Ronnie Peterson (1944 - 1978)

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Ronnie Peterson (1944 - 1978)

Ronnie Peterson
Bengt Ronald Peterson, better known as Ronnie, was born on 14 February 1944 and, due to his father's exploits with 500cc racers, soon got the taste for motor racing; in fact, he first went to see his father race when he was only four-years old. The remaining time in between then and his first kart race was spent with motocross and speedway-racing motor bikes.

The first step into proper competition came when Ronnie's father built him a German motor-cycle-engined kart with which Ronnie gained much success in three seasons of racing in the 200cc class. After an even more successful time with a 100cc kart, the graduation to Formula Three was made in 1966 with a home-built car called the SWVBB, a copy of the 1965 F3 Brabham. Unfortunately, however, this enterprising venture was not very successful as the 1966 Brabhams were one year more advanced.

The only thing to do was to buy a proper Brabham, a BT18; this he did, and with the car he finished the season. In his first race with the BTI8, he was involved in a shunt which damaged the car's chassis. The car had to be used the following season and, although it was straightened out as much as possible, it still was not quite right; that year, Ronnie had to be content with thirds and fourths.

Reine Wisell

It was late 1967 when Peterson took the step that would ensure that his next mount would at least be up to the driver's not inconsiderable abilities. With friend, and soon-to-become racing sparring partner, Reine Wisell, he went off to Bologna to see the Pederzani brothers. The Pederzanis had been building karts since 1962 and were, by this time, building the cars to beat in F3, the Tecnos. Reine and Ronnie went home with expensive F3 cars in hand and, while Reine went around Europe racing, Ronnie concentrated on Swedish races for the 1968 season, winning twelve out of 26 events and taking the Swedish Championship.

For 1969 a new Tecno with a Novamotor engine was purchased, and the car was raced under sponsorship from Vick, the cough-drop makers (who were to carry on sponsoring Ronnie for many seasons). There were numerous victories for Ronnie in 1969, and he went to the prestigious Formula Three event of the year, Monaco, with seven successive wins under his belt. A victory in the Principality always attracted plenty of notice in the right quarters, and Ronnie scored a magnificent win against Reine's Chevron. Late that same year, Peterson was contracted to drive a completely new car in F3; this was for March, who were taking their first tentative steps which were to lead to a quick jump to Formula One.

Colin Crabbe's Antique Automobiles Team

The first race with the March 693 was at Cadwell Park in England where Ronnie finished third. The next race at Montlhery was not quite as successful: he ended up in a Paris hospital. The March directors went to see the dazed Peterson at his bedside and took him (along with customary flowers and grapes) a contract for Formula One in 1970. Although Peterson was the first man to be signed for F1 with March, the experienced Chris Amon and Jo Siffert were to take the works drives. However, the Bicester company lined up a drive for Peterson in a private March 701, with Colin Crabbe's Antique Automobiles team. The 701 chassis was relatively unproven and uncompetitive, with Jackie Stewart picking up the only Grand Prix win for March in Ken Tyrrell's team car in Spain.

Peterson plodded through Formula One that year with seventh in Monaco as his highest placing. Driving the Malcolm Guthrie Racing Team March in Formula Two, he had a more encouraging time, although still far from brilliantly successful, finishing third in the European Trophy series. It was 1971 when the star from Sweden started to shine brightly. This was when March gave Ronnie a works drive in their STP-backed 711 as team leader. This car was a much lighter, more nimble and generally more competitive machine than its predecessor. The first race in which he showed the expected promise in F1 was the Monaco GP, where he finished second to Stewart, only 25.6 seconds behind. This was despite racing with suspected cracked ribs sustained during a nasty Silverstone shunt.

