The Death notice

Ronnie Peterson's condition has turned for the worse during the night. Things have drastically turned for the worse and the optimism from the evening before is just a memory.

Just before four in the morning Staffan Svenby has recieved a phone call from the hospital informing him of the situation. Staffan awakes Sid Watkins in the room next door. In the ar on their way to the hospital Staffan tells Sid that someone claiming to be a doctor had called Barbro during the night, saying that he thought the Italian doctors were killing her husband.

Arriving at the Intensive Care Unit the neurosurgeon informs them that Ronnie has developed breathing problems and is now being ventilated by a machine in an attempt to keep his blood oxygen levels normal. X-ray showed that he had developed multipe emboli in his lungs. The emboli came from the fat in the bone marrow entereing his bloodstream. As a consequence his kidneys also showed declining function. Ronnie was unconscious and a neurologigal examination showed signs of serious brain damage. 

An italian doctor, Pierangelo Varolo, has been working as a doctor in Sweden for many years. He speaks Swedish fluently and lives in the city of Iseo, some 80 kilometers outside Milan. When he hears of the accident he contacts Svenby and offers him his assistance. When he arrives at the hospital in the morning Ronnie is in a deep state of uncosciousness and the situation is critical. Early in the morning he says to the Swedish newspaper "Expressen":

"Ronnie has difficulty breathing. He is being ventilated by a respirator. I think it was completely wrong of the doctors to perform such a large operation tonight. It would have been enough to operate his feet, but they also operated on his knee and femur. He was too weak for such a large operation. An embolism has entered Ronnies lungs, and the lungs could no longer support his body with oxygen. Or Ronnie immediately should have been flown to Sweden for specialist care. In Sweden they definitely don't perform surgery like this. It is no longer a question of treatment. Now we must try to keep Ronnie alive. You can't live long in a respirator."

Professor Watkins looks throug an opthalmoscope in Ronnies eyes and identifies fat globules obstructing the small arteries in the retinas. The situation is more or less hopeless and on professor Watkins' suggestion the nurosurgeon agrees to take a electroencephalogram to get the situation clear on Ronnies brain functions.

At this stage Colin Chapman and Bernie Ecclestone have been informed. Upon their arrival to the hospital shortly thereafter Ronnies brain has been scanned and it is certain that nothing more is to be done. Ronnie no longer has any brain functions and the end is near.


Eleven minutes past nine September eleventh 1978 Ronnie is declared dead. The autopsy a few days later confirmed fat embolism as the cause of his death. Fat globules were evident in the lungs, kidneys and brain. Mrs Peterson was still en route to Milan. Many newspapers speculated in gaspoisoning, but this is not entirely true.


Reine Wisell, Lennart Eriksson (Expressen), Åke Strandberg (the mechanic) och the manager Staffan Svenby are chocked by the death notice in the morning.

Emerson Fittipaldi arrives together with his wife shortly thereafter Staffan Svenby who informs them of the tragic news.

"I just can´t believe it. We have been friends for so many years and now he is gone. Racing will change a lot for me. He was one of the greatest drivers and no one will replace him."

Fredrik af Petersens wants to be left alone after recieving the death notice and goes outside to get some fresh air. Outside the hospital he meets Mario Andretti, who hasn't yet heard the news and had come to Niguardia to visit Ronnie.

"Oh no. I wanted that title so badly, but I did not want to win it like this. What the hell shall I do with it now? I don´t feel anything for it. One of my best friends is gone and motor racing will never be the same again. I was really looking forward to next year, he in the McLaren and me in the Lotus and we would have a good fight and afterwards sit down to have a beer and a good laugh about it."

Ronnie Petersons dead body is brought to the hospital chapel under the large döda kropp förs till sjukhusets kapell situated under the large nut-pines in the park. Candles are placed around the open casket. accordingly to Italian tradition Ronnie's friends and fans start to arrive. Long qeues are formed by the crowds wishing to say goodbye to the popular driver.


For a few hours everything stands still in Milan - or perhaps not. Åke Strandberg, Ronnies old mechanic, had been in the hospital all night until the end. When he walked out of the Niguardia hospital he couldn't understand why the streetcars still ran:

"I couldn't understand why they hadn't stopped. To me the whole world had stopped."

Unfortunately Ronnies wife Barbro doesn't make it in time to say goodbye to her husband. When she lands on the Malpensa Airport she is met by Staffan Svenby and Emerson Fittipaldi who delivers the tragic message. She never overcame her grief. The same day she plans to go to Sweden and Ronnies parents in Örebro.



Outside the Niguardia hospital, in the beautifully situated chapel - embedded in a sea of verdue where the turmoil of the Milanese traffic never reach - thousands of people come. Ronnie-fans wanting to say goodbye. Some of teh visitors bring flowers, bouqets of Gladiolus are placed at the foot end of the death bed. It is a quiet goodbye. A spontaneuos tribute. Among the mourners are Emerson Fittipaldi, Patrick Tambay, James Hunt and Hans Stuck. In Expressen Lennart Eriksson also tells of the turner Bonfanti Giancario of the ruberfactory Pirelli in Milan:

"I have never met Peterson, still he was a good friend of mine. I was at Monza to watch teh practice and the race. I always go there when there's a race. Peterson was my favourite, a great champion. It's a pity he never became World Champion."

Around the world the deatnotice is recieved with consternation. Many of Ronnies colleagues are on their way home when the hearand see the horrible news at the airport. In Great Britain BBC televises a memorial. The newspapers are filled with stories about Ronnie - who was a greater star abroad than we perhaps understood at home in Sweden.

The Swedish newspapers make a big deal of tha assumption that Colin Chapmans comments on Ronnies death was "Things like these happen.", but Chapman was as affected and struck by Ronnies death as his friends and companions. Ronnies chief mechanic Rex Hart said:

"The Old Man var sentimental and had a good notion of Ronnie. He wasn't just another driver but he was close to him in many ways. They had their little problems, but he was shaken to the bone when Ronnie died. Colin was very upset. I remember thinking that I didn't know he could be thet way, I thought ronnie was just another employee."

Especially in Swedish magazines a discussion of whether the doctors did the right thing to operate as early and in the way it was performed. Looking back it seems obvious that efveryone involved did their best and the decisions were made were correct. On the other hand we know that if the accident had happened today, Ronnie would not have died. Partly because teh cars now are a lot safer ( just look at Kenny Bräck's accident in the autumn of 2003), but also because the type of surgery performed on Ronnie nowadays can be made with greater safety.

Ronnies first manager Sveneric Eriksson:

"When Ronnie died, Sweden stopped. All was quiet. In many workplaces noting was done during the day, people only discussed how Ronnie could die that way he did. In schools the children cried. Their great idol was gone. Some schools had to close, and the children were sent home."






Read more:

The Final Grand Prix

The Accident

The Medical transport

The Operation

The Death notice

The Funeral

The Aftermath

The Cause of death