13 June 1982, early afternoon at Montreal.
After the warm-up lap, 26 cars line up on the grid for the Canadian Grand Prix, eighth round of the 1982 F1 Championship. FISA starter Derek Ongaro holds the peloton a little longer than usual. When he finally switches on the red lights, poleman Didier Pironi weaves his hands frantically… with the wait, his Ferrari had overheated and the engine stalled. But it was too late to abort starting procedures, and on a flick of a second the lights become green. Everyone tries to swerve past the immobile Ferrari. Back on the peloton Boesel hits the rear tyre of Pironi, right behind the Brazilian, on his low driving position, young rookie Riccardo Paletti is deeply focused on the Osella rev counter, so he doesn’t see the obstacle and hit massively the Ferrari’s rear, sending it to the right side of the track and shrinking the front section of the Osella till the cockpit….
Riccardo Paletti was the son of Gianna and Arietto Paletti, a wealthy Milanese building contractor and Pioneer Hi-Fi importer to Italy, and was born precisely in Milan on the 15th June, 1958. The young Riccardo was an accomplished sportsman since his youth, and with thirteen he was Italian junior karate champion, then switched to skiing, where he progressed to the National alpine skiing youth selection. Nevertheless his main aim was to follow the path of his father till, with nineteen, he decided to start a career on motor racing, so in 1978 his father invested 50,000 dollars on a campaign at the Italian Formula SuperFord Championship with an Osella, where Paletti proved immediately to be skillful, leading eighteen laps on his first races and being a regular podium visitor, even with no wins, which left him third on the standings.
This success prompted him to step up to F3 (perhaps a hasty move), so Paletti drove an own-entered March 793-Toyota on the 1979 Italian F3 Championship. It wasn’t an easy season, nothing unexpected from someone who was racing competitively for barely more than a year with no karting feedback, nevertheless young Riccardo was fast on qualifying and used to fight for the top-6 in most of the national races, but when the Italian rounds overlapped with the European Championship he found it very hard to make the grid. However, on the main event of the year, the Monaco F3 Grand Prix, Paletti surprised everyone to become one of the 20 qualified for the race, and did an excellent start only to be hit by de Cesaris and Stefan Johansson on the usually chaotic first approach to Sainte Dévote, ending there due to the ensuing massive pile-up. At Misano he had his first dabble with F2, with a private entered March 792-BMW, but crashed out by mid-race.
Paletti expected to progress in 1980, upgrading to a March 803-Toyota under the banner of Scuderia Escolette, hoping to discuss top positions on the Italian F3 Championship. Sadly, the first part of the year was hampered by reliability problems and he didn’t even entered the Monaco GP. It was all turning into a complete failure, until by mid-season Paletti was invited by Mike Earle – thanks to his father’s contacts with Robin Herd from March – which had a semi-works March team competing on the European F2 Championship, to replace Johnny Cecotto who had just left for Minardi after a hectic start of the year. It was a golden chance to prove himself on the antechamber of F1, driving the competitive BMW-powered March 802 but, again a hasty jump. Naturally F3 commitments were sidelined, and by July Paletti did his first F2 outing of the season at Mugello. Earle’s operation wasn’t yet one of the best team on lower formulae, so their debuts were modest and plagued by mechanical troubles, even if by the end of the season, on the non-championship Gran Premio dell’Autodromo di Monza Paletti put a big show to finish third behind the dominant Tolemans (note that, even if it was a non-championship round, Toleman, March and Minardi sent their works teams, and most of the biggest privateers were there).
Obviously, there were great expectations both on the driver and the team, now rebranded as March Onyx Racing Team. They tested extensively during the winter, Paletti improved his communication skills with the team (he spoke no English when he signed for Earle) and the new 812 was stronger than the previous year model, so the 22-years old could expect to be on top positions, and the first race of the season appeared to confirm the conjectures, as he ended second on the first round at Silverstone. Then he took the fastest lap at Hockenheim before retiring with an alternator failure, and ended third in Thruxton. Then he and Onyx lost some momentum and they never held the frontrunners’ pace again, other teams reaching better development levels while mechanical troubles usually ended their races, so Paletti was only a disappointing tenth overall with 11 points.
Paletti was undecided between the chance to step up into the coveted F1 world and another season to consolidate his skills and results in F2. Intimately he knew he wasn’t prepared for such an ambitious challenge and preferred the second option, but his sponsors preferred the first one – inclusively Pioneer said they had supported his whole career in F2, so now he had the choice to step up into F1, or they would find another – and for him it would be a dream becoming true, so with family’s backing (it’s rumored that the seat cost his family about one million dollars) Paletti found a place on the backmarker Osella squad, driving the FA1C-Cosworth. Even if they were only on their third F1 season, Enzo Osella had a long experience with sportscars and lower formulae, so it could be a decent chance for the young Riccardo to learn, even more with his teammate being the experienced Jean-Pierre Jarier. But it would be always a steep learning curve as he would know almost none of the circuits from the F1 circus nor the driving style of the powerful ground effect cars, and obviously Osella ran with very tight budget.
