A special talent, but not a player
Somehow we all felt we knew Ronnie Peterson. In fact, all we really knew about this shy man was that he could drive the wheels off any racing car. This extract from Johnny Tipler’s new book — Formula One Superswede — sheds light on the man behind those awesome drifts
The group of glamorous figures watching the racing from the inside of the hairpin caught my attention. This cool coterie at the Mallory Park round of the 1973 European Formula Two Championship consisted of Tim Schenken, Dave Brodie, Frank Williams — and Ronnie Peterson. Tall, blond and sporting a full-length fur coat on this occasion, Ronnie didn’t look like a racing driver: a six-footer with a boyish face, gangly yet graceful. But all his racing life fans revered him: boy racers, regular guys and beautiful women exalted him because of his sublime talent. He was the iconic driver’s driver of the ’70s. Denis Jenkinson described him as, ‘Not one for trailing around disconsolately at the back of the field, wittering about his tyres or his engine or the handling of his car. He is a racing of the best sort.’
Ronnie combined phenomenal talent with absolute commitment and uncompromising bravery. “There were so many times when you’d be in awe,” says Lotus F1 mechanic Keith Leighton. “During practice at Silverstone in 1973, Jackie Stewart came into the pits and said, ‘You want to go and watch your driver come through Woodcote.’ Ronnie had just gone out so I knew he was going to do four or five laps so we went haring down to Woodcote. Next thing, I’m watching him through Woodcote: completely flat, sideways. Stewart’s raving, he has never seen anybody with that much commitment. To see a multiple world champion so excited, like a kid, was unbelievable. That was the ultimate compliment.”
Ronnie was a physical driver who threw the car into a bend. And it was his ability to balance it on the throttle that made him so outstanding. Apart from the oft-cited Woodcote, another corner where he was utterly spectacular was the 180-degree Curva do Sol at Interlagos. “He would go through it with the car balanced on the throttle,” remembers John Watson, “and there’d be no tyre smoke coming off the outside wheel because he had the car so well balanced. It was a hell of a thing to do. But it is hard on a car…”
Perhaps Ronnie’s aggressive use of oversteer compromised his chances of winning in a fragile car over a GP distance, but it was the reason why he was so incredible to watch. The more astute managers, drivers and mechanics acknowledged his genius at the wheel, but their admiration was tempered with a realistic appraisal of his flaws. In the early days, the charger lacked the strategic skills to go the distance, pushing vulnerable components to breaking point. Later, the quiet man did not come to terms with the political nous needed in the Formula One bearpit until it was too late. And finally, though he was immensely popular in the paddock, Ronnie never quite managed to consolidate a team around him. Watson: “Ronnie was 100 percent racing driver. But your ability in the car is the least part of the process. It’s the ability to ensure that you get a team’s undivided attention: Jackie did it at Tyrrell, Mario at Lotus, Lauda at Ferrari. But they also have to have the ability to see that there are some drivers who are better than they are. Emerson realised that the writing was on the wall as soon as Colin [Chapman] signed Ronnie. From that point, he was probably looking not to 1973 but to ’74, and onwards. Emerson realised that he couldn’t beat Ronnie, who was a naturally faster driver, but Emerson might have been a more intelligent man in a race car.”
It’s often implied that Ronnie lacked the intellectual equipment and mechanical knowledge to be a champion. But that’s not what Robin Herd, designer and co-founder of March, thought: “People knock him and say he wasn’t very bright, but that’s just not true. He was a smart guy, easy to work with and a competent test driver — certainly better than was generally thought to be the case, although not in the Niki Lauda league.”
Or the Andretti league. Mario is brutally frank about his friend and team-mate’s flaws in this area: “In 1978, Ronnie did the first test ever with the Lotus 79 — at Anderstorp, just before the Belgian Grand Prix — but he just didn’t know what the car needed. He lacked that technical knowledge, and that hurt him because he couldn’t really help himself. And he could only make up for this deficiency with natural talent for so long.”
