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Flashback: The Life and Career of Ronnie Peterson

by Frank Santoroski                     @seveng1967

In the prior 68 seasons of Formula One competition, there are only 33 drivers that can lay claim to the title of World Drivers’ Champion. In order to be crowned champion, a driver must not only possess the talent and determination, but also have the circumstances put them in the right place at the right time.

As you can imagine, the history books are filled with stories about drivers that probably should have been World Champion, but the cards did not fall just right. One of the more compelling stories is that of Ronnie Peterson, who won 10 Grands Prix over the course of his F1 career. Peterson would have celebrated his 75th birthday this week, but, having driven during of the most dangerous eras in Grand Prix racing, his story has a premature ending.

Ronnie Peterson was born in Örebro, Sweden during a time when most of Europe was embroiled in WW2. Peterson’s father, Bengt, owned a bakery as a means to support the family, but his real interest involved anything mechanical. When he wasn’t tinkering with engines and building things in the garage, he enjoyed competing in the thrilling sport of ice-racing, a popular pastime in Sweden.

Countless hours spend with his Dad, both in the garage and at the race track, sparked young Ronnie’s interest in speed. At a very young age, Peterson could be found tearing up the backyard in a miniature tractor that he had helped his father build. As the years progressed, the youngster began racing competitively, first with a moped, and then with karts.

Peterson preferred racing to his studies, and was a notoriously poor student. He also tried his hand at football and track and field events, neither of which sparked his interest. After completing the ninth grade, he dropped out of school and took a job at the local Renault dealership.

The young Swede won a number of local and national karting titles over the next few years and, in 1966, he entered his first Formula 3 race in a car that he built with his father. Over the next four years he won 28 races, took two championships, and attracted quite a bit of attention from Formula One teams.

During this time, he met Barbro Edwardsson at a discotheque in his home town. The two fell in love, and became inseparable. Barbro’s smiling face became a fixture in Peterson’s pits as she assisted with timing and scoring.

Peterson moved to England in 1970 in preparation for his Formula One debut. He was impressive in his first Grand Prix, taking a two-year old customer March chassis to seventh place at Monaco. This lead to a full-time ride with the factory March team for 1971. With a decently competitive car, he took nine top-ten finishes in eleven starts and earned second place in the world championship behind Jackie Stewart.

The 1972 March car was a disaster, and he was unable to repeat his success. His signed on with Team Lotus for 1973 as a teammate to reigning World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi. After a slow start to the season, he took back-to-back podiums at Monaco and Sweden, and then earned his first Grand Prix victory in France. He would finish the season with four wins, and third in the Championship.

With Fittipaldi moving to McLaren, Peterson was elevated to number one driver at Lotus for 1974. With the new car, the Lotus 76, set to debut, Peterson was considered a favorite for the Championship. Unfortunately, the new car was total garbage, and the aging Lotus 72 chassis was pressed back into service. Peterson managed three wins on the season with the old car, but the early-season retirements had put the championship out of reach.

In 1975, Lotus still lacked a new car, and with the now-ancient 72 being well behind the competition, it was a miserable season for Peterson. On the personal side, Peterson married the love of his life that same season. Ronnie and Barbro also welcomed a daughter into the world, whom they named Nina, after Jochen Rindt’s widow.

At this point, Peterson was rather unhappy with Lotus, but team principal, Colin Chapman, convinced Peterson to stay on board for 1976 with the promise of a new car. When the new Lotus, dubbed the 77, failed to finish at the season-opener, Peterson broke his contract and packed his bags. He finished out the 1976 season driving for the March team, taking one victory along the way.

The Tyrrell team created quite a bit of excitement during 1976 with the debut of their radical six-wheeled car. Jody Scheckter had taken the car to one victory, and it appeared that the design had serious potential. In signing on with Tyrrell, Peterson once again found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 1977 version of the six-wheeler was heavier, bulkier and generally noncompetitive. Because Goodyear refused further development on the ten-inch front tires, the project was eventually scrapped.

As Peterson struggled with the Tyrrell, the team he stormed away from, Lotus, had introduced a ground-effects car that Mario Andretti took to four wins and second place in the championship. With the next-generation Lotus expected to be even better, Peterson and Colin Chapman began a discussion about a return to Team Lotus.

