|Born||14 February 1944|
|Formula One World Championship Statistics|
|Team||John Player Team Lotus|
After spending 1977 with Tyrrell, Ronnie Peterson moved back to Lotus for the 1978 season as "number two" driver to Mario Andretti. Peterson scored two wins, at the South African and Austrian Grand Prix races, and would finish second in the Drivers' Championship standings despite a fatal first-lap accident at Monza during the Italian Grand Prix.
Peterson surprised many by leaving Tyrrell to return to John Player Team Lotus for 1978. He won the 1978 South African Grand Prix, with a last-lap victory over Patrick Depailler, as well as the Austrian Grand Prix, in the innovative 'ground effect' Lotus 79. His teammate Mario Andretti won the Drivers' Championship with Peterson acting effectively as the Team "No. 2" with the pair scoring four 1–2 wins, all with Mario at the lead. Both of Peterson's wins occurred when Andretti encountered trouble, with Mario winning once when Peterson failed to finish (not including the Italian Grand Prix). Many times Peterson followed Andretti closely home, leading to speculation that 'Team Orders' were in place.
Throughout the 1970s Peterson had the reputation of being the fastest driver in F1 in terms of raw speed. During the 1978 season Andretti would frequently post the faster qualifying time. Perhaps refusing to believe the American could beat Peterson in a head to head contest, many came to believe that team orders extended even to qualifying. Another view, held by some contemporary observers, was that while Peterson may have in fact been the outright quicker of the two, it was Andretti's considerable car development skills that brought the recalcitrant Lotus 78 and 79 to full potential, and Peterson's seeming deference to Andretti was a tacit acknowledgement of this. Despite this, Peterson was offered a seat at McLaren at 1979. To his credit, Peterson refused to contribute to any controversy, and on numerous occasions dismissed the speculation by stating that Andretti had simply turned the faster time.
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.
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. Sid Watkins and his medical team headed over Peterson's car to extract him from the wreckage. The injured drivers along with Peterson were taken to a 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, Peterson was sent to intensive care so that the surgeons would be allowed 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 at 9:55am on September 11, 1978. The cause of death was given as fat embolism.
Teammate Mario Andretti clinched the championship at the race. "It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career", Andretti said, "I couldn't celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me".
Peterson ran a total of 123 Grand Prix races during his career, winning ten of them.
At his funeral, the pallbearers included Ken Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, John Watson, Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda.
Complete Season resultsEdit
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)
|1978||John Player Team Lotus||Lotus 78||Cosworth V8|| ARG|
|Lotus 79|| ESP|
| USA|| CAN|