Swede dreams

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Ronnie Peterson 1973

His potential was obvious — And now he had a Lotus at his disposal. Ronnie Peterson and the 72 were the performance benchmark of 1973. So why did the title slip away?

You would expect nothing else from John Young Stewart: a fastidious title campaign, maximising his stumpy Tyrrell’s strong points when the conditions were right, papering over its cracks as and when they appeared. By my way of thinking, he prevailed in the third-best car of an ultra-competitive year. He was, therefore, a very worthy champion.

Was he the star of the show, though? Not by a long chalk.

At the wheel of his first truly competitive Formula One machine, the Lotus 72, Ronnie Peterson bestrode the season. He led for 393 laps (1147.4 miles) compared to Stewart’s 214 (676.1 miles), and headed 11 of the 15 grands prix compared to six. His domination was even more pronounced in qualifying. He set nine pole positions compared to three, and his average grid position was an astounding 1.93 to Stewart’s 5.13.

Yet SuperSwede’ was third in the overall points standings -19 points behind Stewart and three behind team-mate and defending world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi.

So what went wrong?

The start of the season, that’s what. After six rounds, Peterson had four points; Stewart had 37, Fittipaldi 41, having shared the wins between them.

Emerson began the season brimming with the sort of confidence befitting the sport’s youngest world champion. He hunted down Stewart and the other Tyrrell of Francois Cevert to win in Argentina, led from start to finish in Brazil, and did a fantastic job in Spain, coping with a deflating left-rear Goodyear for 20 laps of Montjuich Park, to score his third win from four starts. All was rosy on his side of the Lotus garage.

Not so on Peterson’s. But the warning signs were there. And Emerson knew it. Ronnie had been closing in on a tyre-hampered Stewart in Buenos Aires and looked set to take third place when his DFV seized, on lap 67 of 96. Four points lost. He then spoiled Emmo’s home-coming party by snatching pole at Interlagos. Emerson was dominant on race-day, but such was the advantage the 72s held over the rest on this sinuous track, had not a wheel centre pulled out and spun Ronnie into the wall, six points would have been his.

It was Stewart who turned up the heat in Kyalami. Sure, at least three drivers felt he had passed them under yellow flags, but how else do you take the lead from 16th on the grid in just seven laps? Controversy aside, JYS was without doubt the day’s fastest man. In contrast, Ronnie had a subdued race and lost six laps and a potential fourth with a broken throttle linkage. Three more points gone.

In Spain, it was nine. Nobody could touch him in qualifying, or in the race. He led from the start for 56 laps, until his gearbox began to break up. And no, he wasn’t showboating; he was controlling the race exactly how Colin Chapman had told him to. This was a new, more measured Ronnie. Yes, his style was still exuberant, but he wasn’t setting fastest laps just for the hell of it. Indeed, he scored just two that season; Emerson scored five.

That said, he did stick his race car and spare off in the morning warm-up on a crumbling Zolder, and so started from pole in a `bitza’. He led for 18 laps, but eventually lost his battle with uncertain handling and suffered his third crash of the weekend. So no points. Which is exactly what he deserved.

He led in Monaco, too, until failing fuel pressure cost him a few vital revs. He did well to bring it home third, but it probably should have been second on another day of days for the unflappable, unhurried Stewart.

Had all of the above been the case, the championship table after six rounds would have read: Fittipaldi 36, Stewart 34, Peterson 28 — an excellent platform from which to launch his subsequent points charge.

From here on in, Peterson registered 48 points to Stewart’s 34 and Fittipaldi’s 14. There are mitigating circumstances: Stewart was driving with one eye on the title, and he did not take the start at Watkins Glen after the tragic death of Cevert; Fittipaldi, meanwhile, was hindered by painful ankles after his Zandvoort practice crash.

Yeah, but Ronnie was denied a victory on the last lap at Anderstorp because of a slow puncture. He would have won at Zandvoort, too, but for a failing gearbox. So that’s 12 more points gone.

Instead, he won at Paul Ricard, a patient drive that paid off, in Austria, having loyally waved Fittipaldi through at one point, at Monza, the race in which JYS took the title, and in America. He was second at Silverstone, a fair result given the super-stable McLarens’ advantage, and probably would have been third to the Tyrrells at the Nurburgring but for a lap-one electrical glitch.

Yes, yes, yes, he’s being given the benefit of the doubt. But then he should have won the title even without it. PF

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