Ronnie Peterson at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975
In the first of a new series, I will look back at several Formula 1 drivers who, despite their successes or promise, were never remembered in F1 history the way they should have been, for whatever reason. First up is Ronnie Peterson.
He wasn’t known as the “Super Swede” for nothing. While he only won 10 races in his Formula 1 career, Ronnie Peterson was regarded as on of the greatest drivers never to win a world championship, alongside Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve. However, a crash in Monza 1978 put an end to what should have ended in a successful career for the Swede.
Ronnie Peterson finished 7th in his first ever race at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1970
He made his debut in 1970, for the March team, at the Monaco Grand Prix. He qualified 12th out of 16 drivers. Ahead of him were much more experienced drivers in march cars: Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon and Jo Siffert. Despite this, he was the only March driver to finish the race, ending up 7th. After the race, Max Mosley, who was the chief of March Racing, said: “Write that Ronnie is fantastic – but don’t tell it to him”. While he continued to try his best for the rest of the year, he failed to score any points, as he was blighted by an uncompetitive car and poor reliability. For 1971, he was promoted to the full March works team, and instantly impressed. He scored 5 second places in that season, and finished second in the championship behind Jackie Stewart.
In 1972, the car was not up to standard. Ronnie only finished 9th overall in the championship. Outside of F1, he took second places in the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, 6 Hours of Watkins Glen, and BOAC 100km at Brands Hatch. He raced in 10 races in Formula 2, and took 2 victories. However, he couldn’t fight for the title, as he had scored points in F1 that year.
For the 1973 season, Peterson moves to the Lotus team, and has a great year. He took his first victory at the French Grand Prix that year. Across the 15 races in the year, he takes 4 victories, but only finishes 3rd overall in the championship, behind his team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi and Jackie Stewart. This was also the year when the Swedish Grand Prix made its debut, and Peterson finishes at his home event. He also gets engaged to Barbro over the Christmas break.
Ronnie Peterson takes his first ever win at the 1973 French Grand Prix
For 1974, he remained at Lotus, but still failed to clinch the world championship. His new team-mate for this year was Jacky Ickx, after Jackie Stewart hung up his helmet. Despite Colin Chapman introducing the revolutionary new Lotus 76, Peterson only took 3 wins across the season, and finishes 5th in the championship. He still wins a a gold bar (Prix Rouge et Blanc Joseph Siffert) for the best performance of the season.
1975 was his sixth season in F1, but it turns out to be a complete disaster when the new Lotus Ford car fails to be completed before the start of the season. Ronnie struggles on with the old Lotus 72, but only finishes 12th in the championship with 6 points out of 17 races. The good news is that he got married to Barbro in April, and their daughter Nina is born in November. For the famous 1976 season, Peterson ditches Lotus after one race with the new car, the Lotus 77. He breaks his contract, and moves to March for the rest of the season. He takes 1 victory in Monza, but only finishes 11th overall in the championship.
For the next year Peterson takes a risk, and moves to the Tyrrell team, with their completely revolutionary 6-wheeled P34. However, the P34 was uncompetitive for a very specific reason, as Goodyear had failed to deliver the different tyres that Tyrrell needed for their innovation. This meant that the technology couldn’t be properly used, and Ronnie failed to win that year. Because of the fact that the car was not refined for the next year, he decided to move back to his old team Lotus. It was a decicion that paid off well, as their car was unbeatable, so him and Mario Andretti dominated the season. Up to the Italian Grand Prix, Andretti led the championship, with Peterson behind him with 51 points. But then it all went horribly wrong.
During practice, Peterson crashed his 79, meaning it couldn’t be repaired in time for the race, and he also bruised his legs in the process. There were two spare cars that Ronnie could use: last year’s uncompetitive 78, or a 79 that had been developed for the smaller Andretti. The competitive spirit prevailed, and Ronnie opted to use Andretti’s spare car, even though he wasn’t able to fit comfortably inside.
He lined up on the grid in 5th place, with Andretti on pole. But, while the back of the grid were still moving into position, the race starter threw the green flag to start the race, creating an accordion effect at the first corner. This is where the front if the grid were all slower to start off, and the backmarkers all flew off the grid, since they were still moving. This resulted in the entire field being bunched up together at the lethal first corner.
Approaching the Variente Goodyear, Ricardo Patrese’s Arrows hit the back of James Hunt’s McLaren, both of who started from the midfield. Hunt was thrown into Peterson’s Lotus, which flew into the right-hand side barriers, crushing the front of the car. Vittorio Brambrilla started from the back, but gained an advantage as he was already moving at the start. As he approached the accident, he swerved to try and avoid, but smashed into the back of Peterson’s Lotus, and the car burst into flames. After the horrific accident of Niki Lauda two years ago, fear struck everyone around the world.
Because Ronnie’s legs were cramped in, as he attempted to fit into Andretti’s car, his legs were crushed when he hit the barriers. As the car burned, James Hunt leapt out of his car and pulled Peterson from the burning wreck, and Ronnie only sustained minor burns. Hunt laid him out on the middle of the track, and stopped Peterson from looking at his legs to spare him further distress. After the fire was put out, the officials tried to put together what had happened, as there were 10 cars involved in the crash, Brambrilla had a severe head injury, and Peterson’s had 7 fractures in one leg and 3 in the other.
Ronnie Peterson is laid out in the middle of the track after the crash at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix
Ronnie could well have been saved, but for what happened next. The track officials insisted on forming a barrier around the crash site, meaning Professor Sid Watkins, the surgical advisor to Formula 1, was unable to help the drivers. After a delay of 11 to 18 minutes, an amblulance was dispatched, and brought Peterson to the Monza medical centre. After scans were made, it was established that the burns were not severe, his legs were splinted, and IVs were to be put in. His condition soon stabilised, and he was brought to the Ospedale Maggiore at Niguardia. An x-ray scan showed that he had a total of 27 fractures of his legs and feet. After a discussion with Ronnie himself, who had been conscious throughout the entire incident, the decicion was made to stabilise 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 announced as fat embolism.
Despite this horrible death, much good came from it. For example, after the shambolic actions of the track officials, the decicion was made that the medical car would follow the cars around the first lap, to give swift assistance to drivers involved in accidents. Marshalls were given better equipment to put out fires, instead of drivers having to rescue their fellow racers themselves. This posssibly saved the life of Gerhard Berger, after he crashed at Tamburello in Imola in 1989. Also, at Monza itself, the barriers were moved further back, to reduce the impact of crashes. These improvements in safety have saved many lives across the years.
But, his wife Barbro never got over his death, and committed suicide in 1987. Their daughter, Nina, opened a Ronnie Peterson museum in 2008, but it closed in 2009 due to a lack of government funding. A statue of Ronnie can be found in Örebro, made by Richard Brixel.
A statue of Ronnie Peterson can be found in Almby, Örebro
That year, Mario Andretti went on to win the world championship, with Peterson a posthumous second, showing just how dominant the Lotus 79 was. The real tragedy of his death was that Ronnie never got to see the safety improvements his demise brought about.