Today in 1982: Start line crash in Canada kills Paletti

1982 Canadian Grand Prix flashback

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The turbulent 1982 season took another tragic turn 30 years ago today.

Young Italian racer Riccardo Paletti, making only his second F1 start, was killed when he crashed into Didier Pironi’s Ferrari at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix.

The recovery effort was hampered by an inferno which erupted moments after the crash. Paletti later succumbed to the injuries he suffered in the initial impact.

After the race was restarted, Nelson Piquet scored the first win for BMW’s turbo engine. But the second F1 fatality in consecutive months plunged the sport deeper into gloom.

“It won’t be the same without Gilles”

The circuit on the Isle Notre Dame was held the Canadian Grand Prix for the fifth time in 1982. But it was missing the crowd’s local hero. Following the death of Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder a few weeks earlier, the track had been renamed after him.

Race organiser Normand Legault did not attempt to disguise the effect Villeneuve’s death would have on the race. “Let’s not kid ourselves: this race won’t be the same without Gilles,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

“He was always successful here and always put on superb battles here. It certainly won’t be the same because of the spectacular aspect of his driving.”

Villeneuve’s absence was also felt in the Ferrari pit, where the team were starting their third race with just a single entry for Didier Pironi. They had already confirmed Patrick Tambay would fill Villeneuve’s vacant seat after the Canadian race.

Pironi, whose actions in the San Marino Grand Prix caused some him to blame him, indirectly, for Villeneuve’s death, kept a low profile. At first he made few public statements at all.

But after claiming pole position for the race he tearfully addressed the media. He “appeared anguished, almost distressed” remembered Maurice Hamilton.

“It is my first pole position for Ferrari,” Pironi began, “and it gives me great pleasure to win it on the circuit bearing the name of the man who was not only my team mate but also my friend.”

“And I dedicate this achievement to him because I know that, if he had still been amongst us, he would have been on pole.”

But in a brutal irony, Pironi was involved in another tragedy on race day.

Turbo track

The Grand Prix had been moved from its usual September date to June. This, it was hoped, might mean the race would be held in better conditions than the pouring rain of the previous year’s race, or the deep chill that greeted teams for the track’s first Grand Prix in 1978.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The weather was unseasonably cool, though that proved good news for those running turbo engines. The track, though twistier than it is today, demanded good power and acceleration, which the turbos offered in spades.

The majority of teams were still using Ford-Cosworth V8 engines. But the move towards turbo power was spreading: Renault were in their sixth year of racing with the technology, Ferrari their second and making great strides.

Brabham’s association with BMW had got off to a faltering start. The unreliable cars had been kept away from some races until BMW demanded their attendance. In the previous round at Detroit world champion Nelson Piquet failed to qualify his turbo car.

For Canada Brabham again fielded cars in two different configurations: Piquet had the newer BT50 with a BMW turbo while Riccardo Patrese continued to campaign the Cosworth-powered BT49D.

The only other turbo runners didn’t even make it to the race: Toleman’s transporter had been involved in a crash after the Monaco Grand Prix, damaging their race cars, forcing them to skip the North American double-header.

But it was a Cosworth pilot who led the championship. McLaren’s John Watson had sensationally won in Detroit from 17th on the grid, taking the lead from Pironi by six points.

Alain Prost was third for Renault, who had shown excellent performance but dismal reliability. He had also thrown away a potential win at Monaco, and was still limping from his crash late in that race.

Fistfight in the pits

Pole position was contested solely by the turbo-powered teams, and won easily by Pironi. Using an updated 126C2 he set his pole position time without needing to the faster qualifying tyres.

The battle for the final places on the grid was just as fierce. Even with Toleman’s absence there was only room on the grid for 26 of the 29 drivers present.

One of those who failed to make the cut was Chico Serra, driving the sole Fittipaldi entry. On Friday he angrily confronted Raul Boesel, who he believed had held him up, and a fight broke out between the pair in the pit lane.

Serra’s miserable weekend ended on Friday when a fuel line fire on his car left him unable to qualify.

1982 Canadian Grand Prix grid

The four turbo-powered cars occupied the first two rows of the grid. Behind Pironi were the two Renaults, Rene Arnoux ahead of Prost.

Piquet may have been last of the quartet but fourth on the grid was a considerable improvement over not starting at all.

Bruno Giacomelli’s V12-engined Alfa Romeo took fifth while Watson led the Cosworth runners.

Along with Serra, Manfred Winkelhock also failed to make the cut in the ATS. During practice he incurred the wrath of some of his rivals including Eddie Cheever, who he blocked, and Arnoux, who he collided with.

