2018 marks 40 years since the iconic Lotus team claimed their sixth and final Driver’s World Championship thanks to the talents of American driver Mario Andretti and the revolutionary Lotus 79 car. However, their World Championship glory was not without tragedy. Andretti’s team-mate, ‘Superswede’ Ronnie Peterson, tragically died after a start line accident at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza during the 1978 season. It was a significant loss to everyone within the Formula One community, however, Sweden and the F1 fraternity lost another talented driver within five weeks of Peterson’s passing. Had unfortunate circumstances beyond his control not taken place, his innate speed and tenacity behind the wheel could have seen him surpass Peterson as Sweden’s greatest F1 driver.
His name? Gunnar Nilsson. Here is his story, and the legacy which continues to this day.
An Impressive Apprenticeship
Nilsson burst onto the F1 scene at the beginning of the 1976 season, having commandingly won the British Formula Three Championship the previous year, beating the likes of future F1 drivers Danny Sullivan and Eddie Cheever to the title. His performances seemed to attract the attention of Lotus team boss Colin Chapman, who at the time was looking to fill both seats for the ’76 season after both his star turns, Jackie Ickx and Ronnie Peterson, left for pastures new. Equipped with the new Lotus 77 and with next to no experience with Formula One machinery, Nilsson had to learn and learn fast. Luckily, his team-mate for the 1976 season was Mario Andretti, a seasoned veteran of F1 having competed in various races since 1968. If the Swede was to succeed in this sport, he was going to need all the help he could get.
Not that you would think he needed it when you look at Nilsson’s early results with Chapman’s team. In only his third F1 race at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, the Lotus driver finished on the podium in third place, headed only by James Hunt and Niki Lauda. As if to prove that the result was no fluke, Nilsson repeated the feat at the Austrian Grand Prix held at the Österreichring, keeping a charging James Hunt behind him to claim his second podium in his rookie season. This result, along with a fifth place finish at the previous round in Germany, gave Nilsson a running total of 10 points with two-thirds of season already played out. This may not sound like much, but when you consider that Gunnar’s more experienced team mate had only chalked up half the number of points during the same period, the 1976 season was beginning to look like an impressive apprenticeship for the young Swede.
Sadly, Nilsson’s podium in Austria was to be his last of the season. A point at the season finale in Fuji was to be the only other top six finish that year for the Swede, who patriotically wore the Swedish flag across the top of his helmet. Although eventually outscored by Andretti, Nilsson impressed enough to be retained for the 1977 season. The pace exhibited by him in his rookie season now needed to be paired with a car that was equally as quick. Thankfully, Chapman and his design team were perfecting a whole new concept of aerodynamics never before seen in motor racing. ‘Ground effect’ had been born and both Nilsson and Andretti would soon reap the rewards of it.
Gunn-ing for Victory
If the 1976 season had shown promise from the young Swede, then 1977 had to be the season where Nilsson cemented his reputation as a fast yet clinical F1 driver. The car at his disposal, the Lotus 78, was pioneering in the fact that it was generating unseen levels of downforce before on an F1 car, allowing the driver to carry more speed into the corners and therefore reduce lap time. For a driver of Gunnar’s calibre, extracting the most out of this technical advantage would be key to success for the 1977 season.
At first, the results were modest compared with the Swede’s debut season. A brace of fifth places were all to show for the first five races of the season. Having retired from the next race at Monaco, Nilsson’s results were beginning to pale in comparison to Andretti’s, who by this stage of the season had already won two races for Lotus and was beginning to look like a firm title contender. Gunnar could see the potential of his machinery from the other side of the garage – now he needed to replicate it to stand any chance of retaining his seat. The next race of the ’77 season would provide a perfect answer to any doubters who were questioning Nilsson’s performances up to this point of the season.
Wet weather greeted the drivers on the morning of the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Yet the rain did not seem to dampen the ambitions or desire of Nilsson and his Lotus team for victory. Indeed, Gunnar’s team mate ran away with qualifying the day before, Andretti securing pole position with a lap time 1.5 seconds quicker than his nearest challenger, Brabham’s John Watson. Staying in the mix was Nilsson, the Swede marginally slower than the Ulsterman in third. Once again, Gunnar was seeing the potential of his own machinery from the other side of the Lotus garage. Little did he know at the time, however, that starting third was probably a wise move.
As the green start light illuminated the rain-sodden track, Watson jumped the American Lotus driver off the grid to take the lead, Nilsson following closely behind. An ill-fated move by Andretti midway through the first lap to retake the lead ended both his and Watson’s races. For Nilsson, this was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Finding himself second behind Jody Scheckter’s Wolf, the remaining Lotus driver chased and harried his opponent for lap after lap, but the South African would not surrender the lead. With a drying track, Nilsson decided to pit for new tyres at the end of lap 17 – the stop was a nothing short of a disaster, a botched tyre change relegating the Swede to thirteenth and a lap down on the leaders. Surely all hopes of a win had faded?
