Grand Prix racing is the only major form of motor sport that still requires a standing start. It was precisely that method of beginning the Italian Grand Prix on Sept. 10 that triggered the 10-car crash at the Monza circuit in which Ronnie Peterson was fatally injured.
The starting grid at Monza had Mario Andretti on the pole in his John Player Lotus, with Ferrari's Gilles Villeneuve, a 26-year-old Canadian, beside him. Peterson had qualified fifth, but he had crashed his Lotus 79 during the morning warmup, losing his rear brakes and hitting a tree with the left side of his car. Consequently, for the race, Peterson had to use his backup car, a Lotus 78.
Just before the scheduled 3:31 p.m. start, the cars took a warmup lap. They were supposed to halt at the final starting grid, which is marked on the track. The starting device at Monza is a two-stage light. When the red light is on, all of the cars are supposed to be stopped on the grid. From one to 10 seconds after the red light flashes, the green starting light comes on, signaling the start of the race.
Chris Pook, the organizer of the Long Beach Grand Prix, was standing in the chicane at the end of the main straightaway where the start-finish line is located. "The leading cars came out of the last turn and onto the straight," he says, "and stopped as they came to the grid. The red light was on. Then, not three seconds later, the green flashed. The cars at the tail end of the pack were still rolling at about 60 miles an hour when the start signal flashed."
October 1, 1978
Some of the cars at the rear took understandable advantage of their flying start and tore up through the middle of the pack. Pook says, "Riccardo Patrese's car seemed to have hit James Hunt, who was right beside Ronnie at that point. It was just where the road began to narrow from a width of 80 feet to 40 feet. James touched wheels with Ronnie and the Lotus went into the right-side barrier. It bounced off, flaming, and shot across the track to crash into the left-side barrier." The cars were up to at least 125 mph at that moment, some as much as 145.
Hunt leaped out of his car and ran to help Peterson. Patrick Depailler, whose Tyrrell had also been disabled in the chain-reaction crash, and Clay Reggazoni, whose Shadow was likewise damaged, dashed over to assist. The three drivers reached into the flames and pulled Peterson clear.
The first three cars off the grid—Andretti's, Villeneuve's and the Brabham of defending world champion Niki Lauda—had disappeared through the chicane before the accident began. Before the end of their first lap the race was stopped.
"It was 17 minutes before an ambulance got to Ronnie," says Pook. "They took him to the field hospital, stabilized him, and then a helicopter flew him to Niguarda Hospital in Milan."
Peterson's legs were fractured in eight places and his right heel had been destroyed by the impact. He had first- and second-degree burns on his left arm and back. Andretti and Lotus team manager and owner Colin Chapman visited Peterson in the hospital about nine that night. They waited in a reception room while Peterson was in surgery. He had been taken to the operating room at 8 p.m., and a team of doctors worked over his legs for seven hours. All the medical bulletins Andretti and Chapman received predicted a slow but total recovery.
Unknown to anyone, though, a killer was loose in Peterson's body. Bits of bone marrow—fat emboli, the physicians call them—had osmosed into his bloodstream as a result of the multiple fractures. They entered his lungs and kidneys, throwing him into irreversible shock. He began to deteriorate rapidly. When his kidneys finally failed, he died, at 10:11 the next morning.
"Fat embolisms are only very tiny particles," says Professor Fred Watkins, a physician for the Formula I Constructors' Association and a teacher at the London Clinic, "but they have a disastrous effect. There is always the chance of that happening with a fractured bone and there is nothing one can do about it. There can certainly be no blame attributed to the hospital. They had the best facilities and gave the very best treatment."
There may be nothing anyone can do about fat emboli, but something can certainly be done about starting procedures at Monza and elsewhere on the Grand Prix circuit. On the restart of the race, nearly three hours after the crash, Andretti and Villeneuve were charged with jumping the green light and penalized a minute apiece. The green light went on a full 20 seconds after the red—10 seconds late. Though they crossed the start-finish line first and second, Andretti wound up sixth and Villeneuve seventh. Lauda was given the victory, with John Watson second.
Andretti had won his championship, but he had lost a close friend and teammate. Worse still, Grand Prix racing had suffered another brutal blow after 18 months without a fatality. Such tragedies could be averted if the Fèdèration Internationale de l'Automobile adopted a safer starting procedure in Formula I. A carefully controlled rolling start, in which each car is moving at the same speed, would be every bit as exciting, and far safer, than the system now in use. It would certainly save lives.