1978 Italian Grand Prix race report

Niki Lauda (Brabham) driving at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Monza.

Niki Lauda won a tragic race tainted by the death of Ronnie Peterson

Motorsport Images


Practice began on Friday morning under warm and sunny skies and 28 contestants were ready to qualify for the 24 places on the starting grid. To support the idea that nobody in the Formula One world can get it right there were the usual anomalies created by the constructors’ union. The ATS team had lost the services of Jochen Mass, who was in hospital in Northampton following a bad accident at Silverstone while testing the new D1 ATS, which had appeared briefly at Zandvoort previously. A mechanical failure had turned the car sharp left into the barriers at the end of Hangar Straight and Mass suffered severe leg injuries. His place at Monza was taken by the inexperienced Dutchman Michael Bleekemolen, while the second car was driven by Harald Ertl, who had failed to qualify in the pre-practice qualifying held the previous Sunday, in the second works Ensign. There were changes in the Surtees team as Rupert Keegan still had his arm in a sling, following his accident in the warm-up session at Zandvoort. His place was taken by Carlo Franchi, who races in Italy under the name “Gimax”. By all accounts he is little more than a Club driver and certainly not a “works” Formula One driver. Left out of the practice by reason of the previous Sunday session of selection were Rosberg (Wolf) and Colombo (Merzario). The list of acceptables was headed by Rebaque (Lotus 78), with Piquet and Lunger behind in the B & S McLarens.
In spite of the size of the Monza pits the Formula One scene overflows and in the past the lesser lights have had to “make-do” on the grass verge at the start of the pit lane. This year the “big-name” teams were made to leave their spare Cars by the grass verge so that there was room for everyone to have the use of a pit, or part of one. It never ceases to amaze to see the surplus cars at a Grand Prix, there always being enough to put on a respectable non-championship race, but such is the affluence in Formula One today that some of the smallest teams have complete spare cars standing by. The days of Monza being the debut for new designs intended for the following season are long gone, so there was little that was new, apart from rebuilt or replaced cars following the accidents at Zandvoort. The spare Brabham (BT46/6) was using an engine running on SPICA injection once more, Pironi’s wreckage from the Dutch GP was beyond redemption and he was using the original Tyrrell 008/1, which is really the test-car, while Andretti’s Lotus 79/4 had been fitted with a cable control from a knob on the right of the scuttle, to the brake balance bar down by the pedals, in order to alter the balance of the brakes between front and rear. Tyrrells have used this idea for ages! This means that Andretti now has eight things to play with in the cockpit, three pedals, a steering wheel, gear-lever, rear roll-bar control, front roll-bar control and brake-balance control. Never a dull moment in the number one Lotus 79! Rcutemann’s Ferrari (036) had megaphone ended exhaust pipes, while Villeneuve’s car (034) and the spare car (035) had the normal straight tail-pipes. Fittipaldi was happily in his number one car, though the team are expecting great things from their “Seventy-nine beater” which Ralph Bellamy is designing and building in Sao Paulo. Both the Renault cars were using the water-cooled inter-cooler layout this time, the system having proved its worth, while piston-ring problems were hopefully overcome and big things were anticipated by the team. The Shadow team were still juggling with rear aerofoils, but the end-plate mounting looked to be the best bet, and the cars of Stuck and Regazzoni were both using this layout, though the spare retained the old central-pillar style of mounting. Team Surtees were back to two cars, after TS20/02 was severely damaged at Zandvoort, while Wolf had WR5 and WR6 present, but Scheckter had no intention of using WR5 as it did not feel as nice as WR6. The Ensign team built up MN07 as their first car, with Ertl’s MN06 as the spare, as MN08 had been bent at Zandvoort in the first lap collision. The number two Williams car, that crashed heavily at Zandvoort, had been rebuilt and was the team spare, Jones concentrating on FW06/001, and the Arrows team had completed a third car in their hew series and this replaced A1/1 crashed by Patrese at Zandvoort.

Mario Andretti (Lotus) driving at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Monza.