Row 1 1. Didier Pironi 1’27.509
2. Rene Arnoux 1’27.895
Row 2 3. Alain Prost 1’28.563
4. Nelson Piquet 1’28.663
Row 3 5. Bruno Giacomelli 1’28.740
Alfa Romeo
6. John Watson 1’28.822
Row 4 7. Keke Rosberg 1’28.874
8. Riccardo Patrese 1’28.999
Row 5 9. Andrea de Cesaris 1’29.183
Alfa Romeo
10. Elio de Angelis 1’29.228
Row 6 11. Niki Lauda 1’29.544
12. Eddie Cheever 1’29.590
Row 7 13. Derek Daly 1’29.883
14. Nigel Mansell 1’30.048
Row 8 15. Michele Alboreto 1’30.146
16. Marc Surer 1’30.518
Row 9 17. Mauro Baldi 1’30.599
18. Jean-Pierre Jarier 1’30.717
Row 10 19. Jacques Laffite 1’30.946
20. Roberto Guerrero 1’31.235
Row 11 21. Raul Boesel 1’31.759
22. Jochen Mass 1’31.861
Row 12 23. Riccardo Paletti 1’31.901
24. Eliseo Salazar 1’32.203
Row 13 25. Geoff Lees 1’32.205
26. Brian Henton 1’32.325

Did not qualify:

Manfred Winhkelhock, ATS-Ford – 1’32.359
Emilio de Villota, March – 1’34.045
Chico Serra, Fittipaldi – 1’37.678

Paletti makes the cut

Among those who did reach the final 26 was Ricardo Paletti. The Osella driver qualified for the third time, and this would be his first start on a full grid.

The 23-year-old had begun racing just four years earlier. In 1981 sponsors Pioneer helped him into a Formula 2 March run by Onyx. He placed second in two of the first three races of the year, but his season tailed off after that with no further points scores.

His backers were keen for him to move up to F1 for 1982, and he secured a place with Osella. In his first six races he only qualified at Imola, and that was because a strike meant there were only 14 cars on the grid.

He qualified in Detroit but did not start after damaging his chassis in a practice crash. Canada was to be his first F1 start on a full grid.

Pironi stalls, Paletti crashes

In 1982 the grid and start/finish line was at the exit of the final hairpin, followed by a series of fast curves which are no longer part of the track. Pole position was on the right-hand side of the track.

Two years earlier at the same track, Pironi had received a one-minute time penalty for jumping the start. Well aware that such a severe penalty was likely if he repeated the offence, Pironi was mindful of not getting away too quickly as the cars lined to take the start.

But once again his clutch began to creep. This time the revs dropped too low and the engine died – just as the lights were changing.

Arnoux sprinted off into the lead while Prost dodged around the Ferrari. Watson did likewise, Mansell only just spotting the move in time to take evasive action.

Paletti started on the same side of the grid as Pironi, back on the 12th row. Car after car in front of him dodged left to avoid the stationary Ferrari.

The last of them was Boesel, and he was travelling so quickly he clipped Pironi’s left-rear wheel, breaking the suspension on his March. “When I saw Pironi in my front there was no time to change direction,” he said.

By the time Paletti was upon the Ferrari he had reached 10,500rpm in third gear and was doing up to 120mph. The Osella struck the car with such force it launched Pironi down the track, striking Lees’ Theodore.

The unhurt Pironi was the first man on the scene, followed quickly by Professor Sid Watkins and his medical team. But Watkins had barely enough time to inspect Paletti’s eyes and insert an airway into his mouth before the the Osella erupted in flames.

The impact had damaged the fuel tank on FA1C, and the petrol leaked and ignited causing an inferno. Marshals were quickly on the scene with fire extinguishers, and Paletti suffered no burns from the fire, but the process of extracting him from the shattered car was delayed while the conflagration was doused.

As the flames died down the rescue team saw the extent of the damage to the Osella. The front of the car was crushed, Paletti’s legs rammed into his chest. It took almost half an hour to remove him from the car, and though he was rushed to hospital, he died later that day.

The restart

The cars formed up on the grid for a second time two hours after the original start. The long delay meant many fans at the track missed some or all of the race.

The start of the race had already been put back from 2pm to 4:15pm at short notice to fit TV schedules. The restart was after 6pm, and with local Metro drivers on strike many spectators had no choice but to leave early to ensure they could get home.

Osella withdrew its other car belonging to Jean-Pierre Jarier, and Lees also missed the restart as Theodore had no replacement car.

Mercifully, there was no incident at the second start, and Pironi took the lead. But it was to prove short-lived.

Pironi’s damaged car had been the only only example with the team’s new pull-rod suspension. Having reverted to the heavier rocker arm version he struggled in the race, losing the lead to Arnoux at the start of lap two. Prost and Piquet demoted him on the next lap, and thereafter he continued to fall back.

