Thirty years ago, committed safety campaigner Jo Bonnier lost his life at Le Mans, the race he consistently criticised for being too dangerous. By Adam Cooper
Despite the massive success he achieved elsewhere in sportscar racing, Jo Bonnier hated Le Mans. He hated the fact that if you tried to actually race, your car would fail. And above all, he hated what he felt were unacceptable risks.
“I’ve done it because I’ve been under contract to do it,” he told writer Peter Manso in 1969. “It was part of my job, but it’s not racing. The moment you start to race at Le Mans you’re not going to finish. So what you’re trying to do is just nurse the car through 24 hours, and this is not what a Grand Prix driver likes. And it’s unnecessarily dangerous. You have little cars and big cars, with a tremendous speed difference. And you have a bunch of amateurs who know nothing about race driving.”
Jo had opted out of the 1968 event and told Mans° that he would be missing ’69 as well. However, he did race that year, and in ’70. But when he chose not to race there in ’71, the year he also called time on his F1 career, it seemed he was finished with Le Mans once and for all.
No-one was paying Jo to race in the 24 Hours in 1972, but he returned, this time as an owner/driver running his own two-car team. Perhaps he was also encouraged by the replacement of the daunting White House section with the new Porsche Curves, a change he had himself fostered through his leadership of the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA). But fate was about to play a cruel trick on the man who’d worked so hard to make the sport safer.
Karl Jockum Jonas Bonnier was born in Stockholm in January 1930. His father, a professor of genetics, was one of the few Bonniers to opt out of the family business, a huge publishing and printing concern dating back to the early 1800s. Jo did an apprenticeship of sorts with the company but, like his father, had other interests. He received a rounded education that extended to Oxford and Paris, and he was fluent in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian and Finnish.
At five years old, he proclaimed his desire to be a racing driver. He raced a Harley-Davidson as a teenager and then got involved in rallying, before doing three years in the Swedish Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant on a destroyer. It was hardly surprising that, later in life, he gave the impression of being a military man, in control of his emotions.
He turned to ice racing in 1953, with an HRG, later proving hugely successful in an Alfa Romeo and becoming Sweden’s Alfa distributor.
Circuit racing was the next step, and Jo made his first appearance outside Sweden in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and later won the 2-litre class in the TT. He scored notable successes with Alfas in ’56, at Ntirburgring, Avus and Enna, and also began racing sportscars for Maserati — which led to one of the most unusual grand prix debuts. Having competed in the supporting sportscar race at Monza, Jo was informed by desperate Maserati team boss Nello Ugolini that Luigi Villoresi was sick, and would have to be relieved soon after the start. No-one else was available.
“I’d never been in a Grand Prix single-seater, let alone driven one in the Italian GP at Monza, with its banking. I told him that it was ridiculous, that I’d get in the way of Fangio and all those other chaps. But I drove, and was petrified — I’d never driven a car where I saw the wheels!”
His ordeal lasted three laps before the 250Fs engine failed, but it gave him a taste of Formula One. Over the next couple of years he was a regular contender in Maseratis, in his own car or those of other small teams.
“He was a nice guy,” recalls Phil Hill. “But he always lacked a certain something in terms of fire. He was always going to play it pretty safe.”
In 195’7, Jo enjoyed a one-off outing for BRM at Modena, and his big break came towards the end of ’58 when they asked him to drive again, in the Italian GP. The gearbox failed, but next time out, at Morocco, he finished a promising fourth and was duly signed for a full season in ’59.
A works drive was a major boost to his status. He showed well in early races, but nobody anticipated what would happen at Zandvoort. The P25 was suited to the circuit; Jo put it on pole, and after gearbox problems afflicted the Coopers of Stirling Moss, Masten Gregory and Jack Brabham, he scored BRM’s first GP win.
He never repeated that form for BRM in 1959, though, and it was hard going against the Coopers in ’60, but he qualified third at Monaco and was fourth on the grid on three other occasions. Races brought little luck — the best he could manage was a couple of fifth places — and relations with BRM management were strained by the end of the year.
He had greater success with Porsche, winning the Targa Florio with Hans Herrmann (Jo would win again in 1963) and scoring several F2 victories. But high point of the year was his marriage to Marianne, an attractive Swedish teacher who helped soften his poker-faced image.
Porsche asked Jo to drive the new 1.5-litre F1 car in 1961, and some expected him to shine. He shared the pole time with three others at Aintree, but that was a rare peak as team-mate Dan Gumey quickly established his superiority. That year saw the birth of the GPDA, and Jo became its reluctant president, simply because the others asked him to do it. He would nevertheless become a prime mover in the campaign to improve safety standards worldwide.
On the track, the 1962 F1 season was disappointing — Gurney again outran Bonnier, although victory at Sebring provided some recompense. When Porsche pulled out, Jo teamed up with Rob Walker. Rocked by the recent deaths of Ricardo Rodriguez and Gary Hocking, Walker chose Bonnier for the unusual reason that he was a safe driver who was unlikely to get hurt. And Jo soon found an extra role as Rob’s business manager. His linguistic skills and position as GPDA boss proved to be very useful, as Walker notes in Michael Cooper-Evans’ book:
“He was shameless about using the clout this position conferred to obtain good starting money for the team — no doubt encouraged by the fact that, under our agreement, half of it would end up in his pocket.
“Jo and I got on perfectly well together but there was a distance between us; he never became a friend in the way that Stirling had. I suppose it was the nature of our relationship which prevented me from asking Jo why he always unzipped the fly of his racing overalls when he got into the car. I wish I had; even today I’d love to know!”
