Racing cars is dangerous. But some fans and drivers are only reminded of the peril when tragedy strikes. Formula 1 racing has had its fair share of accidents over the years. As tragic as they were, they’ve helped improve safety measures for future drivers. Ronnie Peterson’s death in 1978 was extremely troublesome. Because of it, the Formula One Constructors Association implemented changes to help future drivers.
Ronnie Peterson’s career
Peterson, a Swedish driver, got his start in kart racing, a discipline where many Formula One racers began. After a few short years, he worked his way up to the March factory team on the Formula One circuit. He was successful in his three years with the team, taking to the podium six times during his tenure there. Next, he joined Team Lotus and had some of the best runs of his career with them.
He was the No. 2 driver to Mario Andretti, and although Peterson had the reputation as the faster driver, he often deferred to Andretti. A fact that Andretti himself seemed to acknowledge years later. Either way, Ronnie Peterson was one of the best race car drivers of the ’70s. His death paved the way for a much-needed upgrade to safety standards that keep drivers safe even today.
On the initial lap of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Peterson’s Lotus was struck by another car and sent into the barriers, crushing the front end. Another car careened into him, and his Lotus burst into flames. One of the drivers was able to pull Peterson out of the car while personnel was dealing with the fire. According to Atlas F1, it took almost 20 minutes before an ambulance arrived.
Peterson had severe leg injuries and underwent surgery to stabilize his broken bones. Shortly after, in the ICU, his condition took a turn for the worse. Peterson’s kidneys began to fail, and doctors officially declared him brain-dead the next morning. A fat embolism, a rare condition where fat blocks circulation in the blood vessels, starved his organs of oxygen. His death stunned the racing world and led to various rule changes.
Following Peterson’s death, Formula One made changes to the Monza track. Barriers were moved back because of safety concerns, and the pit underwent a redesign. One of the biggest precautions implemented after Peterson’s death was the addition of a medical car during the first lap. The intention of this car was to quickly aid any driver who needed medical attention, cutting down the chances of serious injuries or death.
Many wonder if Peterson would have lived if he received faster medical care at the circuit instead of waiting for the delayed ambulance. The response of the fire marshall was also reviewed and since then, their quick actions have saved many lives.
The city of Orebro, Sweden, honored their hometown hero. Historic Racing remembers the flowers covering his entire funeral. In fact, no other funeral had more flowers than Ronnie Peterson’s. Sweden also erected a statue in his honor so fans can remember him. At the time of the accident, Peterson left behind a wife, Barbro, and an almost-three-year-old daughter, Nina. Her husband’s death crushed Barbro, and she took her own life in December 1987. She was buried next to Ronnie in a family grave.