Ronnie Peterson would have turned 74 this year. It’s difficult to imagine what he might have looked like, since the Swede with the blond hair had a perpetual boyish expression, usually coupled with an innocent, slightly puzzled look.
His appearance 40 years ago at Monza was exactly that, despite having suffered the trauma of crashing during a 30-minute warm-up session on race morning.
A return of brake trouble evident during practice had sent the black and gold Lotus 79 through catch fencing at the Della Roggia chicane and into the barrier. The damage was severe enough to force a switch to the less competitive back-up car, a Lotus 78. Ronnie seemed resigned and calm — situation normal — as he stood with his hands deep in the pockets of his yellow overalls while watching the Lotus mechanics install a fresh Ford-Cosworth DFV in the spare car (no such thing as grid penalties in 1978).
The Italian Grand Prix would be round 14 of a 16-race season. Peterson had won two of them but, by dutifully finishing second behind Mario Andretti in Belgium, Spain, France and Holland, Ronnie had stuck by the terms of his contract. And was happy to do so.
After a struggle with March and Tyrrell, which brought just one victory during the previous two seasons, a return to Lotus (for whom Peterson had driven in 1974 and 1975) revived his career to the point of being offered a contract to replace James Hunt at McLaren for 1979.
Not only was Peterson quick and spectacular, he had also proved he was an honourable man, refusing more than once to outshine Andretti when, by Mario’s own admission, Ronnie was more than capable of doing so. The anticipated crowning of the American as champion at Monza would be the culmination of a happy and respectful working relationship between the two.
Peterson’s previous time with Lotus had been less productive. Having made his F1 debut with the fledgling March team in 1970, Ronnie’s signature with Lotus contract for 1973 brought a frisson of excitement among F1 followers. He may have been placid out of the car but, once on board the chuckable Lotus 72, ‘SuperSwede’s’ extrovert talent flowed through sideways, full-throttle attacks at anything resembling a corner.
Silverstone’s old Woodcote, approached flat out from Abbey Curve, was a classic example. Standing in the pits (in their former location), you could hear him coming; a mix of pulsating revs, chirping tyres — and then momentary disbelief followed by a rush of rapt appreciation from the grandstand opposite.
He won four races that year, but a no-holds-barred battle with Emerson Fittipaldi allowed Jackie Stewart to come between the Lotus drivers and take a third title for Tyrrell. That was one of the reasons behind a clear demarcation of responsibility in 1978.
Andretti was on pole at Monza for the seventh time that season, sharing the front row with the emerging talent of Gilles Villeneuve in his Ferrari. The start was a shambles. The local dignitary in charge of the lights, perhaps intimidated by the blipping Ferrari beneath him, let the field go before the back half had reached their grid positions. With the wide straight before them, several drivers floored the throttle to bunch the field as it rushed towards a bottleneck created at the point where Monza’s ancient banking peeled off to the right.
Peterson compounded his third-row disadvantage by making a poor getaway, a combination of factors that would become lethal as the field piled into the bottleneck, where contact was inevitable. The Lotus was spun sideways before spearing into the crash barrier on the right and ripping off the front of the aluminium monocoque to sever fuel lines. A massive orange ball of flame, clearly visible from the main grandstand, momentarily engulfed several cars as they collided.
A marshal with one small extinguisher did his best to contain the fire around the cockpit of the Lotus while two drivers, James Hunt and Clay Regazzoni, dived into the smoke and flames and pulled Peterson free. It was immediately obvious that Ronnie had suffered serious leg injuries.
Peterson was eventually removed to hospital. When news came through that his badly broken limbs were not considered life-threatening, it allowed Lotus to enjoy the muted celebration of a championship won after Andretti had finished sixth in the restarted race.
The following morning, while en route to visit Peterson at Niguardia hospital, Andretti learned from a tollbooth attendant that his friend and team-mate had died from an embolism following emergency surgery on his legs.
“That weekend was the greatest moment of my racing career, and the worst,” recalls Andretti. “Ronnie should never have died of those injuries at the hospital. That was one of the reasons why we went on to create our own medical support with Professor Sid Watkins, a fabulous man who understood.
“To lose Ronnie was to lose family. I just could not believe it when the guy in the tollbooth told me. We had developed a friendship that took us beyond the racetrack. I spent time at Ronnie’s home; he spent time at my home. During the race weekend we’d play tennis together. We had an honest relationship as good friends, but also as the fiercest of competitors, because that’s what good friends really are.
“Ronnie Peterson was a very special guy, no question.”