Arnoux had the lead but Piquet was gaining quickly. He passed Prost on lap two and by lap eight he was on the tail of the other Renault. He got alongside as they headed into the fast right-left sweep after the pits and was through into the lead.

Halfway through the race Renault were plunged into despair as both their cars retired. Still holding second, Arnoux spun to a stop halfway around the track and couldn’t restart. Two laps later Prost was out with yet more engine trouble.

As was often the case in 1982, the Cosworth runners profitted from the demise of the turbos. Riccardo Patrese took up second in the other Brabham, followed by Andrea de Cesaris, Eddie Cheever, John Watson and Derek Daly.

Bruno Giacomelli and Nigel Mansell had retired at the hairpin on lap two: Giacomelli had been heading for the pits but his early deceleration caught out those behind him. Daly scraped past but Mansell hit the back of the Alfa Romeo.

Mansell’s arm got caught in the spokes of his steering wheel during the crash. The bone was fractured, forcing him to miss the next race.

Three weeks earlier in Monaco the race had ended in sensational fashion as several front-runners retired in the final laps. A minor repeat followed in Canada involving some of the same drivers: Cheever, de Cesaris and Daly all parked up in the final laps, their teams having underestimated their fuel needs at the track.

That promoted Watson onto the podium ahead of Elio de Angelis and Marc Surer, while de Cesaris’s late breakdown allowed him to hold onto a point for sixth.

On the flipside of this was Brian Henton, who was still running at the end but hadn’t completed enough laps to be classified. He went off early in the race and climbed out of his car, which was lifted back onto the track by a crane. Incredibly, he then got back in his car and continued, perhaps inspiring Lewis Hamilton’s antics at the Nurburgring 25 years later.

1982 Canadian Grand Prix result

# Pos Driver Car Laps Gap Reason
1 1 Nelson Piquet Brabham-BMW 70 1:46’39.577
2 2 Riccardo Patrese Brabham-Ford 70 +13.799
3 7 John Watson McLaren-Ford 70 +61.836
4 11 Elio de Angelis Lotus-Ford 69 1 lap
5 29 Marc Surer Arrows-Ford 69 1 lap
6 22 Andrea de Cesaris Alfa Romeo 68 2 laps Out of fuel
7 5 Derek Daly Williams-Ford 68 2 laps Out of fuel
8 30 Mauro Baldi Arrows-Ford 68 2 laps
9 28 Didier Pironi Ferrari 67 3 laps
10 25 Eddie Cheever Ligier-Matra 66 4 laps Out of fuel
11 17 Jochen Mass March-Ford 66 4 laps
Not classified
4 Brian Henton Tyrrell-Ford 59 Not classified
6 Keke Rosberg Williams-Ford 52 Gearbox
18 Raul Boesel March-Ford 47 Engine
3 Michele Alboreto Tyrrell-Ford 41 Engine
15 Alain Prost Renault 30 Engine
16 Rene Arnoux Renault 28 Accident
10 Eliseo Salazar ATS-Ford 20 Engine
8 Niki Lauda McLaren-Ford 17 Clutch
26 Jacques Laffite Ligier-Matra 8 Fuel system
14 Roberto Guerrero Ensign-Ford 2 Clutch
23 Bruno Giacomelli Alfa Romeo 1 Accident
12 Nigel Mansell Lotus-Ford 1 Accident
31 Jean-Pierre Jarier Osella-Ford 0 Withdrew
32 Riccardo Paletti Osella-Ford 0 Accident
33 Geoff Lees Theodore-Ford 0 Accident

Safety advances since Paletti’s death

Paletti’s crash, and that involving Siegfried Stohr and Riccardo Patrese at Zolder the year before, led to changes in F1 start procedure to reduce the risk when a car failed to start.

At Brazil in 1984, de Cesaris became stranded on the grid, unable to select a gear. The start of the race was delayed while his car was moved out of the way. Today it is well-established that the start is not given if a car stops on the grid, and races in wet weather are started behind the safety car because of the heightened risk at the start in poor visibility.

The extent of the damage to Paletti’s Osella showed what little protection drivers had from front impacts. One of the most significant advances in this area had already been made with the introduction of a full carbon-fibre chassis by McLaren.

Watson had emerged unscathed from a high-speed crash at Monza the year before. In 1982, Osella were one of several teams still using a sandwich aluminium construction.

Stricter crash-tests have since made this area of the car far stronger. In 2007, 25 years after Pironi’s crash, Robert Kubica survived a 230kph (142.9mph) impact with a solid wall at the same circuit.