Andretti claimed yet another pole position in his Lotus

Motorsport Images

The day that one or other of the Lotus team do not set the pace in practice something will have gone wrong. This time it was Andretti who was well away, with everything going right for him. In no time at all he was in a class of his own, with seemingly good times by other drivers being a second or more slower. Before Peterson could really get up with his team-mate his Cosworth V8 engine went bang and he coasted into the pit lane and that was that. Derek Daly came in with smoke pouring from the right-front wheel, due to a brake caliper pipe failure, and he continued in the spare Ensign. Rebaque had to change from his Lotus 78/4 to his new spare (78/2) when a wheel bearing seized up, and Villeneuve was using the spare Ferrari after his own broke its engine and going quicker than Reutemann, but neither of them were in the Lotus class. In the Brabham pit everything was going wrong, Lauda’s engine blowing up very early on. so that he had to use the Spare car, and Watson skated over a kerb and cracked the sump on his car (again!). Rebaque spun off at one of the chicanes and filled his car with gravel, and altogether the first practice session was a bit disorderly and there was a lot of work to do during the lunch break. It was still warm and dry in the afternoon for the hour of practice, though not everyone was ready, Lauda’s car still being worked on having a new engine installed, and Peterson’s Lotus 79 not being finished. Lauda began practice with the spare Brabham, changing to his own car when it was ready, but Peterson had to stick with the Lotus 78 as his car did not get finished. The spare Lotus 79 is the original prototype on which the bulkhead structure over the cockpit was very small, and Peterson cannot get into the cockpit. Subsequent cars had a redesigned structure giving more room. Lunger’s McLaren M26 had broken its gearbox in the morning and was still being repaired in the pit-lane when afternoon practice began, but Rebaque’s Lotus 78/4 had been repaired and he was back in it. Daly was still driving the spare Ensign and Jabouille was trying both Renault cars again. The turbocharged 1 1/2-litre French car was proving to be miles an hour faster than anyone else along the main straight, consistently registering a passing speed that was 5 or 6 m.p.h. faster through the Frank Williams Team’s electronic speed trap. This had shown up in the morning lap times when Jabouille was third fastest, behind the two Lotus cars, and in the afternoon, though the increase in ambient temperature slowed most people the Renault was still among the top runners. In the Italian 12-cylinder battle the Ferraris were well on top over the Brabham-Alfa Romeos, but not up at the front as they would have liked to have been. Villeneuve was still faster than Reutemann and was back in his own car 034) and looking very confident and determined. In the “chess-game” of drivers changing teams he is to stay at Ferrari, with Scheckter next year, and was setting a pace that was going to make the South African sweat a bit. Reutemann was said to be joining Lotus as Peterson was moving to McLaren and Hunt was going to Wolf, all of which made practice seem a bit academic, apart from those who were remaining faithful to their 1978 teams. Peterson was two seconds off Andretti’s pace in the afternoon with the Lotus 78, but there was no incentive to try too hard in an obsolete car. However Rebaque tried too hard in his Lotus 78/4 which had been repaired and had another “off” at a chicane and creased the front end, so it was back to the earlier car. As usual Laffite in the Ligier-Matra V12 was having a needle match with Jones in the Williams-Cosworth V8 for the best non-favoured Goodyear-shod car, and the Australian was winning by a hairs-breadth. Another personal needle match was going on between the four young newcomers, Daly, Piquet, Giacomelli and Patrese, with little to Choose between them to start with, but finally Patrese eased ahead with a good time of 1 min. 39.831 sec., though it was two seconds off the pace of the leader, and well behind Jones and Laffite.

