Gunnar Nilsson was the second son of a building contractor and was born in Helsingborg, Sweden, on 20 November 1948. He went to school in his home town and subsequently served as a submarine radio officer in the Swedish Navy. For a while it seemed that he would follow the family business. He studied engineering for four years and gained a degree from the University of Stockholm but eight months of working as a supervisor in the construction industry was as much as he could tolerate. He left his job in Stockholm to return home and start his own business.
Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell
In spite of his background and training construction held no attraction and he and his associate, Dan Molim, aimed to establish a transport business. The business flourished and even when he became a full-time racing driver Gunnar continued as a partner in the company. Sweden's motor racing scene in 1972 gained much publicity through the exploits of Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell and, suddenly, Nilsson knew that he too wanted to be a racing driver.
RPB Formula Vee
He wasted no time in acquiring an RPB Formula Vee car and setting forth to learn the trade. His first season took in only about ten races and included one win, at Mantorp Park. The following year Gunnar graduated to Formula Super Vee, driving a Lola T252 for Ecurie Bonnier. His team mate for many races throughout Europe was seasoned campaigner Freddy Kottulinsky and although Nilsson won no races he learned many valuable lessons.
One of the most valuable of these lessons learnt was that if he were to reach the top his next step would have to be in Formula Three. Nilsson's experience was growing rapidly; in September he drove a Formula Two GRD for the Swedish Pierre Robert team at the Norisring and, mainly due to the misfortunes of others, he finished a remarkable fourth overall. Also during 1973 he tried his hand at rallying with a series of BMW 2002 Tiis, several of which sustained heavy damage.
The Polifac Formula Three Championship
Nilsson's most important break in 1973 came during a Super-Vee outing at the Nurburgring
. At the time Nilsson did not know where the finance for a season in Formula Three might be found but at that meeting he was approached by Vastkust-Stugan, a firm which manufactured prefabricated buildings in Sweden, who offered sponsorship for 1974. With their help a March 743 with a Toyota engine was acquired, with which to contest the Polifac Formula Three Championship. In terms of results it was not a very good year for the team. Gunnar scored some second places but not a single win and his season was punctuated by many spins and minor accidents.
He was the first to admit that most of the problems were a result of trying too hard, but that was the quickest way to learn. Certainly, he did not go unnoticed and towards the end of the season he was given Formula Two drives. In one of these he scored a fourth place (a more convincing one than his Norisring performance) at Hockenheim. For 1975 March acknowledged the Swede's talent by putting him into their works Formula Three car. With the advantage of adequate pre-season testing and a growing self-confidence, Gunnar scored his first win in the Formula at the season-opening supporting race at the Thruxton Formula Two meeting.
Gunnar Nilsson driving the Formula Atlantic Chevron at Brands Hatch in 1975, a year in which he seemed invincible.
Gunnar Nilsson in his Aplina BMW at Dijon in 1976.
Gunnar Nilsson leading Alex Ribeiro during the Formula Three race at the 1975 British Grand Prix.
The BP Formula Three Championship
This was the beginning of a run of success which netted the BP Formula Three Championship and included wins at Aintree, Silverstone, Knutstorp, Snetterton and again at Thruxton. In winning the Formula Three round supporting the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, Nilsson attracted all the right attention and was soon signed by Ted Moore of Rapid Movements to drive his company's Formula Atlantic Chevron. In Formula Three Gunnar had interspersed his successes with some spectacular accidents but in Atlantic he made no mistakes. He managed fourth in his first race and then scored an outstanding run of five wins, including four from pole position.
The Brands Hatch Race of Champions
The queue for Gunnar's services for 1976 was a long one. He eventually signed to drive for March, with a promise of a BMW-powered Formula Two drive. He then became the pawn in the bargaining between Lotus and March for Ronnie Peterson's contract. In the end Ronnie went to March and Gunnar to Lotus; it was the start of a happy union. Nilsson had briefly tried Formula One power in testing for Frank William's team at Goodwood, now he was thrown in at the deep end - racing the Lotus in the South African Grand Prix. His debut was not an auspicious one: he started from last place on the grid, in what was acknowledged to be a bad car and which had caught fire during practice.
The International Trophy at Silverstone
His next race, the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, was more promising: he started from the second row of the grid and stormed into an immediate lead, which sadly lasted only until his engine shed a plug lead. In the other British non-championship race, the International Trophy at Silverstone, Gunnar finished sixth. In between these two races he had survived a huge first lap accident at the US Grand Prix
West, where he had again started last on the grid. In Spain Andretti
re-joined the team and Gunnar finished a fighting third. He scored third place in Austria, fifth in Germany and sixth in Japan (where Andretti
won) but the rest of the season was marred by accidents - in Belgium, Sweden and Holland - and by car failures - in Monaco, France, Great Britain, and at Watkins Glen.
The Belgian Grand Prix
Nevertheless he had impressed sufficiently to stay with Lotus for 1977 and Mario Andretti
was staying too. Once again Gunnar had a true professional to lead him in the right direction. In 1977 the Lotus 78 was regularly the fastest car on the circuits in Andretti's hands and the American won more races than any other driver during the year. Gunnar proved his worth as a backup driver to Andretti and wrote his name firmly in the record books with a fine win in the Belgian Grand Prix
after his team mate had been eliminated in a first lap accident. Nilsson mastered appalling weather conditions before driving around the outside of Niki Lauda's Ferrari
with twenty laps to go, thereafter building up a sizeable lead and cruising gently to victory.
The European Touring Car Championship
Nilsson also scored a third place in Great Britain, fourth in France and fifth places in both Brazil and Spain, to finish the Championship in eighth place with a total of twenty points. He might have scored more but for a whole catalogue of minor accidents (and one not so minor one, in Canada), mechanical failures and punctures. On several occasions, notably in Austria, he drove extremely hard even after pit stops, proving that he was not a man to give up easily. Gunnar was versatile too; having driven a BMW sedan for the Luigi team in 1976, he joined Dieter Quester in the Alpina BMW 3.2CSL
to contest some rounds of the 1977 European Touring Car Championship and took the car to victory at Salzburgring in April and at the Nurburgring
The International Race of Champions
Nilsson also sampled American style oval racing in the International Race of Champions series, scoring a sixth place at Riverside in October and expressed plenty of enthusiasm for that form of racing. Towards the end of 1977 Nilsson's relationship with Colin Chapman
of Lotus deteriorated to some extent and, even though Andretti openly said there was no one he would sooner have as team mate than Gunnar, his place at Lotus was taken by fellow countryman Ronnie Peterson. For 1978, he signed for Arrows, but was never well enough to drive the car.
He did compete in three International Race of Champions (IROC) races in 1978. He had two sixth place finishes and a fifth place finish. That summer Nilsson grew weaker and weaker. He started work on setting up the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Research fund and grieved in September when Peterson was killed in a crash at Monza. Nilsson died five weeks later.