Bonnier stayed with Walker for three seasons, but during that time scored just nine points, and only occasionally did he show real speed.
“Jo was never a great driver,” says Jackie Stewart. “He was a good driver, and he was very serious about it. You can be serious about your driving but not have the gift that Jim Clark or Jack Brabham had.”
With the 3-litre formula due for 1966, Rob cut back to a single entry, and told Bonnier that he was opting forlo Siffert: “I suppose there may have been a rather longer silence than usual, but his expression hardly changed. Those Swedes are so controlled and unemotional.”
Bonnier decided to run his own show. He acquired a Cooper-Maserati, and hired Swiss Heini Mader to run it. He qualified sixth at Spa, but otherwise it was a poor season.
“On the one hand he was difficult, and on the other it was a very, very friendly situation,” says Mader. “He always wanted the best you could make out of the car, and he wasn’t happy, even if you worked all night, Wit didn’t have the settings he thought it should have.
“But he was more a friend than a boss. People thought he was a bit cold, but it was more shyness than anything else. They thought he was arrogant, but this was definitely not the case.”
Bonnier replaced the Cooper with a McLaren M5A and there were occasional good showings, such as a fifth place at the ‘Ring in 1968. He was fifth also on a one-off outing for Honda in Mexico. A works ride seemed to fire him up but this one led nowhere as the team folded.
Jo was by now better known for what he did off the track, not just as leader of the GPDA, but as F1 ‘s social pacesetter. His base at Les Mudies in Switzerland was a focus of attention, and his presence attracted tax exiles Stewart and Jochen Rindt to the country. A sideline as a contemporary art expert with his own gallery gave Jo an extra dimension. “He lived his life in great style,” Stewart recalls. “He really did his house well, and kept it immaculate. He had a good group of friends, but he was always quite aloof.”
Bonnier acquired a Lotus 49 for 1969, but it wasn’t handed over until the British GP. And when Graham Hill and Rindt refused to chive the 4WD 63 at Silverstone, Colin Chapman reclaimed the 49, so Jo raced the 63. Later he crashed the 49 through an advertising hoarding at Oulton Park, losing his helmet in the process. But despite this, and a big sportscar crash at Brands the previous year, he showed no signs of stopping.
He battled through 1970-71 with a McLaren M7C but, embarrassed by occasional failures to qualify, he announced in early ’72 that he was quitting single-seaters. He was 42.
“The motivation was missing,” says Mader. “He was driving just to be there, not wanting to take all the risks that the young guys did. And he was spending the minimum. The cars weren’t really competitive.”
Jo had never abandoned sportscar racing, though, and had latterly proved a winner in the new 2-litre category, where he was Lola’s works contender. Mader: “He really enjoyed that car and was still very quick in it. He was really good in sportscars.”
Bonnier had long been Lola’s continental agent, and his plan for 1972 was to contest the world championship with the 1280, designed by John Barnard and Patrick Head. The DFV-powered machine was fragile, and for Le Mans the cars were reworked by Mader’s crew. “It was a huge amount of work. We had no time to test properly. We put them on the floor and went straight to the race. It was competitive, but certainly not reliable enough to finish the race in a good position.”
Bonnier had Gijs van Lennep and Gerard Larrousse in his car, while rent-a-drivers Mario Cabral and Jorge de Bagration shared the second entry with the experienced Hughes de Fierlant.
The race got off to a superb start for the little team as Bonnier passed the entire Matra squad to grab an early lead. The joy was short-lived, for Jo soon hit gear selection troubles, and later had a huge moment at the Mulsanne Kink when a rear tyre failed and destroyed the tail.
The event turned into a slog as both T280s hit a series of problems. This must have weighed heavily on Jo’s shoulders as team boss, and matters weren’t helped when the pay drivers became upset when he put Larrousse in their car. Having overcome brake woes, van Lennep set fastest lap and, when daylight returned, Jo was running a distant eighth. It was then that his long-held fear of Le Mans came into tragic focus.
Heading into the fast right before Indianapolis he came across the Filipinetti-entered Ferrari Daytona of Swiss Florian Vetsch. Exactly what happened is a matter of debate, but the yellow Lola struck the Ferrari hard. It was launched high over the barriers and into the woods, where it exploded. Vic Elford stopped to help, but Bonnier had no chance.
There were suggestions that garage owner Vetsch had wandered into his path, but Elford thought Jo had made a mistake, a theory that Mader does not dispute: “I think he was tired. Maybe if he was in better shape physically he could have avoided this accident. I know Vetsch very well, but I’ve never spoken about this accident with him. It is too painful to find out what really happened.”
Did the stresses of being team boss contribute to an error of judgement? Journalist Jeff Hutchinson spent the week working with the team. One of his jobs was to get the drivers to the pits on time: “I went to the caravan, and Jo was still wide awake, red-eyed, and looked very, very tired. He hadn’t taken his overalls off since 4am. I said, ‘Do you feel alright to drive?’ He said, ‘I’m fine’. A few laps later he had the accident.”
Jo had started 104 GPs, and along with Brabham, Graham Hill and Gurney, was one of only four top drivers whose careers bridged the gulf between the 1950s and the ’70s. He’d won most of the great sportscar races, with the notable exception of Le Mans. But if for nothing else, he should be remembered for a commitment to safety that helped change the sport.
“What happened was unjust,” says Stewart. “But racing isn’t just.”