Remembering Ronnie

Anderstorp was filled once more with the sound of Formula 1 cars in a Historic Grand Prix to celebrate the memory of ‘Superswede’
By Rob Widdows

They were dark days. A chill wind stirred the forests, rippled the deep, dark lakes that cover so much of this land. Long nights came with autumn. Sweden was in mourning for its dashing hero. They had already lost Jo Bonnier, then this.

Now, 30 years later, the people are coming to Anderstorp to remember him. Not a memorial, more a celebration. His pictures are everywhere, in shops, in hotels, in garages and on the streets. Many of them show him smiling, arms crossed, in animated description of his famous powerslides. He is on opposite lock and his blonde hair is falling over the collar of his black overalls. It is time to honour him. Yet, to move forward, first we must look back.

On Sunday September 10, 1978 Ronnie Peterson was involved in a horrific accident just seconds after the start of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. There was fire, there was mayhem.

It seemed he would recover from his broken legs. But he died in a Milanese hospital the following morning.

Superswede was gone. He remained runner-up to Mario Andretti in that season’s World Championship, having dutifully followed his team-mate when, on most days, he could have taken the win. Those were the terms of his Lotus contract.

Little more than a month later his friend and fellow Swede Gunnar Nilsson, whom Ronnie had replaced at Team Lotus, lost his battle with cancer and died in Charing Cross Hospital. Gunnar, they said, was Crown Prince, heir to Ronnie’s throne.

Scandanavian motor racing had lost two fine men within a matter of weeks. And in the most tragic of circumstances. Swedes lost their appetite for the sport and the Grand Prix at Anderstorp that summer was the last to be held in the country.

It felt right then to be back at Anderstorp for the Ronnie Peterson Historic Grand Prix. This was not to be a maudlin occasion, not a weekend of morbid memories. No, the racers were here to race, and to salute one of the great Grand Prix drivers.

Right too that the old circuit, out in the spare, flat landscape on the edge of town, had changed little. Close your eyes and you could hear the Cosworths, the Matras and the Alfa Romeos howling down the long, long straight and hanging on through those long, long corners.

For this anniversary, and to celebrate Ronnie Peterson, the enthusiastic members of the Masters Series had brought their Formula 1 cars for a blast around the old place.

Sadly many of them, rather spookily, had decided to go to Monza, for a Thoroughbred Grand Prix race. They found torrential rain and storms. Among the Masters who basked in the sunshine of southern Sweden there was some smirking. “I’ve spoken so many times to the FIA about date clashes,” said ringmaster Christopher Tate, “but some have chosen Monza, so we have smaller grids here. Shame.” He meant something stronger.

In the pit garages, time stood still. Rex Hart, Ronnie’s mechanic in 1978, stood beside Lotus 79/3. Tommy Peterson, the man’s younger brother, paced quietly around the black and gold car with his daughter, she in a t-shirt bearing her uncle’s smiling face. A few paces away Ake Strandberg, one of Ronnie’s most faithful mechanics from karting through to F1, gave a helping hand in the preparation of the car. On the air starter was Bobby Clark, another of the old boys from Hethel.

Stefan Johansson came from California to demonstrate both the 79 and Ronnie’s little yellow Tecno Formula 3 car in which he won at Monaco. ‘Little Leaf’ was loving all the attention from the fans who came to see a Swede give Ronnie’s cars a whirl. “I’ve told him just take it easy, only four laps, and not too quick,” said Rex Hart. “The 79 is a special car and Clive Chapman will kill me if anything happens to it.”

The passage of time has done nothing to dull the memories. “Ronnie helped both Emerson and Mario win their championships but he was quicker than both of them,” Rex smiles. “Chapman told us to put extra fuel in if it looked like Ronnie was going to get pole, or he’d bring him in for tyres, or for no reason at all. But Ronnie was such a good guy, good fun, and hardly ever moody. He’d signed as number two and that was that. Everyone loved him, all the lads, they’d work all night, every night, for Ronnie. What sums him up for me is the old Woodcote corner at Silverstone. Remember? The car control, the opposite lock, the way he took those corners. A fantastic sight.” Yes, we do remember.

The Ronnie Peterson Historic Grand Prix was a demanding weekend for brother Tommy, always in the shade when Superswede was at the height of his fame. At Anderstorp, he strode forward into the sunshine and spoke warmly of Ronnie, in whose honour he has just opened a museum in their home town of Orebro.

“I always wanted to do something in his memory,” explained Tommy, “and first we built a statue in Orebro. Now, since last week, we have the museum so there is a proper memorial to him. We were close but, like all brothers, we were either fighting or we were kissing – that is family. It wasn’t always easy for me but he never changed as a man, the fame never spoilt him. We used to race little wooden box karts together – my father built them for us – and Ronnie was always so fast. He had some special talent – always the tail hanging out, you know.”

As the family, including Nina – unmistakably the daughter of Ronnie and Barbro – gathered at Anderstorp, there was an atmosphere of joy.

“It is wonderful to see so many people,” smiled Nina. “Of course I don’t remember much about his races but I have come to know so much about my father over the years, and this is a wonderful celebration for him. He is still such a big name in the sport and it has been an emotional day for us. We have seen so much love and respect for him here among all his old friends and fans.”

At her side stood King Carl Gustav of Sweden, a lifelong racing fan and whose son Prince Carl Philip is racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup series.

“This is a great event in tribute to a great sportsman,” His Majesty told me, standing among the cars in the sunshine. “Ronnie was the first of our racing drivers to put Sweden firmly on the international stage. I always came here for the Grands Prix of course, but to be back at Anderstorp in celebration of Ronnie is very special – some wonderful cars from his career, so many of his old friends – I am enjoying very much being here. He was a great man.”

As well as family and royalty there were Ronnie’s closest friends, among them his manager Staffan Svenby, and journalist Sveneric Eriksson. “He had this gift in the seat of his pants, this something extra,” said Sveneric, “and his mechanics always knew that nobody on earth could have driven their car any faster. Once in a while the lads would help Ronnie by ignoring Chapman’s instructions on the fuel loads. One time he was going to run out of fuel before he had had a shot at pole and the lads chucked in some more despite the old man expressly telling them not to. They used to say: ‘Old mad Ronald will reward us with pole…’! Chapman used to call him ‘bungalow’ – nothing up top – but that wasn’t quite true. OK, he was no Einstein, but Ronnie was smart, street-smart, you know. And such a lovely man.”

On the weekend when the Swedes came to celebrate their man, another of their heroes won both races for the historic F1 cars. Johansson, in Ronnie’s March 761, just ran away and hid. “I wanted to go for Niki Lauda’s lap record,” grinned a very happy Stefan, “but I guess the fan car was a bit special, wasn’t it?” Well, that’s one way of describing the Brabham-Alfa Romeo that sucked itself into the asphalt back in
1978, yes.

To see Johansson receive the winner’s trophy from Nina, watched by her two small children, was an emotional moment. Some very grown up people had tears in their eyes as Stefan sprayed the champagne.

On Sunday evening the wind sprang up and blew away some of the sadness this family has suffered these past 30 years. Those who went to the beach, in a rare heatwave, missed a wonderful motor racing weekend.

Ronnie Peterson would have been 64 years old this year and, in response to Paul McCartney’s question in the famous Beatles song, the answer is emphatically yes. Yes, they still love you.