Forgotten Heroes of Formula One: Ronnie Peterson

Dave BatesAnalyst IAugust 1, 2008

Affectionately referred to as "super Swede" by his fans, Ronnie Peterson was the first Scandinavian to take Formula 1 by storm.

He won 10 races from 123 starts, scoring 208 world championship points on the way, but many feel his figures desperately sell him short.

Peterson forced his way into Formula 1 thanks to some supreme performances in the 1969 Formula 3 season. Max Mosley was quick to sign him, entering him in a privately owned march belonging to Colin Crabbe.

Peterson was never really given a chance to prove his worth in an uncompetitive car,  but he finished within the top 10 in three out of five finishes.

He was quick to be moved into the works team, finishing second in his second year of racing while scoring five podium finishes. It was the best result ever for a March driver.

The 1972 season, however, was somewhat turbulent. The March car was plagued by reliability problems that compromised his chances of glory. However, 1973 saw a turn for the better when he was relieved of his March contract to sign for Lotus.

Racing for the Lotus team, Peterson was able to let his talent flourish. In his first season at Lotus, he won four Grand Prix finishing third in the championship. Ronnie Peterson had finally established himself as a genuine title contender.

For all Ronnie's talent, however, much of his career was hindered by reliability issues. In 1974, he scooped a further three race victories but retired six times.

For two seasons, he was forced to run in the 72E model, while his teammate Emerson Fittipaldi went on to win the championship with the lion’s share of luck.

It is worth noting however that Peterson went on to win three Grand Prix in an out-of-date car, including stellar performances at Monaco and Monza. Ronnie Peterson clearly was an astounding talent.

Peterson returned to March in the 1976 season but was once again compromised by reliability issues. He retired nine times and finished 19th in another race due to a technical fault. He did, however, manage to win one Grand Prix among his four finishes.

Perhaps Peterson's biggest problem was his gentle and polite personality. Murray Walker for example described him as "A simple man with stunning ability who lacked the hard business head to maximise his F1 potential."

This was certainly the case in the 1978 season, where he returned to team Lotus happy to play second fiddle to Mario Andretti, even when he outperformed him.

Perhaps this is an example why he never truly made it to the top; he lacked the tenacity of a champion.

It was the 1978 season that was to be his last. In Sunday practice, he smashed his Lotus 79, ending up parked against a tree having smashed through three rows of fencing.

He survived with bruised legs; unfortunately, his car was beyond repair. This forced him to compete in the year-old Lotus 78, starting from the third row on the grid.

As a consequence, Ronnie found himself under pressure from faster cars from behind. As the grid headed towards turn 1, a flurry of cars were sent into a pile up.

Ronnie's car became wedged under a guardrail before catching alight. James Hunt, Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depallier fought to free him but were forced to wait 20 minutes for medical aid.

It is said that Ronnie's legs were in such a state that James Hunt forced Ronnie not to look at them, as he lay conscious in the middle of the track waiting for help.

The Italian authorities did not see his injuries as life-threatening. Overnight however his condition complicated and Ronnie died from a fat embolism when bone marrow mixed into his blood attacked his liver, heart and brain. One of Formula 1's most promising talents was needlessly deceased.

Ronnie's teammate Mario Andretti commented, "It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career" before adding he knew Ronnie would be happy for him.

Ronnie had been in F1 for close to a decade and his fearless antics on the track earnt him many a fan. He was often seen going around corners sideways, constantly striving to get the best out of his car. He remains to this day one of the greatest drivers never to win the championship. 

Had his life not ended so tragically, who knows how many more races the "super Swede” would go on to win?


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