Gunnar Nilsson: a friend and a fighter

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Gunnar Nilsson relied on his precocious talent to get to F1. But when he contracted cancer, he relied on motor racing friends for support as he battled the disease
By Chris Witty

The world was a very different place back in 1978. In Great Britain the Labour Party, led by Jim Callaghan, was desperately hanging onto power with Margaret Thatcher and the Tories waiting expectantly in the wings. Jimmy Carter was President of the USA; the Soviets were embroiled in a bloody war in Afghanistan; while closer to home Ian Botham was, once again, bowling and batting his way into immortality for the England national cricket team.

Yet for me it would be a year tinged with great sadness as I, and a great many others, lost a dear friend in Gunnar Nilsson who, after an all too brief career in motor racing, succumbed to testicular cancer in London’s Charing Cross Hospital during the early hours of October 20. He was 29 years old. He would leave behind not just a string of happy memories for all of us who knew him, but a lasting legacy towards the treatment for this form of cancer by establishing a trust fund which, according to Dr Mark Glaser, one of the team who treated him, raised £4.75 million over two years.

We all know that motor racing is dangerous, yet safety has improved immeasurably over the years as modern construction techniques have made today’s race cars virtually bulletproof. The same could be said of advances in medical science. What doctors know now compared to 30 years ago would have had a significant bearing on Gunnar’s health and might possibly have led to a full recovery.

Glaser, who is now chairman of the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Treatment Fund in the UK and heads the clinical oncology department at Charing Cross Hospital, remembers when Gunnar was being treated by a team of eminent doctors and professors. Men like the late Professor Edward Newlands who, with Gunnar’s permission, experimented with new platinum-based drugs in order to try and kill off the tumours that had by then riddled his body.

Men like Dr Norman Howard and Dr O’Connell who seized the chance to help establish the fund which, amid a fanfare of media publicity orchestrated by the frail and dying Gunnar from his hospital bed, was able to source considerable donations from within motor sport and beyond. This was thanks to the efforts of a great number of people including influential art dealer David Mason and Ian Phillips, a good friend of both mine and Gunnar’s, who eventually took over the running of the campaign until the targets had been surpassed.

The monies raised brought the hospital a new linear accelerator and a brand new building in which to house it. It also covered the cost of the five staff needed to run the department, while further funds were used to develop a new treatment for brain tumours. The fund is still operational, although active fund-raising has ceased. Nevertheless I think Gunnar would have approved of how it all turned out.

I first met Gunnar at a Formula 2 race in Karlskoga, Sweden in the summer of 1974. At the time I was writing for Autosport and focusing on F2 and Formula 3 racing. I had no real interest in the Formula 1 scene as all the rising talent had to be filtered through these two categories, and F2 still had the lure of attracting “graded drivers”. These were usually F1 stars who still liked to race and were invited by promoters to do so. The Karlskoga race, a round of the European championship, had attracted Ronnie Peterson in a works March-BMW as the local hero along with fellow F1 racers Tim Schenken and Reine Wisell.

In among the substantial entry was the name Gunnar Nilsson. The Swede, with backing from Rolf Nilsson’s (no relation) Västkust-Stugan building company, was down to drive one of Brian Lewis Racing’s March-BMW 732s as a replacement for Andy Sutcliffe.

While he only ever raced twice for Brian, Gunnar stayed close to the Lewis family. Brian’s wife, Jenny, still speaks fondly of him. He had a tremendously infectious personality. I noticed this right away in the Karlskoga paddock. He asked for my advice about how he could further his career. “Come and race in England for a start,” I said. He’d been racing in the German Polifac F3 series and also in his native Sweden with his own March 743, showing good speed for a driver with so little experience (he’d done some SuperVee racing in Europe and a one-off F2 race at the Norisring). Gunnar had a number of podium finishes and the odd fastest lap but F3, at that time, was suffering a downturn due to regulation changes.

The advantage that I and my fellow scribes had in those days was the ability to influence race team owners into testing future F1 talent. We were effectively the talent scouts who travelled Europe week in, week out covering all the races. Max Mosley and Robin Herd at March were particularly receptive to our views, and I think Gunnar did himself a power of good when he contested the final two end-of-season F3 events in Britain.

At Brands Hatch in mid-October I was there when he plonked his March on pole, but a misfire ended his chances. Two weeks later at Thruxton he led impressively, but then spun away what would have been his first ever win. He was fast, but impetuous. But he had certainly been noticed. By the start of the following season, he’d ‘wheeled and dealed’ his way into the March F3 team by trading in his existing race car (worth about 20 per cent of a proper F3 budget) and little else to cement a plum drive alongside Brazilian Alex Dias Ribeiro, whose own sponsorship basically funded both cars!

I remember thinking that if Gunnar could broker such a deal, then our boy from Helsingborg wasn’t as wet behind the ears as many others we’d encountered.

Gunnar’s arrival into one of the best F3 seats coincided with BP Oils’ decision to sponsor the national series, which now became a massive 20-round championship with qualifying rounds at many major races including the Monaco, Swedish and British Grands Prix. Gunnar won the opening round (his first race win) at Thruxton and went on to take the title, scoring seven more victories that season plus a succession of poles and fastest laps.