Paletti was presented with Osella at Misano – with Denim and expected Pioneer as main sponsors – and his contract included a clause that obliged him to do 5,000 Km of tests with the old car, before jumping into the new model that should be used since the first race. In his extensive first session at Misano, young Riccardo put a lot of mileage of testing, even if the Osella suffered a lot with mechanical ailments and he was troubled by neck pain due to the ground effect. When the new car was ready for winter testing, Paletti wrote off a chassis at Paul Ricard on his first attempt, so he spent most of the remaining essays with the old FA1B. So when this well-mannered, bespectacled men, quite timid but funny with his friends, appeared on the Kyalami paddock, he was virtually unknown to the F1 fraternity.
Yet, unexperienced and hampered by all the referred handicaps, it was no surprise that Paletti failed to qualify in South Africa, amongst the confusion of the drivers’ strike, then failing to reach the grid again at Brazil and the USA-Long Beach G.P.’s. But when FOCA teams announced their boycott to the San Marino round, Paletti had an easy chance do it, so he duly qualified on the penultimate position, albeit 1.9 seconds behind his teammate Jarier. But bad luck struck him again, first when he failed to fire up the Osella for the warm-up lap, thus being pushed to the pitlane, leaving it only where the rest of the field was already lining up for the start, that way he crossed the start/finish line already 49 seconds behind the end of the peloton… The ordeal didn’t last longer because on the seventh lap the suspension broke (as it had happened at Long Beach), ending his race…
He would fail to pre-qualify again in Belgium, and any hopes for an improvement with the upgraded chassis Osella presented in Monaco were dashed by the 20-cars limit the Monte Carlo organizers had by then, and the new car was for Jarier, but none of them made the grid. The pace suddenly improved on Detroit and Riccardo qualified 23rd, the gap between him and the Frenchman decreasing substantially. Sadly, on the morning warm-up session, Paletti lost a wheel and crashed heavily, damaging his chassis. He could switch to the spare car, but when Jarier’s fire extinguisher failed, he requested the spare (normal privilege for the experienced team leader), so his mechanics tried everything to get the battered chassis ready car ready. Just as the work was finished, it was known that Jarier had crashed the car on the warm-up lap, so he came to the pits and went into Paletti’s, starting from the pitlane for the race… once more Riccardo was left as a spectator.
One week later, the F1 Circus arrived at Montreal for a very emotional race, as it was the first Canadian Grand Prix since Gilles Villeneuve had lost his life at Zolder, prompting the organizers to rename the circuit in his tribute. Paletti was now very disappointed with Osella. First of all, he felt the car was quite unsafe after so many suspension failures; and he became increasingly conscious that a two-car operation was too much for the Italian team, feeling he was bringing money to the team for the budget to be spent only on the experienced Jarier, which was aggravated by the big differences between both on qualifying. But as Paletti was reducing those differences, his confidence began to grow, and he started to look for another chances to pursue his career in F1. By then, Mike Earle was running a third March car for Emilio de Villota, but the Spaniard was far off the pace and Earle thought on Paletti for 1983 or even late 1982, something they were discussing by the Canadian weekend. However, on the qualifying Riccardo fared quite well and was 23rd, further reducing his gap to Jarier, and this time he was lining up for the start against the complete F1 roster.
This brings us again to the beginning, the description of the frantic start of the race. Pironi’s Ferrari 126C2 engine overheated and failed, so it was a terrible drama for the ones right behind the poleman. Naturally the last drivers on the grid arrived with bigger momentum to the instant they had to avoid the Ferrari, and Boesel was the first one not to miss the stalled car, slightly banging wheels, behind him Paletti rammed the Ferrari at more or less 160 km/h, throwing the Ferrari to the left side of the track, which started a pile-up that involved Jochen Mass, Geoff Lees and Eliseo Salazar. As there were no braking or avoiding maneuvers, it is presumed that Paletti was concentrated on his rev counter trying not to fail his first start on the grid. The impact compressed the front part of the Osella, and immediately rescuers went into the track, quickly followed by a dismayed Pironi, only to find Paletti unconscious on the cockpit. Suddenly, flames erupted on the left side of the car, but fire marshals dealt with it in a few seconds, but it took more or less twenty-five minutes to extricate Riccardo from the car. He was rapidly flown by helicopter to Royal Victoria hospital in Montreal, where he succumbed to his injuries about one hour later, more or less at 17h30. It could be said that the fire delayed preciously Paletti’s rescue, notably as he could have been intubated almost immediately by Professor Sid Watkins, but in matter of fact the injuries the driving column inflicted to his chest were probably fatal. It was even more gruesome because it all happened in front of his mother, as she used to attend all his son’s Grand Prix, and they should travel the following day to New York where the family expected to celebrate Paletti’s 24th birthday there. Gina remembers that Riccardo tried to reassure her about the risks of his profession the day before his last race, and she said she wanted no more than his son’s happiness.
Riccardo Paletti may haven’t been the most promising driver of his time, and effectively he reached F1 so fast due to his family’s money, but credits being given to him he had a very professional and strenuous approach to the sport that could have paid as he gained experience. He used to travel with a personal medical advisor, in charge of monitoring his blood values and heartbeat with small sensors attached to his body during testing, and also cared a lot for his diet and fitness conditions. So, in my opinion, if he had survived, Riccardo Paletti could have had a decent a long career in motor racing, even if not necessarily in Formula 1. Less than a year later, the Municipality of Varano de’ Melegari decided to rename the Varano circuit as “Autodrome Riccardo Paletti”, paying a nice tribute to the deceased young driver.