Conditions remained stable for the untimed practice session on Saturday morning, though trouble was rife. Reutemann was in the spare Ferrari but was disgruntled as he didn’t like it compared to his usual car (036), and the management wanted him to race it. Andretti tried the spare Lotus 79 briefly, and Jones was out in the spare Williams. Peterson was in trouble with overheating rear brakes on his Lotus 79 and then suffered clutch slip as the main gearbox oil seal leaked and let oil seep along the primary shaft. Lauda’s Brabham broke another Alfa Romeo engine and a new one was installed in a fantastically quick time, while Rcgazzoni’s Shadow broke its engine as did Tambay’s McI.aren. Laffite was trying the spare Ligier when its Matra V12 broke and altogether there was a scene of mechanical chaos after what was supposed to have been a period for setting-up the cars for handling on full petrol tanks and raceworthy tyres. Another hard lunch break followed for the mechanics, Brabhams were working feverishly on Lauda’s car (BT46/7), Lotus were flat-out on Peterson’s car (79/2), Shadow were in the same state with Regazzoni’s car (DN9/4A-3)) while McLaren had covered over Tambay’s car (M26/3) and were fitting him into M26/1. The final hour saw Lauda start off with the spare Brabham, now running on normal Lucas fuel-injection, until his own car was finished. Peterson had to sit around and wait for his car to be finished, but Regazzoni was out in the spare Shadow. Reutemann started off in the spare Ferrari (035) but very soon abandoned it with no fuel pressure and was back into his own car. Villeneuve was really getting on with the job and being most impressive on his first visit to Monza. Stuck was in trouble with an internal water-leak in the Cosworth engine in his Shadow and the ATS team were shuffling about with their cars, putting Ertl into the spare one, but all to no avail as they were not fast enough. There was so much mechanical trouble and complication going on that actual laps times were almost overlooked, but it was no surprise to see Andretti way out ahead with a new standard of 1 min. 37.520 sec. Jabouille was worrying a lot of people with a time of 1 min. 37.930 Sec., which put him into the “Super-Ace” category, and then there was a big flurry as Villeneuve joined them in the elite 1 min. 37 sec. bracket with a time of 1 min. 37.866 sec. which gave him second fastest overall and put him on the front row of the grid alongside Andretti. Nobody else got within sight of these two and the Renault, and though Peterson’s car was finished before time ran out he could not improve on his Friday morning time. Lauda and Watson made their best times in this last session, but neither of them were in the running for the front of the grid. As always, Jones and Laffite were getting on with the job without too much fuss and with help from Goodyear they were both well up with the major teams. Alan Jones was actually sixth fastest overall, a mere whisker behind Peterson and on the third row of the grid, all done without the aid of a Cosworth Development engine or :a super-sophisticated aerodynamic “ground-effects” car, or an army of technicians, just a good, straight-forward, practical car and team and a “hard-nut” driver. A lot of people Could learn a lot from the 1978 Frank Williams team, but they won’t. As practice “wound down” many teams were relieved as things had not been going at all as planned and everyone was glad that the mechanical disasters were now over. The grid line-up was looking good with Lotus and Ferrari in the front row and Renault and Brabham in the second row. Cosworth V8 and Ferrari-flat 1 2. in the front row, and Renault turbo-charged V6 and Alfa-Romeo flatt 2 in the second row, all four makes having close association with serious motor manufacturers rather than “special-builders”. Perhaps Formula One is really an engineering exercise for motor manufacturers and not “entertainment by drivers” after all. Of far less importance was the fact that four drivers were eliminated from the grid, these being Rebaque (Lotus 78), Ertl CATS), Bleekemolen CATS) and “Gimax” (Surtees).


The 1978 Italian Grand Prix gets underway at Monza

The cars scramble away at the start

Motorsport Images

Sunday was a nice warm day but the crowds seemed slow in filling the Autodromo, little interest being shown in Alfa-Sud and Renault 5 saloon-car racing. The Grand Prix was due to start at 3.30 p.m. and there was a 30-minute test-session in the morning. In case anyone had last minute trouble Rebaque was out with them, as first reserve, but the ATS team had packed up and gone home. All seemed to be going well until Peterson had an accident at the second chicane and went through the catch fences and crumpled the front of his Lotus 79. The cause was said to he brake trouble, but Piquet who was behind him reckoned there was plenty of smoke coming off locked-up tyres. There was nothing for it but to hurriedly race-prepare Lotus 78/3 for the Swede to use.

Well before the starting time the cars began to leave the pit road, some, like Villeneuve’s Ferrari and Andretti’s Lotus to the vociferous cheers of the crowds, others to loud clapping, and some in relative silence, apart from their own exhaust noise. As the rest of the cars assembled on the grid Reutemann and Peterson dived into the pits for minor aerodynamic adjustments and then went round again to take their places on the 24car grid, lined up in pairs. A fraction before 3.30 Andretti and Villeneuve led the field away on the pace-lap, the lotus running straight and true, while Villeneuve and others went down the back straight in a series of zig-zags to put cornering loads on the tyres and raise the temperature of the rubber. At the end of the pace lap Tambay peeled off from his position on the tenth row and went into the pits to have his gear-change mechanism looked at. He was not to know how lucky this was to be for him. As the black and gold Lotus and the red and white Ferrari stopped at the starting-line the starter put the red light on, long before the rest of the field had got into their right places or the back half of the field had even arrived at the grid. Far too soon the green light came on, Villeneuve made a superb getaway, while Andretti was caught off balance and Lauda was alongside the Lotus as they got under way. Peterson made a hesitant start in the Lotus 78 and was engulfed by those behind him, but the back of the field were catching up fast having still been on the move when the green light shone. As the middle of the pack surged into the short straight leading to the first chicane there was a puff of white smoke, as of a magnesium wheel being graunched, a McLaren was seen to be out of control, then a sheet of flame and all hell broke loose. While the leaders were round the back of the circuit the red flag was out on the start-finish line and the race was stopped. Villeneuve, Andretti, Lauda and others came slowly up the straight from the Curve Parabolica amid a sea of waving yellow flags and stopped beyond the finishing line near the scene of the accident. From all accounts Patrese was on the righthand side of the pack trying to overtake Hunt, as they funnelled into the road circuit, and the Arrows hit the McLaren, which bounced across the road into Peterson’s Lotus which in turn was spun across the road, into the right-hand guardrail and was struck by Brambilla’s Surtees that was trying to avoid the melee down the righthand side. Also involved were Reutemann, Pironi, Regazzoni, Depailler, Daly, Stuck, and Lunger, who were all close behind, while Giacomelli, Merzario and Piquet scraped past. Hunt and Regazzoni dived into the flames of the burning Lotus 78 and hauled the injured Peterson out, while the fire was soon got under control by the fire-marshals. Peterson was taken to the Milan hospital by helicopter with severely broken legs, and slight burns, while Brambilla was taken by ambulance suffering severe head injuries. Everyone returned to the pits somewhat shaken and it was announced that the race would be restarted once the track had been cleared, and drivers would be allowed to use spare cars where available. The grid would form up as before, with spaces left for any non-starters.

