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Racing towards a fate he never even saw coming



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Riccardo Paletti


Osella-Cosworth FA1C




1982 Canadian GP


It was a dream come true for young Riccardo Paletti: in the eighth Grand Prix of the season he would finally make his first proper getaway from an F1 grid, as he would be starting amongst his heroes. His mother had come all the way to Canada to witness the start of a race that should have been a turning point in his career. But tragedy struck at the newly named Gilles Villeneuve circuit and Paletti was killed only metres after crossing the starting line. From dream to nightmare in just a couple of hundred metres.

Nobody really knew him when Paletti entered the paddock for the first Grand Prix of 1982 at Kyalami. He hadn't achieved that much in lower formulae and was only racing cars for little over four years. Many just saw a young man with kind of a loutish appearance, black locks and big glasses. He didn't talk much, he was even kind of timid. When asked, he admitted that Formula One struck him with some fear. He would have preferred to stay in Formula Two for one more season so he could let his talent grow, but his sponsor wanted him to move up and he didn't want to miss an opportunity to make his dream come true.

That sponsor he talked about was in fact his father, Arietto Paletti, a rich Milanese businessman who had made his fortune with a building company and also imported Pioneer Hi-Fi equipment into Italy. Allegedly it had cost him one million dollar to buy his son the most expensive toy in the world: a seat in a Formula One car.

His phlegmatic physique might have fooled you, but Riccardo was a born sportsman. When he was thirteen he was an Italian junior karate champion and made it to the national alpine skiing youth selection. Only when he was nineteen he chose to pursue a career in motorsports and Arietto Paletti invested a first 50,000 dollars in his son's single-seater ambitions.

He entered nine Formula Super Ford races in 1978 with an Osella and even led the first 18 laps of his inaugural race. He didn't win during that first season but gained two second places and finished third overall in the championship. At the end of that first season he also made his F3 debut in the Italian championship in a March-Toyota.

In 1979 he did a full F3 championship entering as a privateer but with little success, not managing anything more than two fifths. His father's sponsorship money however enabled him to graduate to F2 for one race at Misano in a March-BMW, but he crashed and failed to finish.

Paletti did another colourless season of Italian F3 the next year. Due to his father's contacts with Robin Herd of March, Riccardo was introduced to Mike Earle, owner of the British Onyx F2 team. Onyx driver Johnny Cecotto had just broken up with the team to leave for Minardi in the middle of the season and so Earle was left with a vacancy. Paletti made his debut for Onyx at Mugello and did three more races at Zandvoort, Misano and Monza. In the last of those, a non-championship event, Riccardo finished third.

After his definitive switch to F2 for the 1981 European championship Paletti finally made some real progress. He tested a lot for the Onyx team during the winter, and although communication with the team was hard - Paletti didn't speak any English on his arrival in Britain - the effort paid off during the opening rounds of the season, as he qualified 10th in the first race at Silverstone before managing to finish second behind Mike Thackwell. He retired in the second round at Hockenheim but set fastest lap of the race and his good form continued in round three at Thruxton where he finished third, this time behind Roberto Guerrero. At that point in time he even shared second in the championship with Stefan Johansson, trailing Mike Thackwell by just three points. But from then on luck failed Paletti, as for the remainder of the season he would only score a single point on home soil at Vallelunga while retiring from the last six races of the season. Ultimately he finished tenth in the championship.

There was no real reason to move up to F1 after just one full season of F2 and it raised some eyebrows that Paletti even got a super licence, but his father's Pioneer Italia sponsorship secured a seat in the second Osella, next to the experienced Jean-Pierre Jarier. Osella had been a hopeless backmarker for the two seasons it had entered F1 and the 1982 season didn't promise much more. The only positive thing was Jarier's arrival to the team in the middle of 1981, but even the talented Frenchman had difficulty qualifying the car.

For the start of the 1982 season Osella had a new car for both drivers. But the testing budget was tight and most of Paletti's was done in the old FA1B. They didn't really trust him with the new car after he wrote one off at Le Castelet. Alas the new car didn't do wonders and it might well be that the most exciting event in Paletti's first Grand Prix weekend was the fact that he got to meet his new colleagues and teenage heroes like Lauda, Villeneuve and Reutemann up close, thanks to the infamous Kyalami drivers' strike. Jarier would only manage three laps during qualifying after he cracked a few ribs during a Williams test and put the Osella last on the grid. Still Paletti was almost two seconds slower and therefore failed to qualify.

At the Jacarepagua circuit near Rio, the venue for the Brazilian Grand Prix, Paletti had to prequalify on Friday morning but a wheel fell off the Osella after a suspension failure and again he didn't make the cut.

The next round of the championship was at the street circuit of Long Beach. Suddenly Jarier found the right set-up for the Osella and managed to put the car in the top-10 during qualifying. Paletti was a massive three and a half seconds slower than his experienced team mate and failed to qualify yet again.

When the British teams backing the FOCA in their feud with the FISA boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, only fourteen entries showed up, thus guaranteeing Paletti a start in what would finally be his first F1 race. He split the ATS cars of Salazar and Winkelhock and was supposed to start from the last row of the grid. But on Sunday afternoon Paletti failed to fire up the Osella for the warm-up lap and by the time he had left the pits the other cars were already lining up for the start. So the moment poor Riccardo crossed the starting line he was already 49 seconds behind. He never even got close to the rest of the field and after seven laps he had to park his car due to yet another suspension failure. His Grand Prix debut had lasted a mere twelve minutes. In the same race, helped of course by the small entry field, Jarier came in fourth. He missed out on the podium but it gave Osella its first World Championship points.

