Reflections in the Royal Park

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Reflections in the Park were hazy to say the least, for apart from the chaos and absurdity of the result of the Italian GP as it was run, there was the sad news that Ronnie Peterson had succumbed after an operation on his badly injured legs sustained in the multiple pile-up just after the start. One could write pages on “SuperSwede” in the form of a formal obituary, but it would not do him any good. Suffice to say that he had no enemies or detractors in the world of motor racing, especially within the tight competitive circles of Formula One. Everyone liked and admired Ronnie Peterson for what he was, a born racer who only knew one way to drive and that was “flat-out”. It would be trite to say we shall miss him, of course we shall, all of us, inside the game and outside. He didnot get the nickname “Super-Swede” lightheartedly, there had been good racing drivers from Sweden before hint, and there will be more after him, but Ronnie Peterson was “Super-Swede”. He cannot be replaced. That he should die through no fault of his own, his car or his team, was irony at its worst. From the moment I arrived at Monza there was a feeling of unrest, for the Autodromo was plastered with posters attacking Ecclestone and Lauda for killing off the Alfa-Alfa F1 and others telling Ecclestone and his band to keep their hands off the Monza Autodromo and the traditions and sporting rights of Italian motor racing enthusiasts.

Following an abortive test session of the all Alfa Romeo Formula One car at the Paul Ricard circuit by Niki Lauda the word was put about that the whole project was being scrapped, though such words never came from Alfa Romeo themselves. The Italian enthusiasts were rightly indignant about the whole affair and did not mince their words in saying what they thought of Bernie Ecclestone and Niki Lauda. In the paddock and pits nobody seemed very interested in the Italian Grand Prix as such, as it was assumed that Andretti and Peterson would record another easy 1-2 for Lotus; there was more interest in the 1979 season, even though the USA East) Grand Prix and the Canadian Grand Prix had yet to run. This was brought about by numerous drivers admitting to their future plans and everyone seemed to be on the move. Scheckter had started it all by announcing (a little prematurely for the Commendazore) that he was going to Ferrari. Everyone assumed that Reutemann was staying and young Villeneuve W85 leaving, which was quite wrong. It was the Other way round. Peterson announced he was going to McLaren, Hunt was moving on to Wolf Racing, Reutemann was going to Lotus and Depailler was leaving Tyrrell to join Laffite in the Ligier team. There was such a Mixing up that the feeling was that we should end the 1978 season at once and start the 1979 immediately; it seemed pointless to go on, especially as Team Lotus had already won the Manufacturers’ Championship by an enormous margin, and Andretti could not really be stopped from becoming World Champion driver. However, things did not go at all smoothly for Team Lotus from the first morning of practice and when the whole affair was over everyone wished it had never happened. The loss of Peterson was bad enough, but to have victory taken away by a footling rule that is more suited to Formula Ford than Grand Prix racing was a bitter pill. It might have been better if the penalty had been cut to 75% like the race distance; it would have been more logical than taking a whole minute off Andretti’s time in a race lasting only 67 minutes. It was very clear that whatever happened the race was going to be between Villeneuve and Andretti, and as they both jumped the start a more logical decision would have been to ignore the whole thing. As it was, thanks to the Ferrari team’s strange management Villeneuve didn’t know he wasn’t second until the race was over Sontething will have to be done by the CSI and/or the Constructors Association about the present method of starting Formula One races. Previously the cars lined up on a “dummy-grid” before the start-line and, when everyone was ready with engines running and the track was clear of mechanics and officials, they all moved slowly forward to the proper-grid and the start was given. Apart from occasions when drivers took off at full-noise from the “dummy-grid” the system worked welt enough, until the field of cars was so long that the back of the field was out of sight of the proper start-line, as for example, at Silverstone, Hockenheirn, Monaco and so on, where there was a corner preceding the starting area. This difficulty caused the present system to be evolved, whereby the field lines up in the start area and does a “pace-lap” behind the poleposition driver. Ile and the driver next to him are supposed to regulate the speed of the “pace-lap”, but no matter how slowly they go the cars at the back of a 24 or 26 cars grid are bound to get left behind, due to normal convoy characteristics. When the front row arrives back at the starting (me they should be held there until the whole field have taken up their positions: on the grid and are all stationary. Then, and only then, should the red light be switched on, indicating that the green is to follow within ten seconds or so. If the start is given while the back of the grid arc still arriving it means that the front cars have to get adhesion and accelerate from o to say too m.p.h. before the first corner, while the back markers only have to accelerate from say 20 m.p.h. to too mph. the whole field bunches up instead of spreading out. This is exactly what happened in the start of this year’s Italian GP. It also happened at Hockenheim and at Zandvoort and on both occasions caused cars. to crash, fortunately with no casualties. In all cases the error was a human one, the controller of the starting lights being to blame.

The accident to Scheckter’s Wolf WR6 on the warm-up lap before the second start was most continued from previous page unusual. All Scheckter can recall is taking a normal line into the second Lesmo corner and turning the steering wheel only to suffer complete loss of front end adhesion and hitting the steel barrier an almighty blow, which bounced the car to the other side of the track. Some people reported seeing a wheel come off, but this wasn’t true for all the wheels were on the wreckage when it was returned to the paddock. The only thing to be seen on the spot was that the long fixing stud that passes through the left front wheel and has a conical washer and nut threaded on to the end to hold the wheel against the driving pins, was broken and the threaded end, the conical washer, the nut and the safety clip were all missing. The wheel was jammed hard onto the driving pins. ‘The left-front wishboncs were bent upwards at over 90-degrees and the wheel, the upright and the brake assembly had hit the top of the body near the oil cooler, in front of the cockpit. The left-rear upright was smashed and the whole assembly, including the rear wheel, was almost torn off the chassis, but was still attached by various members. When the wreckage was returned to the factory, designer Harvey Postlethwaitc carried out a thorough investigation. All the steering mechanism was intact, though bent, all the suspension members were still attached to the monocoque, though bent and there was no sign of anything breaking other than by the impact with the steel barrier. The broken wheel retaining stud showed clear evidence of an impact fracture and there was no sign of damage to the hub or brake caused by hitting the barrier, which suggested that the left front wheel and tyre had taken the blow. Unfortunately, while the car was being loaded into the transporter after dark, some souvenir-hunter stole the damaged wheel and tyre. The broken-off end of the retaining stud (not a stub axle as some described it) with its attendant washer and nut were never found. At the scene of the accident there was a single black line running dead straight to the point of contact with the steel barrier. If the accident was not caused by the wheel coming off, nor by the locating pin breaking, and certainly not due to any suspension breakage or steering failure the only answers left are “driver error” or tyre failure. Driver error would hardly have left a single black mark on the road and tyre-failure cannot be proved in the absence of the wheel and tyre. Like so many accidents we may never really know the cause. — D.S. J.

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