The European Championship

After that, the season turned out well for Ronnie, overshadowed only by Stewart who was in great form. He came very close to winning his first GP in Italy, but he had to be content with second place behind Peter Gethin's BRM which was all of one-hundredth of a second ahead. There was to be a fairly lean season in between that second place and his first GP win, although in Formula Two racing he quickly asserted himself as 'King' in the 1971 season, taking the European Championship with the March 712. 1972 was the year of the ill-fated March 721X, the car that promised so much with its low polar moment of inertia. Despite the amazing handling this car promised, trouble with the gearbox and other minor faults meant that it was virtually impossible to develop.

Ronnie Peterson in his Project 3 March 752
Ronnie Peterson made a comeback to Formula Two in 1975 at Thruxton.
He is seen here facing the wrong way after spinning his
Project 3 March 752.

John Player Team Lotus

So, the year was ended with Ronnie driving the 721G Formula Two chassis, specially converted. In fact, this car was quite successful: Ronnie started from the front row of the grid in Canada and led for a time, and in America he finished the race in fourth place. However, the damage had been done and he had already made his mind up to leave. Colin Chapman was quickly on the scene and snapped up what was by now the hottest property on the motor-racing scene.

The position offered by John Player Team Lotus was 'joint number one' along with reigning World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. This venture was quite successful considering the reputation Lotus had with many drivers. In his first seven GP starts in 1973, he secured four pole positions, and in that seventh race, the Swedish GP at Anderstorp, Peterson beavered away through the field to lead his home GP, only to have a tyre deflate near the end and have to watch Denny Hulme's McLaren Ford win.

The next race saw Ronnie win his first GP, in France. More victories came in Austria and Italy, where Emerson Fittipaldi was upset that Ronnie had not let him win. That year in Formula Two, Ronnie. and Emerson raced Texaco Stars with Novamotor Jensen-Healey engines, but they were totally uncompetitive. Fittipaldi left the team at the end of the season and Jacky Ickx came in. 1974 was started with the ageing Lotus 72, but the 76 with electric clutch and double brake-pedals was on the way. This car needed a great deal of development, however, and time could not always be found for this. 'One problem was that the 72 kept winning', said Ronnie, so obviously the team could not wholeheartedly keep testing the new machine. F1 wins at Monaco, one of Peterson's lucky circuits, France and Italy helped the season on, but by the end of the year it was Ronnie's driving that stopped the old 72 from being hopelessly outclassed.

Alan Rees

It was then that talks were said to have started with one-time March and then Shadow team manager Alan Rees. During the 1974-1975 close season there was much negotiating between these two teams for Ronnie's services in one of the new quick cars of GP racing. When the storm clouds cleared, though, it seemed as if it was more of a bluff by Lotus to get its sponsors to give the team more money than a wish to move by the driver himself. Early 1975 saw the 72 get probably its last breath when a new, lighter chassis was built. The car ran third in South Africa and finished third in the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but it was on the new Lotus model that Peterson's hopes for the World Championship were pinned. The new car did not appear until October, however, and was not raced until the following year. Ronnie had a dismal season, scoring only six points, from fourth place in Monaco and fifths in the shortened Austrian Grand Prix and at Watkins Glen.

Nor was 1976 much better - although it did include one win. The new Lotus appeared in Brazil, where Peterson was joined in the team by Mario Andretti; the two collided while running near the back of the field early in the race. For Ronnie it was the last straw and he headed back to March, in exchange for fellow Swede Gunnar Nilsson. Although Ronnie had demonstrably lost none of his flair, neither had March found much reliability and by the time Peterson's pure driving skill won the Italian Grand Prix, at Monza in September, he had already signed for Tyrrell for 1977. His only other score with the March had been for sixth place in Austria. Perhaps he had thought that the six-wheeled Tyrrell would suit his tail-out driving style, but what had looked quite a promising car a year earlier was suddenly hopelessly uncompetitive.