His speed attracted the interest of Ted and Kenny Moore, the father and son who owned Formula Atlantic team Rapid Movements, and with a brand new Chevron B29 at their disposal – the chassis to have at the time – plus the approval of myself and Ian Phillips, then editor of Autosport and now serving a ‘life sentence’ within F1, the Moores gave Gunnar the drive. Five straight wins from five starts to complement his inaugural F3 title was enough to get him his first F1 test with Frank Williams. He was again impressive and Frank made him an offer, but Gunnar, who always managed his own affairs, wanted to keep his options open.

It was during this time that we all started to socialise more away from the race tracks and Gunnar became good friends with many of us, including his F3 rivals Danny Sullivan and Rupert Keegan. The fact that we all lived in west London at either end of Ladbroke Grove helped. I travelled to Helsingborg on the western seaboard of Sweden to visit his modest home, and spent time with him and his Danish mother Elisabeth at the family house on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. Gunnar was an only child although he had a half brother, Stig, from his father’s previous marriage. His Swedish father, who had created and built up a large construction and property portfolio in the town, had died when he was 15. He and his mother were therefore very close. She was always feeding me smørrebrød and herring roll mops whether I liked them or not!

It was obvious that Gunnar wasn’t short of a bob or two. However, the wallet usually stayed hidden and we all constantly baited him about it. Elisabeth fastidiously controlled the purse strings. She was a tough little lady whom I liked, although she spoke only Danish. A year after Gunnar’s death she created her own Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation in Sweden and sold off various family properties to finance the fund. On her death in 1991 the foundation inherited her entire estate and fortune – which was sizeable – and the foundation still provides grants towards all forms of cancer research.

The success Gunnar had with March in 1975 looked destined to reward him with a works F2 drive the following year, but it didn’t work out like that. Ronnie Peterson and his manager Staffan Svenby had wanted to get out of their Lotus F1 commitments following the opening Grand Prix in Brazil, and Max Mosley came up with a cunning plan. With backing (usually a supply of Cosworth engines) from Count Vittorio Zanon, Ronnie found himself in the March F1 team and Gunnar ended up negotiating a drive with Colin Chapman. Gunnar somehow found himself at a team that was fighting to regain its credibility, but once Chapman had persuaded Mario Andretti to come on board, it was a case of onwards and upwards. He’d achieved his ambition to make it into F1 and he’d done it without having to open his wallet!

I didn’t see much of Gunnar that year, although his drive to third place at Jarama, in only his third GP, spoke volumes for his tenacity. “He didn’t have much technical knowledge,” recalls Andretti, “but he didn’t take long to get a read on things. He and I hit it off immediately.

He was very respectful and we became closer socially during those two years we were together. In fact both Gunnar and Ronnie were two of the best team-mates I ever had. My memories of Gunnar are precious to me.”

Although Chapman’s mind was on other things, like his road car and boat-building businesses, the troublesome Lotus 77 was gradually improved over the season and Mario won the final GP in Japan. In the wings was the 78, the car that was to introduce us to the world of ground effects.

Gunnar appeared the perfect partner for Mario, and his race engineer for those two years, Tony Southgate, remembers how Chapman was taken aback by Gunnar’s drive in rain-affected conditions to win the Belgian GP at Zolder in 1977. The relationship Tony had with Gunnar went a long way towards cementing a drive that never was with the newly-formed Arrows team at the end of that year.

Mario recalls how he went into the team motor home at the German GP to find Colin giving Gunnar a dressing down. “He was treating him like a child and I felt he deserved more respect. He wouldn’t have talked to me like that.” Maybe that was the beginning of the end, but Colin had said he always wanted Ronnie back and that’s basically what happened. What nobody knew was the state of Gunnar’s health, which was in the first stages of decline by mid-season. Headaches became common place and his desire not to have his crotch straps tightened once in the car was a sign that all was not well. “We thought he had other personal issues!” recalls Southgate.

It was after his final race in Japan that Gunnar went to see Dr Frank Faulkner, a friend of Ken Tyrrell and Danny Sullivan’s mentor. Frank saw the signs and immediately referred him to a Harley Street specialist, but because of the delay in getting himself treated, the cancer was at an advanced stage. He had no option other than to start chemotherapy straight away.

I didn’t see him for a few months but then got a phone call berating me for going AWOL. He was at Danny’s flat in Holland Park and I said I’d be round within the hour. When he came into the room I saw a man almost unrecognisable. Only his voice told me it was Gunnar. From that moment in early 1978 until the day he died, we became closer than at any stage during the four short years I’d known him. Day after day Ian Phillips and I would take turns taking him to Charing Cross Hospital for treatment, hoping it would all work out. We knew before Gunnar did that he wouldn’t recover, the tumours having spread, but he also knew the situation as well. I took him to the British GP at Brands Hatch to see his old mates and, despite his upbeat manner, his physical state shocked everyone. He battled on with the treatment throughout the summer until he became too ill to remain at home. We spent days at the hospital, even incurring the wrath of the ward sister by cooking him bacon and eggs in the kitchen – the smell lingered for hours!

After Gunnar died, the likeable Andrew Ferguson, who then ran Team Lotus, immediately made Colin’s plane available and we flew him back to Helsingborg. As we carried his coffin towards the church, Rupert Keegan started to struggle. “It’s too heavy,” he said, “he’s taking all his money with him! We’ve got to put it down.” “We can’t,” I said under my breath. “There are too many people around. Keep going and don’t drop it!” We didn’t, but I can still hear Gunnar laughing to this day. He was such a free spirit.

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