Ronnie Peterson (Sweden)

Written by Jay Walker. Posted in P34 Drivers

A driver like Peterson comes along maybe once in every generation. If you never saw him drive an F1 then maybe you remember Gilles Villeneuve or even Jean Alesi. All drivers with freakish car control and the charisma to match. In the car Peterson was all business his skill unworldly but out of it he was liked by everyone and seemed to have no detractors whatsoever.

Swedish Go Karting champion from 1963 to 1966 in karts prepared by his father he then progressed to Formula 3 in what was really a home made special. For 1968 he acquired a Techno and not only gained his national title but also a place on the works team. So into 1969 with many great battles against his compatriot Reine Wisell and a win in the prestigious Monaco race. This caught the eye of March team and the offer of a three year contract from 1970. Not only did he gain experience in that year but ran a full Formula 2 season alongside it.

A full season of Formula 1 and Formula 2 in 1971 saw Peterson become European Formula 2 Champion with five wins. His pace in the premier formula also seemed little short of sensational. In the neat and tidy little March 711 he got to the podium five times. However the following season was of 1972 was little short of disastrous. The new March was as bad as the old was good and even with Peterson input it never got better than a third at the Nurburgring and even there it spun. Still carrying on with his Formula 2 programme proved difficult as he was also committed to a Sports Car drive with Ferrari. That year he and his co-driver Tim Schenken took victories at Buenos Aires and the Nurburgring along with four second places.

Finally free of his March contract he joined Lotus. Immediate success was tempered by various niggling faults. His basic speed was apparent right the start though as he took pole position at the second race in Brazil. Fastest laps and pole positions were to follow until finally he won in France to be followed by three more wins that year and third in the championship. It is said that so great was the pressure on current world champion Emerson Fittipaldi that he left for McLaren

1974 saw Lotus and Peterson struggle with the new 76 and on numerous occasions there was always the spectacle of watching him drive the venerable old 72(E) and wins at three races were the stuff of legend.

Committed to pedal the old 72E for one more season in1975 even Peterson’s talent could not compensate for the fact that the world of Formula 1 had moved on. A solitary fourth place at Monaco was no reward for having to drive three year old machinery. Lotus however were building a new car for the following season.

Unfortunately the Lotus 77 turned out to be a complete turkey and after he collided with his new teammate Ronnie moved back to the small at March after just one race of 76. The season was only salvaged by a brilliant win at Monza in the March 761.

But for 1977 Peterson made an even more bizarre to move Tyrrell. The six wheeled P34 just did not suit his driving at all. With its tiny 10 inch front wheels Ronnie could not see them and had to gradually work his way to the apex of any corner. Even with the cockpit windows he struggled and was often outpaced by his teammate Depailler who had after all done most of the test and development driving. Peterson did get a third place finish at Zolder but his reputation was being damaged and so a move back to Lotus was arranged.

Colin Chapman took him back on the understanding that although he was equal number one with his teammate Andretti it was the latter who was to win wherever possible. Considering that Andretti had done all the development driving on the new Lotus 79 this seemed only fair. For the first six races of 1978 Peterson had the older 78 and still won third time out in South Africa when Andretti’s car failed. Once given the brilliant 79 he kept his word and held station on Andretti often only yards behind for lap after lap. He took another win in Austria in a terrific drive of complete dominance. At Monza it would be the culmination of Andretti’s championship. But on the run down to the first chicane there was a multiple accident in which Peterson’s car was bulleted into the Armco and back onto the track. Taken from the wreckage alive but with fearful leg injuries he was expected to survive but during that evening complications set in and he died.

After his victory in Austria someone asked him why he did not just go for the championship and damn any agreement with Chapman. After all he was only nine points behind Andretti with plenty more on offer in the remaining races and he was going to McLaren for 1979. This was Peterson’s reply:

“…..I’m going to McLaren next year. It’s not announced yet, but Mario knows. Some of these people who say I should forget our agreement now…..I don’t understand them. I had my eyes open when I signed the contract and I also gave my word. If I break it now who will trust me again.”


F1 Statistics – Ronnie Peterson


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