Lotus team manager Peter Warr concurs: “The one thing Ronnie wasn’t was a tester. Every time he sat in a race car he drove flat out. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to go quickly during testing, but you do have to give yourself time to learn about the car. At a mid-season Paul Ricard test [in 1973] he was complaining of terrible understeer. I watched him through the fast right at the end of the Mistral Straight: he wasn’t lifting and the car was sideways with smoke pouring off both rear tyres. Back in the pits I pointed out the difference in the tyre temperatures between front and rear. He said, ‘That’s because it’s understeering so much I have to throw it sideways!’ By the time we got to the race at Ricard that year, which was the first GP he won, he’d realised that there was more to getting the best out of the car than driving balls-out all the time.”
But the back-room boys loved Ronnie precisely because he was a true racer, a man without airs and graces. The feeling was reciprocated. When the Lotus drivers visited Ketteringham Hall in 1978, as they did from time to time, Andretti confined himself to the business in hand while Ronnie walked the floor. “They didn’t get many visitors, and that was appreciated,” explains Rex Hart, Peterson’s engineer. “But I don’t remember Mario walking round the factory. If there was a toss-up whose car the fabricators were going to get stuff to first, I got mine before Andretti’s guys.”
Ronnie was an honourable man who kept his word, nowhere more obviously so than at Team Lotus that year. But honour is not always rewarded in Formula One, and perhaps he might have gone further with more aggressive managerial backing. Ronnie had a press agent, the jovial, larger-than-life Sveneric Eriksson, and a business manager called Staffan Svenby. The latter first met him in 1969: “Ronnie didn’t know anything about the money side. He needed a new helmet; I got him one and he asked me if I would help him.”
Ronnie needed Staffan to protect him from all the “shit” (Ronnie loved that word) associated with F1. In the ’70s, the relationship between manager and driver was undeveloped; drivers tended to negotiate for themselves. That was fine for astute characters like Stewart and Lauda, but Ronnie needed someone to advocate his case. There was no template for Staffan to follow, though, and he was up against champion deal-makers operating at their peak in the cut and thrust of day-to-day racing. On at least two occasions Ronnie spoke directly to Colin Chapman instead of going via Staffan — for example, he signed an option to go to Team Lotus for 1973 without negotiating with March.
Svenby acknowledges that during his eight-year F1 career Ronnie had sometimes been ill advised: “We tended to be with the wrong team at the wrong time. He had a good start, but the period from 1975 to ’77 was not good. For ’76, there was really nowhere else for him to go except March and sometimes on a chessboard you have to make sacrifices. I had a draft contract with ‘Bubbles’ Horsley at Hesketh, but that didn’t seem right, those guys all driving round in their Rolls-Royces!”
Peterson died a rich man by the standards of the day, leaving an estimated £1 million on his death in 1978, but if Staffan didn’t feel comfortable with the Hesketh toffs, their extravagance must have been an anathema to Ronnie, who was always careful with his money, not to say tight. His personal banker in the early days was his mother Maj-Britt. Ronnie’s friend and F3 compatriot Torsten Palm describes her financial control: “On Sunday evenings, when he came home from races, she was on the lookout for the prize money. When Reine [Wisell, compatriot and F3 rival] won a race there was a big party on the Sunday evening, girls and alcohol and everything. When Ronnie won he kept his money, never had a beer, went straight home, put the money on the table and went through all the figures.”
Despite this parsimony, Ronnie had a gift for male friendship: his boyish exuberance and lack of pretension were the reasons for this. Brodie: “He was a blinding bloke to know, a bloke’s bloke. But nearly all his relationships were within motorsport — it was the context for his whole adult life. Even the area where he ended up living in Cookham Dean was known as ‘Racing Hill’ because of its cluster of racing inhabitants: Tim Schenken, Torsten Palm and Keke Rosberg.
Schenken: “Ronnie was just a regular guy. I spent some time with him, living with his family during the off-season, in Orebro, staying at his parents’ house. He almost seemed embarrassed at the recognition and the fame that he had.”
Leighton: “Ronnie didn’t really have an ego. His ego was to be the best. And being the best meant it was him against the stopwatch. He felt good if he was on pole position, basically. If he wasn’t on pole he was very quiet because he knew he could have done better. If things went wrong he would sulk a little bit, but not get cross. A lot of it would be self-reproach.”
