an extended period of time, while the back markers were still coming in to their respective positions. Formula One cars cannot remain stationary for very long before they begin to overheat, not having any fans to move air through the radiator. The starter, it seemed, became flustered by this wait, and let the field go before all vehicles were stopped, thus giving cars near the rear of the grid a rolling start. Almost unknown newcomer, Riccardo Patrese, who flew down the outside of the field as the leading cars fought for traction off the line, pressed this advantage home. This bunched up the entire field, as the cars approached a 'double-S' chicane seconds away from the start. Patrese, left with no place to go, moved in and touched the McLaren of James Hunt, who in turn was pushed across into Peterson's Lotus, sending the car out of control into the metal safety fencing at approximately 180km/h. As Peterson's car rebounded from the fence, he was then hit square in the side by the Team Surtees car of Vittorio Brambilla. The first five cars escaped unscathed, including Patrese, leaving a horror scene behind them, involving ten cars in all, strewn across the track, see figure below.

Ronnie Peterson hit the fence hard, the impact enough to destroy the entire front of the Lotus. Unable to move, with both legs shattered and crushed, he sat in his vehicle as nearly 200 litres of fuel from the ruptured fuel tanks erupted into flames around him. James Hunt, also involved in the accident, and with no thought for his own safety, rushed into the flames, unfastened Peterson's harness, and dragged his almost 2m tall frame from the wreckage, with the aid of another driver and a marshall. The fire wagon arrived shortly thereafter and put out the blaze, just before the incident degenerated into absolute chaos.

Reports vary as to the time it took for one of the seven ambulances at the race to get to Peterson's semi-conscious body, but he was "left lying on the tarmac for somewhere between 11 and 18 minutes" (Modern Motor 1978). The track doctor arriving on foot, having to fight through the throng of people, instead of using one of the fast emergency cars made useless by the crowd. An official was even seen at the time, trying to remove Peterson's helmet without undoing the retaining strap, just pulling at his head. The crowd had surged onto the track in an effort to see the carnage, causing the local police, many of them only cadets, to use force to prevent then overrunning the accident scene. This, however, also blocked the passage of those trying to help, such as Professor Sid Watkins, the Formula One surgical advisor who, even with the aid of an interpreter, could not convince the police to let him through. One of the team managers whose driver, Vittorio Brambilla, suffered severe head injuries in the accident, was smashed in the side of the neck with a truncheon, while others trying to help were hit with rifle butts.

When Peterson was finally admitted to the medical centre, the outlook was promising. The track medical team of six doctors, stabilised his smashed legs, and measured his vital signs which, amazingly, were almost normal. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital, a trauma centre approximately a 10 minute flight away, where he was operated on to secure the shattered pieces of bone, and to treat the burns on his shoulders. After the operation, he was given a very good chance of recovery. Five hours later he was dead, fat embolisms from the smashed bone had invaded the bloodstream, blocking capilliaries in his lungs, heart, eyes and brain. Ronnie Peterson was Monza's 56th victim in 55 years.

The problems with Monza could be traced back 8 years to 1970, the year Austrian Jochen Rindt was killed in practice and became the first posthumous World Drivers Champion. Race organisers were warned that speeds around the circuit were becoming too high. The track was without a doubt the fastest track on the international circuit, aided by the high steep banked corners (up to 80% superelevation at the top). In 1957, the best qualifying time on this track averaged 282.809 km.h even before slick tyres and aerodynamic aids. The best proposed solution was to cut down a group of trees in the park around the circuit and to put in a few corners or a wide chicane. The idea was to slow down the drivers before the Curve Grande, which was being approached at around 300km/h, see figure on right top. The only problem with this idea was that the age of conservation had begun and removing trees was no longer acceptable, regardless of the risk to the drivers. Instead, the race organisers put a chicane near the pits. They had the foresight to move the start finish line so the chicane was not taken on the first lap, giving the cars time to spread out. This chicane, the first on the diagram, was constructed by installing two islands on the track. The track was only 24m wide between the guardrails at this point, and with the two islands, the thoroughfare was 9m. This solution proved unsatisfactory with many accidents occurring in the chicane. See figure on the right bottom.

In 1976, the first chicane was moved closer to the Curve Grande and a second built immediately afterwards to form a double-S chicane, see figure on right. This new chicane forced a reduction in entry speed to the Curve Grande from over 300km.h to around 180km.h. This was fine in theory, however, there was not enough room for the chicane to be safe. Monza has a very wide straight that allows cars to spread out. The chicane then forces the cars to funnel down into single file through the corner. Adding to this, there was very little room for error between the guardrails, with no runoff areas. This 'bottleneck' was placed about 8-9 seconds from the starting line, which meant that the field was still very closely bunched, not having time to spread out. All of these factors, combined with the starters error made an accident inevitable. This track layout remains almost the same to this day, however the guard rails have been moved well back, from less than 20m on the Curve Grande to over 100m, sand traps have been installed, tyre barriers have been installed and the chicane has been made slightly wider. The start/finish line has also been moved back toward the Parabolica, giving drivers more time to get into formation through the chicane.

"The track facilities appeared adequate at the beginning of the event….. There were good medical facilities on hand, a team of six doctors and a surgeon. The medical centre was small and basic but had all the necessary vital equipment….. Seven ambulances were on standby around the circuit, of which two were mobile intensive care units. As well as the seven ambulances there were three fast cars placed around the track with doctors ready to respond to an emergency….. A helicopter was ready next to the medical centre if required, the nearest trauma centre at Niguardia only ten minutes away" (Watkins 1978). While any incident should have been attended within seconds, the crowd control delayed the response time. The crowd along the sides of the track was able to easily jump the fence and gain access to the track. With such a huge accident, everyone wanted to take a look. Within seconds of the accident occurring, hundreds of spectators invaded the track to gain a better view of the carnage. Swarms of police followed to stop the crowd overrunning the scene. A fire truck arrived in a reasonable time to extinguish the burning vehicles, but the ambulances and doctors were unable to move through the crowds causing a critical delay, a doctor eventually arriving on foot, an ambulance arriving more than 10 minutes after the incident itself.

The track was covered with damaged cars, debris, oil and fuel. The race organisers should have been well equipped to return the track to normal racing quickly and efficiently. This was not the case. It took over two hours before the track was cleared for the restart. Another driver crashed on the parade lap and the restart was delayed further while a section of guardrail was replaced. All around the track, there were no energy absorbing barriers. All the guardrail was steel ARMCO which did not deform as much as it should. Sand traps, runoff areas and tyre barriers, all mandatory today were almost non-existent in the 1970's. It took seven years from this tragedy before non-surmountable crowd control fences were finally erected in 1985, although tyre barriers were installed within months of the accident. The outside verge's of the high speed corners were extended in 1979 with the introduction of sand traps. In 1980, a service road for emergency vehicles was constructed on the inside of the circuit. The extra area required by these necessary upgrades was provided by the removal of the 400 trees which had impeded safety works for ten years. 1200 trees were planted elsewhere to keep the conservationists happy.

Plenty of safety work has been done on the track since the death of Ronnie Peterson, much of it as a direct consequence of the accident. The accident highlighted the need for track upgrades regularly to keep in line with the high advances in the technology of the cars involved. All the contributing factors in the accident should have been foreseeable and all could have been improved to reduce the severity of the impacts involved. Are 400 trees really worth more than the life of an international racing driver? In the future, race officials and the governing body, the FIA, must ensure that driver safety is the overriding concern in Formula One, regardless of excessive political correctness or the pressures of minority groups. Previous Next