When the agreement was finalized, the contract stated in no uncertain terms that Peterson would be the number 2 driver behind Andretti. Initially, Andretti was apprehensive with the arrangement, ostensibly because he believed Peterson to be too strong of a driver to be a number 2. Peterson accepted the terms, and harbored no ill-will or jealousy toward Andretti. In fact, the opposite was the case, as Peterson and Andretti grew to be close friends who genuinely enjoyed working together.

The 1978 season was indeed magical for Andretti who took six wins and the championship. The new Lotus 79 exceeded all expectations, and was a car that truly changed the face of motor racing.  Peterson was generally accepted as a faster driver than Andretti, and when Andretti would out-qualify Peterson, some speculated that team orders extended to qualifying. The fact of the matter was, because Andretti had done all of the development testing with that car, he had a much more intimate knowledge of the setup, and was therefore better able to exploit its intricacies.

Whatever the case, Peterson finished second to Andretti on three occasions and took two wins of his own. Publicly, Peterson played the good soldier, but privately he wasn’t exactly thrilled at playing second-fiddle on the team. As the season was winding down, he had already made plans to move to McLaren in 1979, with number 1 status, replacing James Hunt.

With nothing to lose, some that were close to Peterson encouraged him to balk team orders and challenge Andretti for the Championship. Peterson, a man of his word, dutifully stuck to the terms of his contract, stating; “If I can’t be trusted now, who will trust me in the future?”

The Italian Grand Prix of 1978 was a bittersweet occasion for Mario Andretti. On the day that he clinched the World Driving Crown, his close friend and teammate was badly injured in an incident that would ultimately claim his life.

When the starter threw the green before the entire field was in position, Peterson, starting fifth, was caught-up in an accordion-effect wreck that involved eleven cars. Peterson’s Lotus was thrown hard into the armco, destroying the front of the car as it erupted into flame. As track workers attempted to extinguish the fire, James Hunt bravely pulled Peterson out of the burning car.

The sad footnote of the story is that Peterson did not have to die. It is widely accepted that lack of a quick response, and sub-standard medical care contributed more to the Swede’s death than the actual crash injuries.

Peterson laid on the track, his legs grotesquely twisted from obvious multiple fractures, as the Italian police formed a human barrier around the scene refusing access to anyone. Desperate to get to Peterson, and Vittorio Brambilla, who was struck in the head by a tire, Professor Sid Watkins, F1 Medical Director at the time, found that even he was pushed away. The scene quickly deteriorated into a melee as the police began to employ billy clubs and rifle butts to push back the crowd.

After an agonizing wait of nearly 18 minutes, an ambulance finally arrived on the scene to transport the drivers to the medical center. After Peterson’s legs had been splinted up, he waited another hour for a helicopter transport to a nearby hospital in Niguardia. There, surgeons used a series of steel rods and pins to set the fractures, while reportedly ignoring signs of circulation issues.

Despite the fact that the injuries should not have been life-threatening, Peterson was pronounced dead the following morning, the result of a fat embolism that developed in his thigh. With the blood-clot starving his system of oxygen, his repeated complaints of a persistent headache, a symptom that should not have been ignored, fell on deaf ears.

“It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career,” said Mario Andretti, “I couldn’t celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me.”

Indeed, Ronnie Peterson was sorely missed in the F1 paddock. The sight of the 6 foot-tall Peterson towering over the rather diminutive F1 drivers that dominated the scene became commonplace as he endeared himself to both fans and fellow competitors.  His skill behind the wheel was unquestionable, but his attributes as a human being truly defined him.

Peterson’s widow, Barbro, never quite overcame the grief of losing her soul-mate, and took her own life in 1987. The two are buried together in a family plot alongside Peterson’s parents.  In 2003, a large statue of Peterson was unveiled in his hometown of Örebro to forever celebrate his achievements.

Ronnie Peterson was but another in a long line of racing fatalities that occurred during an era when driver safety took a back seat to speed and performance. Peterson’s case, in particular, put the spotlight on the need for more effective rescue efforts and medical care on site.

Thankfully, this day and age, with improvements to the cars, and state-of-the art mobile medical facilities, the senseless tragedy that robbed Ronnie Peterson of a life after racing is largely inconceivable.

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