Home - The Official Formula 1 Website Skip to content

30 years on - remembering Ronnie Peterson 11 Sep 2008

Ronnie Peterson (SWE) Lotus, finished the race in fifth position. Austrian Grand Prix, Rd 12, Osterreichring, Austria, 17 August 1975. Ronnie Peterson (SWE) March 701 finished seventh on his GP debut. Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, 10 May 1970. Ronnie Peterson(SWE) March 711, 2nd place in the closest ever GP finish Italian GP, Monza, 5 September 1971 (L to R): F1 debutante Gunnar Nilsson (SWE) Lotus, talks with his fellow countryman Ronnie Peterson (SWE), whom he replaced at Lotus, with Ronnie moving to March. Both retired from the race. South African Grand Prix, Rd2, Kyalami, South Africa, 6 March 1976. (L to R): Second placed Ronnie Peterson (SWE) and race winning Lotus team mate Mario Andretti (USA) celebrate on the podium. Belgian Grand Prix, Rd 6, Zolder, Belgium, 21 May 1978.

Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Ronnie Peterson. An archetypal racer, ‘Super Swede’ Peterson claimed ten victories during his Formula One career and, despite never being crowned champion, is still widely regarded as one of the greatest talents the sport has ever produced.

Born in Orebro in 1944, Peterson stretched his early racing legs in karting, winning four consecutive national titles. He switched to Formula Three in 1967, driving a car built by his father, and after clinching the Swedish F3 championship the following year finally hit the big time in 1969, storming to victory in the Monaco Grand Prix support race.

Formula One racing had spotted a new golden boy and Peterson was quickly signed up to drive for March for the 1970 season. A year later, his promise came to fruition when he finished second in the championship behind Tyrrell’s Jackie Stewart. But a drop to ninth in the standings in 1972 convinced Peterson it was time to move on and for the 1973 season he secured a drive with reigning title holders Lotus.

Peterson won four Grands Prix that year, and three more the following season, impressing all who saw him race with his astonishing car control and brutal pace. Even a lacklustre 1975 campaign, during which he scored just six points, failed to dampen Formula One’s love affair with the naturally-gifted Peterson.

With new wife Barbro and baby Nina to consider, Peterson was hungry for more success and in 1976 he rejoined March, notching up a memorable win from eighth on the grid at the Italian Grand Prix. He moved to Tyrrell for 1977, but hindered by the poor reliability of the team’s famous six-wheeled car (he retired 11 times from 17 races), victories once more became elusive, and his best result was a third place at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Yearning to return to the top step of the podium, and remembering his glory days at Lotus, Peterson headed back to Colin Chapman’s team for the 1978 season as second driver to American Mario Andretti. It was a wise move. At the wheel of the uber-competitive ‘ground effect’ Lotus 79, he and Andretti dominated the season, with Andretti taking six victories and Peterson two.

Ahead of the Italian round, however, Peterson’s campaign suffered a blow. With mechanical issues affecting his car, he could only qualify fifth, while Andretti took pole position. A subsequent accident during Sunday morning’s warm-up session ruined the car and Peterson was forced to take to the grid in the older Lotus 78. Then, at the start, disaster struck.

The lights went out before the rear of the field had come to a halt on grid, effectively giving several drivers a rolling start. As the cars approached the first turn, the resulting speed differentials meant a pile-up was almost inevitable and in the ensuing melee the McLaren of James Hunt clipped Peterson's car, sending the Lotus spinning into the barriers. Trapped in the wreckage, which had burst into flames, Peterson was pulled from the burning car by Hunt.

Although the accident had been severe, Peterson’s injuries did not initially look life threatening. Despite a delayed rescue response, he remained lucid while awaiting arrival of the ambulance and after a short spell at the circuit’s medical centre was taken to the nearest hospital. As well as suffering mild burns, Peterson’s legs were broken in more than 20 places and doctors operated immediately to pin his bones back together.

By evening, he was reportedly stable and the paddock breathed a collective sigh of relief. But in the early hours of the next morning, matters took a turn for the worse. After suffering an embolism, supposedly caused by marrow leaking from his fractured bones into his bloodstream, Peterson was declared dead. He was just 34. As with Alberto Ascari, Wolfgang Von Trips and Jochen Rindt before him, Monza had claimed another victim.

Commonly acknowledged as one of Formula One racing’s fastest and most naturally gifted drivers, the sport was rocked by Peterson’s untimely death. He was as likeable off track as he was aggressive on it, and amongst the many mourners at his funeral were former team boss Ken Tyrrell, Lotus team manager Colin Chapman and fellow drivers including Hunt, Stewart, Jody Scheckter, John Watson, Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda.

That year Andretti would go on to secure his first (and only) world championship, with Peterson finishing a posthumous second in the standings. But the Swede’s premature passing would not be forgotten, not least because his loss prompted so many improvements to the safety of Formula One racing - improvements that have since saved countless drivers from a similar fate.