One by one the wrecks were brought back to the paddock, the Lotus 78/3 totally destroyed, Hunt’s McLaren M26/5 with the front and rear wiped off, Brambilla’s Suttees TS20/01 with the front written off, Depailler’s Tyrrell 008/3-2 with the rear end demolished, Regazzoni’s Shadow DN9/4A-3 battered from all directions; Lunger’s McLaren M26/6 with the right front corner torn off, Daly’s Ensign MN07 with the back end written off, Pironi’s Tyrrell 008/1 also with the rear end smashed and Reutemann’s Ferrari (036) with an enormous tyre mark on its right side and generally knocked about. Stuck’s Shadow was wheeled back unharmed, but the lanky German had been struck on the head by a flying wheel and was suffering from slight concussion and was advised not to attempt to take part in the restart. It was nearly 5 p.m. before all the mess was cleared up and the track was cleaned. Nineteen cars left the pit lane to drive round the circuit to line up on the grid, ready for a restart at 5.15 p.m., but only 18 returned. Going through the second part of the Lesmo corners at around 130 m.p.h. Scheckter found his Wolf WR6 would not respond to the steering and he struck the guard-rail on the left an enormous blow and cannoned across to the other side of the track with the left-side of the car totally demolished. He was unhurt and got an ambulance to return him to the pits, where his team had got WR5 out on the grid ready for him. As the rest of the field had arrived on the grid some of the drivers, who had seen the accident, got out of their cars and rushed across to race control to get the second start delayed as the Armco barriers were leaning over perilously where the Wolf had struck them. There was much confusion as to why there was another delay and officials and drivers went off to look at the damage and repairs were started. Very little information was forthcoming and the crowds began to whistle and shout, not knowing why there was another hold-up. time was passing and the sun was going down and there was a feeling that the 49th Italian GP was not going to happen. At 5.50 p.m. it was announced that the race would take place and the distance would be shortened from 52 laps to 40 laps, in accordance with FIA regulations which allowed a race to count for full Championship points and money if run more than three-quarters of the total distance.

Ronnie Peterson at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Monza.

Ronnie Peterson was caught up in the opening lap melee and sadly succumbed to his injuries the next day

Motorsport Images

It was shortly after 6 p.m. when the 19 cars went off on their pace lap, led by Andretti and Villeneuve once more. They were lined up in original grid order, with a gap behind Jabouille’s Renault where the unfortunate Peterson should have been; Scheckter was in Wolf WR5, with Reutemann behind him in Ferrari (035); in the next row was a gap where Pironi should have been, as Depailler had taken the spare Tyrrell 008/5; Regazzoni was in the spare Shadow DN9/1A, Daly was in the spare Ensign MN06, with a gap alongside him where Stuck should have been, and at the back on the left were gaps where Lunger and Brambilla should have been. It was nearly 6.15 p.m. before the cars were lined up on the grid, this time the starter holding them until everyone was stationary and in place, and then waiting a long time before switching on the red light. On the front row Villeneuve and Andretti were getting distinctly twitchy and began to creep forward. long before the green light appeared Villeneuve let in his clutch and was gone, with Andretti in hot pursuit, while the rest of the field waited for the green light, which appeared the moment the front pair had gone. Everyone except Fittipaldi got ‘away, the yellow Brazilian car being left behind with a seized clutch withdrawal mechanism. By the time Fittipaldi jerked away everyone. had gone.

