What should have been a triumphant weekend at Monza for Lotus as Mario Andretti was crowned world champion, proved a tragic one as it was completely overshadowed by the death of his team-mate Ronnie Peterson.
Peterson, in an old Lotus 78 after a big crash in practice, was involved in a multi-car pile-up on the first corner of the race for which the starter had to take much of the blame. As the cars returned to the grid after the warm-up lap, the green light was shown while some cars at the back were still moving, resulting in a shambolic melée going into the bend at the end of the straight as the tailenders caught those at the front. "There are always idiots who don't know how to start the race properly," Lauda said afterwards.
Riccardo Patrese, who had been one of those to get a flying start, collided with James Hunt, setting off a chain-reaction that launched Peterson's Lotus into the barriers, tearing it in half before it burst into flames. Hunt ran back and braved the flames to drag Peterson clear of the wreck helped by Clay Regazzoni. As Peterson lay on the track, conscious but with appalling injuries to his legs, it took almost 15 minutes for him to receive medical attention while the Italian police formed a cordon blocking anyone, including those offering medical assistance, near the accident.
When the medics did arrive they first treated Vittorio Brambilla, who had what was believed to be a serious head injury, and he was airlifted to hospital. Only then did attention turn to Peterson. On his arrival at hospital he was found to have 27 fractures and he was immediately operated on. He was moved to intensive care in a stable condition, but complications soon followed and he died early the next morning. He was 34.
Back at Monza the track was cleared and three hours later the 19 cars still running re-started the race. Even then there was more controversy as Jody Scheckter's Wolf lost a wheel and crashed heavily. He walked away but it was obvious the barriers had not held up well and another long delay ensued while they were repaired.
Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve both jumped the lights and although they led the field, it was announced at the halfway stage that they had both been penalised 60 seconds. Unaware of this the pair raced hard, Andretti finally passing the Ferrari six laps from the end.
Although Andretti took the chequered flag, Lauda, back in third, was awarded the race with Andretti relegated to sixth.
Lotus' celebrations that night were almost non-existent. By the next morning the drivers' and constructors' titles seemed irrelevant. "What should have been the happiest day of my life has turned out to be the saddest," Andretti said.
Several drivers, with Hunt the most vocal, laid the blame on Riccardo Patrese and he was immediately banned for the next race in the USA by a kangaroo court of his fellow drivers who refused to race if he did. It was a tawdry end to a tragic weekend. Patrese, together with the official starter, stood trial in 1981 for Peterson's death but both were found not guilty. The world of Formula One had by then also accepted that Patrese was not to blame for the tragedy.