Yet Nilsson never gave up. In the ever-changing weather conditions the Swede managed to keep his Lotus on the tarmac and began to scythe through the field. By lap 40, Nilsson had managed to regain his second place but still had designs on the lead. Reeling in race leader Niki Lauda at a rate of knots, Nilsson’s unrelenting pace and tenacity in treacherous conditions was to be rewarded on lap 50 when the Swede decisively passed the Ferrari driver on the inside of Kleine chicane and took the lead of the race. Once there, the Lotus driver stretched his advantage for the remaining 20 laps to secure his first Grand Prix victory by a winning margin of just over fourteen seconds from Lauda. For Andretti to secure pole position by 1.5 seconds over one lap was impressive – for Nilsson to pull away from Lauda at an average of seven tenths of a second per lap for twenty laps on a treacherously damp track was almost unthinkable. No wonder Chapman was pleased with his Swedish charge at the end of the race! For Nilsson, he had finally proven to the world that his speed and tenacity behind the wheel can secure victory in one of the most difficult of race conditions.
Seemingly on a crest of wave, Nilsson’s run of good results continued – the win at Belgium shortly followed by a fourth place finish at Dijon and another podium at Silverstone. Breaking his duck at Zolder seemed to instil the Swede with a newfound confidence and, equipped with the Lotus 78, was making the most of it. Yet after the British Grand Prix that year, the results seemed to inexplicably dry up. Not only was Silverstone to be Nilsson’s final visit to an F1 podium in his incredibly short career, but it was also his last classified finish. The retirements began racking up, alternating between driver error and mechanical failure, an unfortunate consequence of Colin Chapman’s design philosophy. But why had the Swede’s performances tailed off so dramatically? The answer would tragically reveal itself at the end of the 1977 season.
A Tragic End
During the second half of the season, Nilsson began complaining of headaches which, over time, became more regular and persistent. Tony Southgate, one of the chief designers of the Lotus 78, recalled at the time Nilsson requesting that his safety harnesses were slightly loosened just before races as the driver felt tenderness around certain areas of his body. The Swede’s health seemed to be taking a turn for the worse mid-season, which in turn seemed to be severely affecting his competitiveness behind the wheel, yet he would not let illness get the better of him. Gunnar continued to see out the rest of the 1977 season, determined to recapture some, if not all, of his form which brilliantly led him to the top step of the podium in Belgium, but it was not to be. The Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji would be the last time the Swede would compete in an F1 race. Chapman, suitably unimpressed with the downturn in Nilsson’s recent form, dismissed the Swedish driver from the team. Replacing him at Lotus was none other than Gunnar’s compatriot, Ronnie Peterson, for the 1978 season. This setback did not deter the young Swede, who successfully negotiated a drive with the newly formed Arrows team for 1978.
However, Nilsson’s failing health meant that he would be unable to fulfil his new contract. A regular health check-up at the end of the 1977 season confirmed his worst fears – the headaches and tenderness he began experiencing during the racing season were as a result of testicular cancer. Despite intensive radiotherapy treatment, the cancer spread to Gunnar’s lymph nodes – by July 1978, the diagnosis had become terminal. Just five weeks after laying to rest his friend and compatriot, Ronnie Peterson, Nilsson succumbed to his illness on 20th October 1978. He was just 29.
A Lasting Legacy
Nilsson bravely tackled his terminal illness with the same level of strength, tenacity and drive which took him to three podiums and one Grand Prix victory during his all too brief Formula One career. Once it was confirmed that Gunnar’s illness was terminal, he decided to set up a Cancer Foundation in his own name, providing medical research into treatments for all types of cancers. It’s thanks to the Swedish driver’s selflessness in tragic circumstances that his Foundation has in part helped reduce mortality rates for a wide variety of cancers, including testicular cancer. Had the medical research and procedures we know today been common knowledge when Nilsson was diagnosed, chances are he would have had a much greater chance in surviving and continued his racing career.
Thankfully, that knowledge has helped save a current driver’s life. Dean Stoneman, 2010 Formula 2 champion (beating former Renault F1 driver and fellow Brit Jolyon Palmer to the title no less), was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011. Due to the medical advances made in this field, in part funded and researched by the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation, Stoneman was able to make a full recovery and return to his racing career. In some small part, he can thank Gunnar’s foresight back in 1978.
To say Nilsson competed in two seasons in Formula One would be a gross injustice to the Swede and his memory. The second half of the 1977 season was severely impacted by Nilsson’s growing illness, unbeknown to both the F1 fraternity and the wider world at the time, so when you look at what the Lotus driver achieved during one and a half seasons at the team with full health, it was remarkable to say the least. Had his cancer not curtailed the second half of his 1977 season, the momentum he carried from his debut victory at Zolder would have undoubtedly continued, as he had already exhibited in the races following his win. Nilsson may have had his promising career tragically cut short by terminal illness, but his legacy lives on in the medical research conducted and funding raised by the Cancer Foundation set up in his name and honour. The Swedish driver from Helsingborg may be gone but he will never be forgotten.