At least in one aspect Paletti was ahead of his time in F1, because he travelled with a personal medical adviser who was monitoring his blood pressure and heartbeat with small sensors attached to his body during testing - and practice sessions. His diet was constantly adapted to the results. Few people took this professional approach seriously at the time.

Practice for the Belgian Grand Prix was overshadowed by the tragic death of Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, but by that time Paletti was already demoted to a passive spectator, having failed to prequalify on Friday morning. Team mate Jarier made him feel even worse by putting the sister car in midfield, but in the race JPJ failed to shine and had to retire because of a broken rear wing.

By this time Paletti was getting less and less happy with Osella. He was feeling an intense rivalry with Jarier while in fact he was no match for the Frenchman who was clearly much quicker in the same car. There was some promise in the shape of an updated chassis design which was to be introduced at Monaco, but Paletti didn't hold any illusions. He knew that qualifying for Monaco was virtually impossible with only twenty entries allowed to start in the narrow streets of the principality. There was only one new monocoque for Jarier and the new rear suspension was delayed. Paletti failed to prequalify and although Jarier was almost three seconds faster the Frenchman didn't make it onto the final grid either.

During practice for the Detroit Grand Prix Paletti was suddenly much closer on Jarier's tail and although the gap was still over a second, Riccardo qualified right behind his team mate. At long last he would make his first proper start on Sunday. At least that was what he unwittingly thought. But things would turn sour again.

During the early morning warm-up session it all went wrong when Paletti lost a wheel at the beginning of the session. The mechanics tried to repair the car in time for the race, and while there still was the possibility of starting the race in the spare car that option went up in smoke as well after Jarier's fire extinguisher had gone off without a warning. So it was Jarier who took the spare, which was set up for him anyway. This meant it would be a race against time for Paletti's mechanics to set up the car and they were still busy when the rest of the field progressed to the grid. But just as the work was finished, with Riccardo ready to get in the car, news broke that Jarier had hit the wall, damaged his car and was on his way back to the pits. So Paletti's car was ready for Jarier to jump in and start the race from the pit lane, leaving Paletti behind as a frustrated spectator once more.

During the Canadian Grand Prix weekend at Montreal Paletti was trying to find ways to secure a better drive for himself for next season. He was pretty fed up with the way the Osella outfit was run. More and more he got the feeling that the budget was sufficient enough to properly run one car, so in practice his sponsorship money was financing Jarier's entry. He found an opportunity thanks to his old March connections.

Ever since the Brazilian Grand Prix Paletti's old F2 team boss Mike Earle had been supporting a third March entry for Emilio de Villota, but the Spaniard proved to be a big disappointment, and so Earle and Paletti agreed to team up together for 1983. In the meantime it seemed Paletti was making on-track progress as well, as he put his car 23rd on the grid, four and a half seconds behind Didier Pironi's Ferrari on pole position.

This time Paletti and his Osella survived Sunday morning's warm-up session. When he drove to the grid he must have thought that nothing would stand in the way of his first proper Grand Prix start. He couldn't be more wrong. After all cars were in place on the starting grid, the lights turned red. At that moment Pironi, on pole, stalled his Ferrari. He put his arm up to signal the problem to the starter and the other drivers, but there was no reaction and instead of the yellow aborting the start, the light turned green and the field was off - the complete field but for one lone red car stuck on pole position and functioning as an artificial chicane for the cars coming up behind it. Twenty of them managed to avoid the Ferrari. As the first cars darted past the stationary Pironi, the danger of one of them hitting him was increasing by the second, not just because the drivers at the back of the grid probably didn't see Pironi wave but also because their cars had already been accelerating for several hundred yards. It almost went wrong when Raul Boesel's March clipped the Ferrari at the rear and spun off. Lees's Theodore hit the March, team mate Mass braked at full force to avoid them and was in turn hit in the back by Salazar. These were all minor damages and it looked like everybody would get away with a scare. But Riccardo Paletti probably never even saw the stationary Ferrari. Maybe he was checking his rev counter approaching 10,500 rpm and wanted to shift from third to fourth gear. Remember he was still a novice. This would be his first Grand Prix start. However, he didn't even move off his driving line as he drove straight into the back of the Ferrari at some 150 kph.

Because of the severe impact Pironi's car was shoved across the track for at least 30 metres. As soon as the car came to a standstill, the Frenchman jumped out and walked over to Paletti, wanting to help him get out of the car, but obviously Paletti was unconscious. His head in his helmet rested lifelessly against the steering wheel. Marshals arrived on the scene and continued Pironi's work of getting the bodywork out of the way in order to release the stricken Paletti, but seconds later the fuel that was leaking from the tank caught fire, immediately engulfing the Osella in flames.

It seemed to take a lifetime before the fire was under control, with Pironi spurring the marshals on to keep the flames away from the unconscious Paletti who was still in the car. After the fire was finally out and the smoke cleared it took another 25 minutes to free Paletti from the wreck. He was flown to the Royal Victoria Hospital by helicopter and died of the internal wounds caused by the collision.

To add to the tragedy, the whole scene was witnessed by his mother Gina, with whom he was supposed to visit New York in the days after the Grand Prix, and where they would celebrate his 24th birthday. All she could do now was accompany her son to the hospital.

Until Ayrton Senna's death in 1994 Paletti held the dubious honour of being the last driver killed during a Grand Prix race. Today his name is still connected with motorsport as in early 1983 the Varano circuit was renamed in his honour in the same way the circuit he died on now carries the name of Gilles Villeneuve. The Autodromo Riccardo Paletti is situated near Parma in Italy.