Piquet handed Villeneuve trophy

Piquet’s win, his first since winning the 1981 world championship, made him the sixth different winner in the first eight races of the year. Watson retained his championship lead ahead of Pironi, with Patrese moving up to third.

At the halfway point in the season the man who went on to claim the title, Keke Rosberg, was fifth. He had an anonymous race, running eighth before his gearbox failed.

After a difficult start to the year. Brabham finally scored their first win with BMW. Patrese made it a one-two with the Cosworth-powered car, giving a rare one-two finish for the same team albeit with different chassis and engines.

On the podium, Piquet was handed the race winner’s trophy. Like the track, it was also named after Gilles Villeneuve. From the start of the race to its end, death cast a shadow over the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “Today in 1982: Start line crash in Canada kills Paletti”

  1. Wonderful job of catching the atmosphere of the race, reading it made me remember how far safety has come since those days again.

    Oh, and thanks for the warning about the crash being in the full video (making it a conscious decision to watch that).

  2. @KeithCollantine great article, its important to remember with such vivid memory the incident that took place. Sometimes people get complacent and to think how far we’ve come… Although I guess 94 was the biggest wake up call for F1. Lets hope we don’t see another death in F1, however, it is a dangerous sport and its naive to assume it won’t happen again.

  3. After seeing today’s cars and safety standards it seems foolish sitting in an 80s era car and going racing with it. Brave men they were.

  4. This was all really interesting; I hadn’t known anything about it. One detail that caught my attention:

    Mansell’s arm got caught in the spokes of his steering wheel during the crash. The bone was fractured, forcing him to miss the next race.

    Did he miss just the one race?!

    1. @aka_robyn I’m not 100% sure – it looks like he missed the next race, tried to come back in the following race (the British GP) but wasn’t ready for it, then missed the race after that.

      1. Ah, thanks! I thought it was going to be another of those blow-my-mind stories about Nigel Mansell’s almost superhuman toughness!

  5. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t complain that much when they start a race in the rain behind the Safety Car, no matter how “dry” it is.

    1. Why? Because someone died 30 years ago in a car that was about as safe as a tin can?

      1. davros, I doubt a modern day f1 car could hold up to a 130mph head on smash with a stationery car on the start line… You might be fooling yourself, F1 still isn’t that safe yet.

  6. What happened to those drivers who had the fist fight? No FIA reprimand or any action? Two drivers fighting in the Pit lane would be very dangerous.

    1. Considering how these days people want drivers banned from the sport for flipping the bird, it’s amazing what they used to get away with back in the day!

    2. @mahavirshah I don’t know, actually – but of course there was another, much more celebrated fist fight between drivers that year – Piquet and Salazar in the German Grand Prix.

      1. @keithcollantine Ah thanks. What happened between Piquet and Salazar? Blocking incident that cost Piquet pole? (Atleast that seems to be the likely explanation)

        1. kowalsky is back
          14th June 2012, 9:29

          it was during the race, at the chicane salazar didn’t give enough room to the leading brabham of nelson. He was ****** off and started kiking the poor salazar. A pitty he didn’t pick a fight with a driver of his character like alan jones.

    3. It was dangerous but seriously entertaining. Sutil and Trulli almost got into it in 2009, and I wonder if we will ever see a fight break our with any of our existing drivers on the grid.

      Maldonado seems like a guy who could get into a fight with someone in the pitlane. Honestly, I would love to see someone kick some sense into Pastor.

  7. Great read (again)

    … On another note and as always with restrospective articles, I am baffled by the margins between two cars / pilots during quali and most important, race.

  8. Paletti’s crash was absolutely horrifying. I shudder to think that we were so much less sensitive to this kind of incident then, even after the pioneering safety changes made in the 70’s. We still owe a huge amount to Sir Jackie Stewart for helping to make this kind of incident utterly unacceptable.

    1. Mark Markiewicz
      11th April 2021, 0:26

      I was there that day. Because of the metro strike we arrived late thinking we missed the race we walked right in though the gates before learning of the crash we watched the whole race and only learned the next day of Palletti’s death

  9. off topic

    He qualified in Detroit but did not start after damaging his chassis in a practice crash.

    How about those F1 drivers back then! Not only doing practice starts, but also practice crashes! Talk about being prepared for every scenario in a race :-)

  10. I always love the detail of these GP flashbacks, @keithcollantine: it was good to see what Pironi had to say before the race regarding Gilles.
    It was such a tragic month for F1, who lost an affirmed hero and an emerging young talent. I like these articles who help us remember these great drivers.

    R.I.P. Gilles Vielleneuve, 1950-1982
    R.I.P. Riccardo Paletti, 1958-1982

  11. Very interesting article. Very sad too.

  12. Another quality article @keithcollantine You should release a book with all these flashbacks!

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