Sweden's Greatest Driving Export: Ronnie Peterson, Legendary Talent

Matt HillContributor IIIDecember 2, 2010

1978:  Portrait of Lotus Ford driver Ronnie Peterson of Sweden. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport
Getty Images/Getty Images

Monza is well known around the world and is one of the favourite tracks of many on the F1 circuit. It's a track well known for high speed, slip streaming and overtaking.

Over the years, there has been many good races including one of my personal favourites, the 1998 Italian Grand Prix. But there have been many other classics there, such as the 1971 race, the 1988 race and the 1999 race to name a few.

However, like many fast circuits, it is a dangerous circuit and death; sadly, it has never been to far away from the Italian track. Ascari, Von Trips and Rindt all sadly lost their lives at the track.

In 2000, a marshall by the name of Paolo Ghislimberti was killed as a result of a wheel flying of a car and striking him during a severe first lap crash. Despite all of the safety equipment, as the 2000 accident proves, Monza is still dangerous.

One of the other men who died because of an accident at the Italian track is Ronnie Peterson—a driver, who like Cevert (who I did an article about earlier) was, in my view, is one of the greatest drivers not to win the title. I also believe he would (despite being 34 at the end) of been a world champion if his life was not cut short.

Peterson's story is one of tragedy, bad luck and a lack of preparation.

Ronnie Peterson still had the chance to be the world champion as they headed in the final two races of the 1978 season. It looked doubtful he would win, with his teammate Mario Andretti 12 points clear, but it was still a possibility and as has been demonstrated so well this year, anything is possible

Ronnie drove for three teams during his career. He spent a lot of time at the March team, spent a season at Tyrrell, as well as driving for the legendary Lotus team. Peterson began his career driving a privateer March during the 1970 season and even in those early days, there were clear signs of his ability.

He was driving an old March 701 but he still managed to out-qualify and out-race people who would much more current equipment. Also, when you consider he very rarely got to test due to financial constraints, his efforts are even more impressive.

He was unable to score a point in the 1970 season but was a consistent top ten runner.

Heading into 1971, his talent was clearly noted and the full works March team took him on as one of their drivers. Peterson showed what he could do and earned himself second in the drivers’ championship, albeit, a long way behind Jackie Stewart in the all-conquering Tyrrell.

During the season, he earned himself four second place finishes as well as a third in the USA. Sadly, that first win did just stay out of reach. 

In 1972, Peterson was hamstrung by a terrible car with the March 721, being a step backwards it seemed from the March 711 of the previous season. Despite being stuck in a poor car, he did manage to secure some points with a highest position of fourth in the USA but also scored three other in Argentina, South Africa and France.

Rather unsurprisingly, Ronnie secured a drive elsewhere and was in the Lotus team for 1973. 1973 was a watershed for Peterson, with him earning four race victories in France, Austria, Italy and America.

In what was a very tight season, Peterson was sadly let down by mechanical problems and without those, I suspect at worst he would of been runner-up and may of even fought Stewart for the title.

But with these problems, Peterson had to settle for third in the championship. On a positive note, Lotus did win the constructors title.

1974 should of been a fantastic year for Lotus but their new Lotus 76 was ahead of its time and there was some problems with it. There was so many problems with it, they reverted back to the old 72 after the Spanish Grand Prix.

Once the 76 was scrapped, Peterson managed to put together a much more serious title bid but the damage done by the issues with the 76; it made it impossible for Peterson to catch up.

Once back in the 72, Peterson earned another three victories during 1974 but fourth was the best that Peterson could produce. Considering the problems he had with cars in 1974, fourth was a very good effort.

1975 was a disaster. The 72 was now very out of date and with the 76 being scrapped—there was nothing that could be done. The 1970 season saw the debut of the 72, so Peterson was driving a five year old car; he was driving an antique. Peterson could only score two points finishes during the 1975 season.

Once more, he had to look for somewhere else for a competitive machine.

In 1976, he drove the first race of the season for Lotus before moving back to March. Once again, there was car issues—he suffered very bad reliability issues.

During the season, he had only six finishes out of 16 races. Peterson also made the mistake of over-driving in an attempt to try and get more out of the car and that lead him to having a few accidents.

At the 1976 Italian Grand Prix, his aggressive driving paid off and he earned himself a race victory, but yet again, Peterson had to look for somewhere else to provide a car that was quick and reliable.

Peterson went to Tyrrell for 1977 and he got to drive the legendary 6 wheeled P34. The P34 though was wider and crucially much heavier.

The biggest problem, however, were the tires: Goodyear had stopped developing the small front tyres and the car had less front grip than most other cars in the field. Peterson secured a podium but both him and Depailler struggled with the car and neither could do much.

In 1978, he made a surprise return to Lotus and for once, it looked like he had the car to match his talent. Peterson and his teammate Andretti were the class of the field and dominated the season. Peterson only managed two wins but four second places and other points finishes left him still in the title race heading to Monza with the Canadian and American races to go.

The 1978 Italian Grand Prix incident summed up the problems with Formula 1 in this era: The drivers were seen as expendable.

If someone died in Formula 1 in the 2011 season, I would expect a mass public outcry and inquest to the crash.

Back then, however, death was common and a lot of people seemed not to care. This is what happened.

As the parade lap ended, the cars at the front of the grid stopped and took their positions and waited for the rest of the grid to line up. For reasons unknown, the starter pressed the button putting on the green light whilst the middle of the grid was still lining up.

Due to this, the middle of the field got a jump on the cars at the front and things became very crowded at the front.

The straight at Monza narrowed as well at the approach to the chicane acting like a funnell. This caused the already crowded leading pack to become even more bunched.

What happened next is unclear but Hunt struck Peterson, sending him into the wall and a melee ensued. Several cars were involved and a red flag was put out.

Peterson's car was on fire and he was trapped inside. Hunt and other drivers pulled Peterson out of his car and it was clear Peterson had severe damage to his legs. Incredibly, it took 20 minutes for Professor Sid Watkins to get on the track.

The Italian marshalls made a wall preventing people from him getting onto the track. It was a horrific mistake.

Not only was Peterson in trouble but Brambilla got struck in the head by a flying wheel, knocking him out cold. Both drivers when medical help did finally get to both drivers they were both sent to hospital but Brambilla was the main concern.

Once Peterson got to hospital an X-ray was taken with seven fractures found, in one leg and three in the other. The fractures were operated on and Peterson's legs were made more stable.

During the night, Peterson's wife Barbro got a phone call from an unknown person saying that they were trying to kill Ronnie. To this date, the person who called remains a mystery.

During the night, Peterson was showing signs that something was gravely wrong. All of his vital medical signs were becoming much worse. Whilst the fractures in his legs were being fixed, bone marrow got into his bloodstream. Fat globules started to form on Peterson's on all of his major organs.

By Monday morning, Peterson was in full renal failure. In the morning, a brain scan was taken to measure brain activity—there was none.

Peterson was brain dead and not long later, the other organ systems failed and he died.

Had medical help been able to get to Peterson quicker when he was on the track like it should, Ronnie would of survived.

Ricardo Patrese was blamed for this accident by some people including James Hunt, which led to Hunt whilst commentating for the BBC being less then pleasant towards Patrese. The common viewpoint is that it was just a racing incident.

Ronnie Peterson was a huge loss to the world of Formula 1. Peterson's wife, Barbro, couldn't face life without Ronnie and she committed suicide in 1987.

Peterson was liked by all: His aggressive driving style made him popular with the fans and his attitude in the paddock made him a popular man there. He, by all accounts, was a nice guy with an amazing gift.


Ronnie Peterson