"I was Ronnie's racing instructor"
And Reine Wisell could have been Peterson’s team-mate at Lotus. As it was, while ‘SuperSwede’ soared in F1, his countryman stalled
There is precious little room in motor racing for ifs, buts and might-have-beens. As Keke Rosberg is fond of saying, if his aunt had a moustache and balls she’d be his uncle. And if Reine Wisell had been racing at a different time, if he’d not been on the grid with Ronnie Peterson, if he’d not been at Lotus with Emerson Fittipaldi, then he might have been the ‘SuperSwede’, the hero of his era. If…
As it was, he was extremely fast, made a big name for himself in a short space of time, and then fell foul of internal politicking at Team Lotus. He was in the right place at the wrong time and it ruined a promising career.
The raw, easy speed and prodigious talent of Reine Wisell was a subject much discussed in 1970. The young man from Matala had made a big impression in Formula 3, winning the Swedish championship in 1967 and leading the Monaco F3 race in 1969 until being outfoxed on the last lap by… yes, Ronnie Peterson.
“It was an exciting time,” smiles the laid-back and likeable Swede. “A lot of things happened very quickly. I was quite happy at home, you know. I started bicycle racing, then motorcycles, then some ice racing, and then a friend and I bought a Mini Cooper and we went to Spain for the winter to do some racing. I’d been doing three jobs at once, working 18 hours a day, and I thought, hey, who wants to be in Sweden in the winter?”
This was 1962 and Reine was on his way, but the idea of Grand Prix racing had never entered his head. “ No, you must be joking,” he laughs. “My first single-seater races were with a Formula 3 Cooper – it wasn’t a great car but I won a couple of races. Then I switched to a Brabham and won the national championship the year before Ronnie came along and did the same thing. And this, I suppose, was really the turning point for me. From that I went to Italy and raced a Tecno, then it was to England, of course, where I did some races for Sid Taylor in Formula 5000 and went well in F2. The thing was, so many people were dying in those days and it was terrible, because that’s how I got my start in Formula 1.”
In 1970, with Peterson now into Grand Prix racing at March, the other young Swede was approached by Colin Chapman after Jochen Rindt was killed in practice at Monza and John Miles gave up the number two seat. “Yes it was a big deal, an exciting time, but also full of tragedy,” says Reine, not sounding very excited, just as laid-back as ever. “But I got on well with Chapman and he had lots of fresh and interesting ideas for the cars. Anyway, Colin asked me to race at Watkins Glen alongside Emerson Fittipaldi at the end of the year, and it went well.”
This is something of an understatement from the master of the understated. In his first Grand Prix he was on the podium, third behind Pedro Rodriguez and Lotus team leader Fittipaldi. It was a hard race. “There were three Swedes on the grid, remember? Ronnie in the March, Jo Bonnier in a McLaren and me in the Lotus 72. The rev counter packed up, the gearbox started playing up, sometimes I couldn’t get a gear, and my shoulders started to ache like hell. It was hard work and there was so much happening that I didn’t even realise I was in third place at the finish. Incredible. Jo Bonnier had retired and he was down in the Lotus pit, helping them to hang out my pit signals. We became good friends, Jo and I, and did some great sports car racing together.”
Watkins Glen 1970 was, by any standards, a great achievement for a man in his first Grand Prix, but it was also the beginning of some problems that would dog Wisell for the rest of his time at Lotus.
“Yes, of course it was a good result, but everything in the team was going to Emerson, all the effort was behind Emerson and I found that a little bit… Well, I was a bit fed up with that because it felt like, you know, there was only one driver in the team. And I was signed up for the following year so I started to worry a bit, even after the result in America.”
This feeling was nothing new for a number two driver at Team Lotus, where fielding two equal cars was not its strongest suit. But Reine knew he was quick, knew he could race with the best of them.
“Some strange things happened,” he pauses, still smiling, “and it turned out that Watkins Glen would be my only top-three finish. I knew I could stay with Emerson, maybe beat him at some places, but honestly I did not get equal treatment inside the team. Anyway, I stayed with it for the next season, I knew the 72 could be a good car. But 1971 was a bad year for Lotus. [Jackie] Stewart ran away with the championship in the Tyrrell, I only scored nine points in the whole season and Emerson didn’t do much better. Colin Chapman told me he was going to bring Dave Walker into the team and I knew that was enough for me – OK, Walker was the British Formula 3 Champion and he’d won in Monaco, but he was out of his depth in Formula 1.”
At this point Wisell made a move that put him in another place at the wrong time. His trajectory to stardom was yet again off course.
