Bengt Ronnie Peterson was a Swedish Formula One driver, active from the year 1970 to 1978. In the sporting world his nickname was “SuperSwede” and was a two time runner up in the FIA Formula One Drivers Championship.
Born in 14 February, 1944, in Orebro Sweden, he developed his driving style at a young age while competing in karting, and rapidly worked his way up to the pinnacle of European karting before switching to cars. After winning a number of karting titles, including two Swedish titles in 1963 and 1964, he moved on to Formula Three, where he won the Monaco Grand Prix Formula Three Support Race for the 1969 Grand Prix. Later that year he won the FIA European Formula Three Championship and moved up into Formula One, racing for the March Factory Team. In his three-year spell with the team, he took six podiums, most of which were scored during the 1971 Formula One Season in which he also finished as runner-up in the Drivers’ Championship.
Ronnie Peterson driving the STP MARCH F1 car
Peterson’s first Grand Prix win was at the 1973 French Grand Prix, held at Paul Richard, in a Lotus 72. There were three more wins that year, in Austria, Italy and the United States, but poor reliability restricted him to only third place in the World Championship at season’s end.
Peterson driving the all great Lotus 72
For 1974, the Lotus 76 was brought forth. The car, however, proved to be a complete failure, disliked by both Peterson and his team mate Ickx. The team therefore opted to let them drive the near-ancient Lotus 72:s. Peterson did well in the old car and yielded three more victories: the French and Italian Grands Prix, as well as the Monaco Grand Prix, the premier event of Formula One.
Ronnie Peterson with then team mate at Lotus, Jacky Ickx
1975 was a bad year for Lotus. Peterson and Ickx were forced to drive with the now archaic 72 model, whose age was now really beginning to show.
Peterson had signed for Shadow but Lotus owner Colin Chapman convinced him to stay with Lotus due to a promise Chapman made to accelerate the rate of development on the Lotus 77. He drove the first race of 1976 in the Lotus 77 before rejoining March Engineering. Driving the March 761, he won the Italian Grand Prix.
He also continued to drive sports cars, particularly for BMW in 1974 and 1975. For instance, he was paired with Hans-Joachim Stuck in a BMW 3.0 CSL for the South African “Wynn’s 1000” in November 1975, where they started on pole but finished in second after a number of stops with engine vibrations, spark plug, and similar problems.
Peterson competing in the Wynn’s 1000 driving the famous BMW 3.0 CSL
In 1977, he raced for Tyrrell, driving the six-wheel Tyrrell P34B. His only podium finish was a third place at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Peterson driving the six wheeled Tyrrell P34B, quite possibly one of the most innovative F1 car ever made
Peterson surprised many by leaving Tyrrell to return to John Player Team Lotus for 1978. He won the 1978 South African Grand Prix, with a last-lap victory over Patrick Depailler, as well as the Austrian Grand Prix, in the innovative ‘ground effect’ Lotus 79. His teammate Mario Andretti won the Drivers’ Championship with Peterson acting effectively as the Team “No. 2” with the pair scoring four 1–2 wins, all with Mario at the lead. Both of Peterson’s wins occurred when Andretti encountered trouble, with Mario winning once when Peterson failed to finish (not including the Italian Grand Prix). Many times Peterson followed Andretti closely home, leading to speculation that ‘Team Orders’ were in place.
Ronnie Peterson with his last team mate, Mario Andretti
Throughout the 1970s Peterson had the reputation of being the fastest driver in F1 in terms of raw speed. During the 1978 season Andretti would frequently post the faster qualifying time. Perhaps refusing to believe the American could beat Peterson in a head to head contest, many came to believe that team orders extended even to qualifying. Another view, held by some contemporary observers, was that while Peterson may have in fact been the outright quicker of the two, it was Andretti’s considerable car development skills that brought the recalcitrant Lotus 78 and 79 to full potential, and Peterson’s seeming deference to Andretti was a tacit acknowledgement of this. Despite this, Peterson was offered a seat at McLaren at 1979. To his credit, Peterson refused to contribute to any controversy, and on numerous occasions dismissed the speculation by stating that Andretti had simply turned the faster time.
Little had Ronnie knew, his fate would be sealed during the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
At the start of the race, the race starter threw the green light before the field was ready. The cars from fourth row rearwards (Peterson started from the third) were still 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.
The crash that sealed Ronnies fate during the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix
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, while track marshals were extinguishing the car. 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.
The remains of Petersons Lotus after the crash
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. Sid Watkins and his medical team headed over to Brambilla’s car to extract him from the wreckage. The injured drivers along with Peterson were taken to a hospital in Milan and the race was restarted when the track had been cleaned up.
Ronnie being carried away by doctors and marshals to the nearest ambulance
At the hospital, Peterson’s X-rays showed he had seven fractures in one leg and three in the other. After discussion with him, Peterson was sent to intensive care so that the surgeons would be allowed to operate to stabilize the bones. There was some level of dispute between the physicians regarding whether all fractures should be immediately fixed or not. During the night, Peterson’s condition worsened, he was diagnosed with fat embolism. By morning he was in full renal failure and was declared dead at 9:55am on 11 September 1978. The cause of death was given as fat embolism.
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”.
At his funeral, the pallbearers included Ken Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, John Watson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Gunnar Nilsson and Niki Lauda.
In 1979, George Harrison paid tribute to him with a song and music video called “Faster”.
There is a statue of Peterson in Orebro, by Richard Brixel. The official Ronnie Peterson museum was officially opened by Ronnie’s daughter, Nina Kennedy, in Orebro on 31 May 2008. It closed in October 2009 because it was unable to secure government funding.
Ronnie Peterson’s memorial statue at his home town in Sweden
Rest in Peace Ronnie