- November 20, 1948
- October 20, 1978
- Not Active
Gunnar Nilsson was a racing driver from Sweden who won the British Formula 3 Championship before entering the Formula 1 World Championship. He recorded 31 starts in Formula One Grand Prix races, driving for Lotus in 1976 and 1977. He won the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix.
Late beginning of the racing career
He was born on November 20, 1948 in Helsingborg as a son of a real estate magnate Arvid Nilsson. Gunnar had a beautiful childhood and later he served in the Swedish navy as a submarine radio officer. After leaving the army, Nilsson studied engineering and became involved in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Stockholm, Gunnar worked in a family business but after a couple of months, he left the business to start his own transport business. Interestingly, Nilsson remained in the job even though he became an established international racing driver.
His progress was relatively slow. In 1972, he bought a Formula Vee and scored a win at Mantorp Park which was his only victory out of 10 races. The following year, Nilsson moved to Formula Super Vee series where he was driving for Ecurie Bonnier, owned by the famous Swedish racing driver Joakim Bonnier. His teammate was Freddy Kottulinsky, a father of Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, and his help was vital for the inexperienced Nilsson. Gunnar finished fifth in the series and proved that he is capable of achieving bigger things. The same year, Swedish racer also tasted the Formula 2 European Championship and finished 4th in the race at Norisring.
British Formula 3 championship title winner
In 1974, Nilsson bought March 743 powered by Toyota engine and entered the Swedish and the German Formula 3 Championships. Despite having a couple of accidents, mainly because he wasn't experienced enough, Nilsson finished 8th in the German Formula 3, while in his homeland he was 12th overall. However, his raw talent drew the attention of many teams. Finally, Nilsson decided to accept the invitation of March Team to compete in the British Formula 3 in 1975.
For the first time in his career, Gunnar had proper pre-season preparations, which is why he gave several amazing performances and achieved great results. Nilsson won eight races on the way to winning the Formula 3 title. At the same time, he was offered a drive in the Formula Atlantic and again he impressed with five consecutive wins, four of them being from pole position. He finished the season as a series runner-up even though he drove just in the final six races of the season!
Gunnar debuted in Formula 1 in 1976
Nilsson’s big moment arrived in 1976 when he debuted in the Formula 1 World Championship. Originally, the plan was to compete in Formula 2 but then an opportunity arrived to jump into the seat of Lotus, replacing his compatriot Ronnie Peterson. Unfortunately, the Lotus-Ford 77 car wasn’t any near to its famous predecessor Lotus 72.
Nilsson retired from eight out of nine opening races that year but surprised many by finishing 3rd, behind James Hunt and Niki Lauda, in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. By the end of the season, Nilsson was once again 3rd, in the Austrian Grand Prix, this time he was behind John Watson and Jacques Laffite. He also picked points in Germany and Japan before taking the 10th place in the Drivers’ championship which was a good achievement for the rookie.
Driving alongside Andretti
Lotus team was happy with the Swede and decided to retain his services for 1977 when his teammate again was Mario Andretti. The car still wasn’t at the required level but Gunnar pulled out the maximum. He finished 5th in the Grand Prix of Spain and soon he scored his first and only F1 triumph in the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. On the wet track, Nilsson managed to overtake Lauda later in the race and won the race.
Before the end of the season, Nilsson took the 4th position in the French Grand Prix and was 3rd in the British Grand Prix, again losing to Hunt and Lauda. The final part of the campaign was disastrous because Gunnar was forced to retire from seven races in a row. At the end, he was 8th in the points but it was obvious that he was capable of achieving more if he had a more reliable car.
Short spell in other racing categories
During his Formula 1 days, Nilsson also experienced racing in other categories. He appeared in selected World Sportscar Championship events, as well as in the European Touring Cars Championship races. He also raced at ovals in the International Race of Champions series with a considerable success.
Illness forced him to retire
At the end of the 1977 season, Nilsson parted ways with Lotus and signed with a newly formed Arrows team. Unfortunately, in December of 1977 Gunnar was diagnosed with cancer during routine medical check in London and canceled the deal to drive in 1978. During intensive therapy, Nilsson was physically devastated but never lost a faith that he will return to racing.
Sadly, Nilsson lost his most important battle and died on 20th of October in London, at the age of 29. The world lost one of the most naturally gifted drivers of all time. His death arrived just five weeks after his close friend Ronnie Peterson was killed in the crash at Monza. Nilsson was present at the funeral which was his last public appearance.
A year after his death, Gunnar’s mother founded a Cancer Foundation named after her son. In June of 1979, the "Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Trophy" was held at Donington Park, a fundraiser for the foundation. A total of 5 F1 cars turned up. People were able to see the return and a final appearance of the Brabham 'fan car' and a former F1 champion James Hunt.