- February 14, 1944
- September 11, 1978
- Not Active
Unfortunately for many great talents and fearless men, the golden years of Formula 1 were the bloodiest ones as well. One of the brightest stars who met his untimely death at the track was Bengt Ronnie Peterson, the most successful Swede ever to race in Formula One. Ronnie Peterson was known for his aggressive and flamboyant driving which often led his car to corner sideways, to the excitement of the crowds worldwide.
In his F1 career, Peterson recorded 123 starts in the F1 World Championship between 1970 and 1978, driving for March, Lotus and Tyrrell. He was a race winner ten times, finishing as an F1 vice-champion in 1971 and 1978.
Peterson's road to fame
The exceptionally talented Peterson was born in Almby and started racing in karts from the early age. As his success followed, Peterson moved to Formula Three, driving the car he co-designed with his father. His undeniable talent prompted attention from Italian company Tecno and Peterson signed a Formula Two contract in 1968, winning the 1969 season.
First Formula 1 appearance
The next year, Peterson made his Formula One debut at Monaco, for Colin Crabble's Antique Automobiles Racing. The whole 1970 season wasn't successful for the Swede because of very limited funding, but in his Monaco debut, Peterson managed to finish 7th, as the only March driver who finished the race. In the next season, his consistent driving for STP March factory outlet and five second places earned him the second place at the end of the season, behind Jackie Stewart. Ronnie also competed in various other series, winning Watkins Glen 6 Hours behind the wheel of an Autodelta Alfa Romeo.
In 1972, Peterson stayed with March, finishing ninth, and in 1973, he signed for John Player Team Lotus, driving the 72D and 72E alongside Emerson Fittipaldi. That year, he finished third, mostly due to reliability issues which often led to retirements, some of them from pole positions. However, in 1973, Ronnie won his first Grand Prix in France, at the Circuit Paul Ricard, followed by victories in Austria, Italy and United States, the closing race of the season.
A disastrous Lotus season
In 1974, Lotus' new car proved to be disastrous, where both Peterson and Jacky Ickx returned to the 72 after retiring in three consecutive races in South Africa, Spain and Belgium. With the 72E, Peterson won the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix, French and Italian Grand Prix, but that was enough only for fifth overall when the season wrapped. In 1975, Peterson and Ickx both continued driving the 72, but the car couldn't keep pace anymore, so Ronnie finished the season 13th, without any podium, in a disastrous season for Lotus.
After driving one race for Lotus in 1976, Ronnie Peterson rejoined March, winning the Italian Grand Prix, finishing 11th overall. In 1977, he famously signed for Elf Tyrrell where the six-wheeled P34B proved to be a rather unsuccessful, but memorable attraction. P34's only podium was at 1977 Spa-Francorcahamps, where Peterson finished third.
Mending the wounds with Lotus
Peterson left Tyrrell for 1979 season and rejoined Lotus, scoring two wins and four second places in the fabulous Lotus 79, all behind his teammate Mario Andretti, who later won the championship. The common practice of Peterson finishing behind Andretti often led to speculations that Lotus' orders stood behind the results, especially with Peterson being considered the fastest racer of his day. Peterson never wanted to play the part of the controversy and dismissed the speculations on numerous occasions.
Final race of Ronnie Peterson
Ronnie's last race was at the 1978 Monza Grand Prix, where he had the first accident crashing his Lotus 79 in practice. As the car couldn't be repaired and the only spare was built for Mario, Peterson was given the last season Lotus 78. Andretti started the race from pole position whereas Peterson managed to qualify fifth, despite driving an older and poorly maintained car. On the race day, Peterson expectedly made a slow start and approaching the Variante Goodyear, Riccardo Patrese made contact with James Hunt. Hunt's McLaren then hit and spun Peterson's Lotus, which crashed head-on into the barriers. In a huge pileup that followed the initial accident, Peterson's car caught fire when Vittorio Brambilla unsuccessfully tried to avoid his car.
Hunt was the first one to come to Peterson's aid, dragging him out of the car, but the Swede was already burned by that time. He was soon transferred to the hospital with badly broken legs and burns which were ruled out not to be severe. After the orthopedic surgery, Peterson was sent to the intensive care, but early in the morning, his condition suddenly worsened. As a result of fat embolism, Peterson was clinically brain-dead.
Video - 1978 Monza crash was a complete disaster
In addition to being tragic per se, Peterson's death was the result of many bad on-track practices and decisions that followed the accident. Firstly, fire marshals didn't put out the fire as quickly as they should have, the medical car didn't arrive as fast as it should have and human wall that was formed by the policemen stopped Surgical Advisor Sid Watkins from entering the scene on time. Also, Brambilla's head injury was considered more dangerous at the given moment. Immediately after the crash, Riccardo Patrese was held guilty for Peterson's death and was boycotted and banned from United States Grand Prix. At Peterson's funeral in his hometown, the pallbearers were his colleague drivers John Watson, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Gunnar Nilsson, Ken Tyrrell and Colin Chapman.
In 1981, a trial was summoned by judge Riccardo Peterella, and two years later, the jury concluded that James Hunt was to be blamed for the 1978 Monza accident, despite the fact that Patrese tried to overtake Hunt outside of track's markings, on the right side, and Giovanni Restelli had started the race irregularly. Hunt took the controversial verdict very hard and it haunted him until the rest of his life. Ronnie's wife Barbro could never get over the tragedy and committed suicide in 1987.
In August 2003, a statue of Peterson was unveiled in Almby, and Ronnie's daughter Nina opened a museum dedicated to her father in 2008, but it closed in 2009 as it couldn't secure government funding. Despite that, the legacy created by Ronnie Peterson is undeniably huge and he will always be remembered as one of the quickest, sharpest and most attractive drivers from the best years of Formula One.