Ronnie was the boy from the sticks who came good — lift installer to international hero. Even though his inherent ability was honed by experience, and his temperament and tastes grew more sophisticated, his small-town essence remained intact. He was shy and didn’t really like large groups of people. His hobby was keeping topical fish, a contemplative, almost nerdy pastime — like James Hunt’s budgerigar breeding. He took it very seriously and his aquarium occupied almost an entire wall of the sitting room at his Farthingales home in Maidenhead. He loved to spend hours with his fish, nurturing and feeding them. “All he used to think about,” says Picko Troberg [a fellow Swede who helped Ronnie in his early career], “was motor racing, Barbro and goldfish.”
Ronnie’s constant companion from 1970 was his girlfriend, and later wife, the beautiful Barbro Edvardsson. She too came from Orebro. They’d met in the town’s Prisma disco around ’68. She worked as a secretary, and during ’69 went to New York to work as an au pair before returning for the ’70 racing season. The fundamental backbone of Ronnie’s life was this relationship, despite some casual womanising away from home. Barbro accompanied Ronnie to the races, taking on the vital role of his timekeeper, perched on the pit counter, unfailingly friendly. They made their home in England, took a flat in Monaco and had a holiday home in Sweden, at Askersund near Orebro. They were married in ’75, and their daughter Nina was born in the November of that year. Ronnie and Barbro stayed together until his death, despite the friction that threatened to unbalance the relationship in ’78, mostly due to Ronnie’s growing frustrations with his lot at Team Lotus.
Lars Berntson and his wife Helene were just about the only friends that the Petersons had outside motor racing and they provided a Swedish home from home in England. Lars was MD of the car body repair company Plastic Padding, which Ronnie later endorsed for “two-tenths of nothing”. He and Barbro were frequent visitors at the Berntsons’ home, a spacious split-level house near Maidenhead.
“They would turn up out of the blue,” says Lars. “You’d just say, ‘Come in, sit down’ and Barbro would grab some of the Swedish papers and magazines that we subscribed to. Ronnie would take my daughter for a spin on the garden tractor to teach her how to drive, and we’d have barbecues in the summer. Every Thursday in winter they would come round for the traditional Swedish supper of pea soup and punch.”
Ronnie enjoyed a steak, but his favourite food was Italian and any pasta dish would do. Yet despite the attractions of Swedish liqueurs and punch, he hardly ever touched a drop of alcohol — until Lars threw a party in March 1978, when Ronnie had just come back from passing Patrick Depailler on the last lap to win the South African Grand Prix.
“He was so happy about that [win],” says Lars. “We had a rum punch on the go and he asked me for a glass. Until that day he’d never, to my knowledge, drunk any spirits. It took him five minutes to drink it. He then asked me for another one and drained the punchbowl into his glass. Next time I saw him, he was reeling a bit. I think it was the only time I saw him a little bit drunk. But he was in such good form.”
The year would end in tragedy, though. Doubly so, for Ronnie’s death at Monza was also essentially Barbro’s, since she never recovered from it and died in 1987, leaving behind their 12-year-old daughter Nina. Because she had been so completely absorbed in his racing life, Barbro was terribly lonely after Ronnie died. For four or five years she had a relationship with John Watson, but it never filled the gap left by Ronnie. She was still a regular visitor to the Berntson’s, but towards the end of her life she began to withdraw.
“We always invited her but we could sense that things weren’t right,” says Lars. “She would phone an hour before a dinner party and say that she was not feeling up to it. Barbro was in love with only one person in her life: Ronnie was her hero. She needed the fatherly feel of John, and he wanted them to sell up and move down to somewhere like Hampshire, but she wouldn’t because her house was like a mausoleum after Ronnie died, with every trophy and every photograph on display.”
Warr also had a first-hand view of Ronnie and Barbro’s relationship: “The lifestyle she led and the happiness she found with Ronnie was totally irreplaceable. She wouldn’t have found it with anyone else. They were made for each other, and they were just delirious that things worked out so well.
“They loved life and they loved each other.”