In spite of spectacular efforts with the Tyrrell, Ronnie was often slower than team-mate Patrick Depailler and he suffered a whole catalogue of retirements and minor accidents. He did manage third place in Belgium (where, perhaps ironically, Nilsson won), fifth in Austria and sixth at Monza, but a meagre seven points again left him at the wrong end of the championship table. So, for 1978 it was back to Lotus - this time to back Mario Andretti who was determined to defend his status as team leader. At last it seemed that perhaps 'Superswede' had put himself into the right place at the right time and when the season began, in South America, he was brimming with a confidence and enthusiasm not seen for many a year. While Andretti scored an effortless victory in Argentina Ronnie scored his first points of the season with a fine fifth place.

Tradgedy at Monza

The 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza started badly for Peterson. In practice he damaged his Lotus 79 race car beyond immediate repair and bruised his legs in the process. Team Lotus had a spare 79, but it had been built for Andretti, and the taller Peterson did not fit comfortably inside. The team's only other car was a type 78, the previous year's car, which had been dragged around the F1 circuit that season with minimal maintenance. At the start of the race, the race starter threw the green light before the field was ready. The cars from fourth row onwards (Peterson started from the third) were rolling when the green light came on and got a jump on those ahead, resulting in an accordion effect as the cars approached the chicane, bunching them tightly together.

The front four, Andretti, Villeneuve, Jabouille and Lauda, were far enough ahead to avoid any drama, but Peterson had made a poor start from fifth and was immediately passed by Alan Jones, Jacques Laffite and John Watson. Jody Scheckter and Riccardo Patrese, starting 10th and 12th, had moved to the right across the line that separated the Grand Prix front straight from the approach to the old Monza banking. While Scheckter's Wolf was able to rejoin the track well ahead of the bunching pack, Patrese moved back in just ahead of James Hunt, who feinted left and collided with Peterson, with Vittorio Brambilla, Carlos Reutemann, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Patrick Depailler, Didier Pironi, Derek Daly, Clay Regazzoni and Brett Lunger all involved in the ensuing melee.

Peterson's Lotus went into the barriers hard and caught fire before bouncing back into the middle of the track. He was trapped in the burning wreck, but Hunt, Regazzoni and Depailler managed to free him before he received more than minor burns. He was dragged free and laid in the middle of the track fully conscious, his severe leg injuries obvious to all. Hunt later said he stopped Peterson from looking at his legs to spare him further distress. At the time there was more concern for Brambilla, who was hit on the head by a flying wheel and was slumped comatose in his car (he later recovered and drove on in F1 until 1980).

Peterson's life was not seen to be in any danger. The injured drivers were taken to hospital in Milan and the race was restarted when the track had been cleaned up. At the hospital, Peterson's X-rays showed he had seven fractures in one leg and three in the other. After discussion with him, the surgeons decided to operate to stabilize the bones. Unfortunately, during the night, bone marrow went into Peterson's bloodstream through the fractures, forming fat globules on his major organs including lungs, liver and brain. By morning he was in full renal failure and was declared dead a few hours later. The cause of death was given as fat embolism.

Peterson's life would most likely have been saved had he received medical attention immediately after his accident. Track officials insisted on forming a human wall stopping anyone, including Professor Sid Watkins, then Surgical Advisor to Formula One, from entering the crash site. After a delay of between eleven and eighteen minutes an ambulance was sent to the accident scene and Peterson was taken to the Monza medical centre.Teammate Mario Andretti clinched the championship at the race. "It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career", Andretti said, "I couldn't celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me".

Peterson ran a total of 123 Grand Prix races during his career, winning ten of them. He is arguably the greatest driver, along with Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve, never to have won the Formula One World Championship. Peterson's coffin were carried by world champions, but Andretti, Peterson's partner in Lotus, didn't attend at the funeral. Peterson's widow Barbro (née Edwardsson) never got over his death and committed suicide on 19 December 1987. She was buried alongside Ronnie in the Peterson family grave in Örebro. She and Ronnie had a daughter named Nina Louise (named after Jochen Rindt's wife) who was born in November 1975.
Ronnie Peterson heading for victory in his John Player Special Lotus 72 in France, 1974
Ronnie Peterson heading for victory in his John Player Special Lotus 72 in France, 1974.
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