Everybody loved Ronnie Peterson, the tall, blonde, tail-happy Swede who entertained Formula 1 fans in the 1970s with his astonishing car control.
His death – on this day in 1978 – shocked the motorsport fraternity. With his abundant talent, he would surely have enjoyed the title of World Champion, but his passing was a tragic loss on the motorsport landscape.
A karting champion in his native Sweden between 1963 and 1966, Ronnie made the jump to Formula 3, winning the national championship in 1968. In 1969, he won the prestigious Monaco Formula 3 support race, earning himself a three-year contract with the March F1 team from 1970.
Solid performances under the watch of Colin Crabbe saw him promoted to the works team in 1971, and he quickly cast himself as a man to watch, claiming four second-placed finishes and runner-up honours to Jackie Stewart. During that same year, he won the European Formula 2 championship with five wins.
But the following year proved tough, as he was stuck with March’s dreadful 721X – things only improved marginally when the hastily-prepared 721G was introduced. He also branched out into sports cars, partnering Tim Schenken at Ferrari, with the pair winning at Buenos Aires and the Nürburgring, along with taking four second-placed finishes.
Signed to Lotus for 1973, Ronnie started the season slowly – too slowly, it would turn out – but he was a force in the back half of the season with four wins, finishing third overall.
His form spooked team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi into joining McLaren for 1974, paving the way for Jacky Ickx to join the team. While Lotus’ 76 challenger proved disappointing, Peterson drove brilliantly in the older 72E, claiming outstanding wins at Monaco, Dijon and Monza.
By 1975, the 72E was too far past its use-by date, and Peterson twiddled his thumbs waiting for the new 77, which debuted in 1976. With this car also being rubbish, Peterson tangled with team-mate Mario Andretti in the opening round and stalked off to March for the rest of the season. True to form, he won brilliantly at Monza, before being tempted to join Tyrrell in 1977.
The British team’s radical six-wheeler upset Ronnie’s overzealous driving style, and his reputation was severely dented as a result of being constantly slower than team-mate Patrick Depailler.
Tempted to return to Lotus for 1978 – albeit strictly as a number-two to Andretti – Ronnie stuck in his team-mate’s wheeltracks while the American sailed serenely towards his F1 championship crown. Ronnie did pick up the spoils when it went wrong for Andretti, winning at South Africa and Austria.
Having secretly signed a contract to join McLaren for 1979, tragedy would strike at Monza when he got tangled in a first-lap pile-up, severely breaking his legs in the melee. In hospital, he would succumb to an embolism after complications set in.
Andretti’s title celebrations were indeed hollow; the world was truly rocked by the passing of one of the legends of the sport.
[Images via Corbis Images, LAT, Sutton Images and The Cahier Archive]
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