Gunnar Nilsson (1948-1978)

It’s thirty-four years today since the death of former Lotus F1 driver, Gunnar Nilsson, a happy and outgoing racer who showed immense courage and dignity in the lead up to his death from terminal cancer that curtailed an all too brief and promising career.

He made a late start into the world of racing, making his open-wheeler debut in 1973 in the Formula Super Vee championship. Guided by the influential Freddy Kottulinsky, he took the formidable leap into Formula 2 competition that same year, finishing an impressive fourth at Norisring in a GRD.

He joined the German Polifac Formula 3 championship in 1974, doing sufficiently well to earn himself (with the help of a little bargaining) a works March drive in the 1975 British F3 championship as team-mate to Alex Ribeiro. He won the opening race at Thruxton, before going on to win the BP championship. An end-of-year jump to Formula Atlantic merely served to underline his skill, claiming five rounds in succession in a Chevron.

Gunnar Nilsson, 1978 Dutch GPDespite his contractual ties with March and BMW, Nilsson conspired with his great friend and compatriot Ronnie Peterson to secure a deal with the Lotus F1 team in 1976, a time when the team was not competitive. But it was a wise decision, as Gunnar finished on the podium at just his third race, and when Mario Andretti joined as his team-mate, they steadily helped the team regain some of its past competitiveness.

Staying on with the team in 1977, Gunnar continued his upswing in form in the first half of the season, peaking with an outstanding win in the wet at Zolder, which would prove his only Grand Prix triumph.

Nilsson's one and only Grand Prix win came with an excellent drive in the wet at the Belgian Grand Prix.

But shortly after, his form faded badly. Little did he know it at the time, but the testicular cancer he would later be diagnosed with was already working its way through his system.

When Peterson signed to return to Lotus in 1978, Nilsson joined the new Arrows F1 concern, but his eventual diagnoses meant he was never well enough to drive the car.

Putting on an enormously brave face, he soldiered on and set up a cancer foundation under his own name, before eventually succumbing on October 20, a month short of his 30th birthday.

[Images via ESPN F1, F1-Facts, F1 Nostalgia, OldRacingCars,The Cahier Archive]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.