“Yes, I guess it was a bad move. But I was a bit pissed off with the Dave Walker thing so I decided to quit and went to BRM for 1972. Of course Emerson went on to win his first championship that year, while I never got a single point with BRM. But then Chapman asked me to come back for the last two races in Canada and North America at the end of the year – Walker was on his way out by then – so I left BRM and went to America with Lotus. Maybe that was not such a good decision, walking out on a Marlboro contract and racing again for John Player but… Well, I had something still to prove and I had always liked the Lotus 72, it was a good car even if it was three years old by then. Anyway, at BRM you never knew if you would have a car to race or not, there were so many different drivers that season and it was, shall we say, a bit disorganised. So I went back to Lotus; I couldn’t turn it down.”
What happened next has never been widely reported or discussed, and is as bizarre a Lotus story as they come.
“I retired at Mosport but I knew I had a real chance at Watkins Glen,” remembers Reine, “and I was as fast as Emerson round there that weekend. I’m not bragging, you know, but in the race I was quicker than him, ahead of him, then suddenly they called me into the pits and took the wheels off the car. Just like that, incredible, for no reason. Then, once Emerson was back ahead of me on the track, they sent me out again and I was still quicker than Emerson, but now I was on the wrong tyres and I finished up ninth while Emerson dropped out. It was crazy and I just never really knew why they called me in, nobody said anything after the race. We were on Firestones and they were not the tyre to have, all the guys at the front were on Goodyears. So it was not about the tyres.”
Chief mechanic at Lotus was the highly experienced Eddie Dennis, a man who remained loyal to the Norfolk team for 13 years through thick and thin. “It’s a long time ago,” he says, reeling back the decades to Watkins Glen, “and I honestly don’t remember the detail of that pitstop – you forget these things after so many seasons. Reine could turn it on, no question, though he was usually a bit slower than Emerson. He never seemed to be balls out – I mean he had the big balls, but he didn’t always use them. To be fair, he was as good as Ronnie in F3, but he may have suffered from lack of attention at Lotus. The old man took to Emerson straight off and he never had a lot of patience for the number two driver. Colin Chapman was very good at motivating people, but he could destroy people too – he had a razor-sharp tongue on him. But I can’t see the old man just bringing Reine in to get Emerson ahead of him and, to be fair, he didn’t have time to concentrate on both cars. He had his favourites – Emerson was one and Mario Andretti was another – and basically the number two driver had to toe the line. Maybe it was something to do with a sponsor, I don’t know, but I always remember Reine as a lovely, easy-going bloke and he was never any trouble.”
Wisell was offered one more chance with Team Lotus, but this time he gave it a miss.
“I kept in touch with Lotus and Chapman talked to me about driving the next season with Ronnie Peterson, setting up a Scandinavian team, but I didn’t like that idea,” he says. “I knew Ronnie too well – he was such a hard racer, had such a fighting spirit, that I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to win. He was quick, of course, and he was a good friend, but on the track he was impossible to deal with – he had horns coming out of his helmet! We’d had many big battles over the years, remember, and some crashes, so I knew how Ronnie would be as a team-mate and it wasn’t a good idea for me. It was better for me to be friends with Ronnie than to race with him at Lotus.
“We went back a long way, from our early days in Sweden. I was his instructor when he first came to Karlskoga to get his racing licence and we did some laps in his father’s old Mercedes. I wasn’t so impressed that day, I remember, he was very aggressive and a bit ragged. But later on we had some fantastic races, especially at Monaco in ’69 when he got me on the last lap. We were millimetres apart the whole race, we’d each won our heat, and we were a bit nervous with all the F1 people being there, watching these two new boys. The last lap was really hair-raising. Ronnie had made a mistake but caught me up and just took me by surprise in almost the final corner – I went up the escape road and he won. Ronnie was always a very tough competitor.”
Wisell, despite his enormous natural talent, never quite made it to the SuperSwede status of his friend and rival. He joined Lotus at the wrong time and his loss of confidence alongside Fittipaldi wrecked what had promised to be a glittering career. Had he joined the team a year later, when the Lotus 72 was better sorted, things might have been different.
Peterson, of course, joined Team Lotus at just the right moment, and SuperSwede became part of motor racing folklore.
But we are backs to ifs, buts and might-have-beens. None of this matters much to the man himself. He long ago lost interest in his flirtation with the ‘Big Time’ and is flattered that his fans still recall his dazzling speed at Monza in an F3 slip-streamer, or his daring at the Eifelrennen in an F2 car. Charming man, great racer.