The roar of the crowd told who was first out of the Curva Parabolica, but the Lotus was alongside as the two cars crossed the line to end lap 1. Side-by-side they went into the first chicane but the young French-Canadian sat it out with Andretti and held the lead away onto the second lap. In third place was Jabouille with the Renault, followed by Lauda, Reutemann, Jones, Patrese, Daly, Laffite, Scheckter, Watson, Tambay, Regazzoni, Giacomelli, Piquet, Depailler, Hunt, Merzario and Fittipaldi. Some of the drivers who were in their spare cars were not showing much enthusiasm for trying too hard, and who can blame them, and anyway it was a two-car race, as had been obvious since the end of practice. Villeneuve’s Ferrari continued to lead Andretti’s Lotus, much to the joy of the crowd, and it didn’t look as though the Lotus driver could do much about it. They were pulling away front the Renault, which itself was pulling away from Lauda and the rest. At the end of four laps Regazzoni went into the pits to have the brakes looked at on the spare Shadow, and on lap 6 the Renault dropped out at the pits with a broken engine. After a very slow opening lap during which there seemed something odd about his car, John Watson got going properly and moved rapidly up the field from his lowly eleventh place. At eight laps Andretti made a pass at the leading Ferrari as they braked at the end of the back straight, but didn’t follow through and dead-lock seemed to have set in, and if anything the Ferrari was pulling away. Already a long way behind, Lauda was holding third place after the demise of the Renault, but Reutemann was closing up on him. Watson had got by Daly, Laffite, Patrese and Jones and was now in fifth place, leaving Jones, Patrese and Laffite to have a close battle for sixth place. Right at the back Fittipaldi was going great guns and climbing through the tail enders in a very spirited fashion. There was still only one second between the Ferrari and the lotus at the head of the field when it wasannounced that they had both been penalised one minute for jumping the start, so officially Lauda was leading the race! But nobody really cared, it was all too Silly. The Ferrari team still gave Villeneuve pit signals telling him he was leading, yet they signalled to Reutemann that he was second. Knowing that Andretti and Lauda were between himself and his young team-mate the Argentinian justifiably thought his pit staff had gone mad. Andretti was beginning to feel trouble starting in his rear brakes and eased back quite a lot so that the leading Ferrari got more than five seconds ahead. Almost unnoticed Hunt dropped out with a dead engine in his McLaren when the ignition distributor broke, and Regazzoni had rejoined the race, such as it was. Watson began to dose on Reutemann with a view to taking fourth place on the road, but second on paper, while Alan Jones had to give best to Patrese and Laffite as his left front tyre began to lose pressure through a leaky valve. Patrese’s joy did not last long for the engine in the Golden Arrows broke and then Jones stopped for a tyre change, changing the left rear as well while he was in the pits. With ten laps to go the Ferraris began to slow as their Michelin tyres faded sooner than the rival Goodyears, and as Villeneuve dropped back into Andretti’s clutches, so Reutemann dropped back into Watson’s Clutches. It was just a matter of time before Andretti passed the leading Ferrari and in near dusk he completed the go laps to finish nearly three seconds ahead of Villeneuve in a race that most people were glad to see over. With their one-minute penalty the first two cars were relegated back to sixth and seventh overall, and Lauda was acclaimed the winner, but few people believed it or cared anyway. The enthusiasm of the public when it was all over was almost non-existent, and those that stayed only wanted Villeneuve and Andretti to appear on the winner’s rostrum. The Italian crowd were not even enthusiastic about the victory of the Alfa Romeo engine, even if they realised it, and nobody noticed that Brabhams had officially scored a 1-2 finish.

Ronnie Peterson (left) sits next to Mario Andretti at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Monza.

Andretti (right) won the driver’s title whilst team-mate Peterson (left) paid the ultimate price

Motorsport Images

Darkness fell before everything was cleared up, the news front the Milan Hospital was that Peterson would have to have a foot operated on that evening, with a chance that he might lose it, and the Italian GP fizzled out into the darkness and gloom, a day best forgotten about. D.S.J.

Footnote: Next morning we learnt that Ronnie Peterson had succumbed after the operation, his bodily condition unable to deal with the situation. That was all we needed to complete a really unhappy Italian GP.