Gunnar Nilsson won just one Grand Prix before his tragic death, but, thanks to his courage and character, his memory still lives large among his friends today. Mark Hughes pays his respects
If a racing driver has to die young, there is an almost gladiatorial rightness that he do so in his element on the track. Gunnar Nilsson was denied even that, succumbing to cancer at 29. His friend Ronnie Peterson had died two weeks earlier after the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. Nilsson attended the funeral and later, wracked with pain, said he wished he “could have gone like Ronnie did”. Is that not truly tragic?
Nilsson won one Grand Prix (Belgium, 1977) and garnered a handful of promising results in his two-season spell as understudy to Mario Andretti at Lotus. There are those adamant that he was a World Champion in the making, others that he would have been a solid number two a Patrese, perhaps, or a Brundle.
But 20 years on after his last season, all that has faded into insignificance; what is left is an enormous warmth of feeling towards the man. “Oh man,” remembers Andretti, “he was such a blast. I look back on those days with so much fondness. He and Ronnie had a really big effect on my life.” “He was one of those fabulous guys you couldn’t criticise,” says Robin Herd, former March principal. “A real quality person,” says former Lotus mechanic Bob Dance.
So where did he come from, this meteorite whose death left not only a legacy to cancer treatment but also so many questions unanswered?
He came to racing as free as the wind, a bright, uninhibited young bloke indulged by a wealthy mother after his car-crazy father died leaving a successful construction business. A bloke rather than a boy, having already served in the submarine corps of the Swedish navy. “He was streetwise,” remembers his close friend Chris Witty, “which was unusual for a Swede.” It was this combination of ‘I wasn’t born yesterday’ savvy and carefree zest that made up the charm everyone refers to when you mention his name. It was an appeal women evidently found irresistible. And he didn’t like to disappoint them; anything but that.
“He had a big love of life,” recalls Swedish motor racing guru Sveneric Eriksson, “and in the early days in Formula Vee we saw he could be something extra one day. But he was a little bit wild and I think there were too many nice ladies around as well.”
Fredrik af Petersens was lending a hand to a friend in Swedish Formula Vee when he met Gunnar at a party. “We got on tremendously well. He didn’t know if he was good enough but he had this dream that he would be a Formula One driver right from the start. I said ‘yeah, sure,’ but he was determined.” And persuasive: Petersens became Nilsson’s unpaid helper and companion for the rest of his life.
Two years in Formula Vee and one in European Formula Three yielded precious few results, despite some flashes of real speed. Then in late ’74 Nilsson bought a couple of races in the European F2 series.
In the second, at Hockenheim, came the first real evidence that he possessed some talent. Starting from the back of the grid, after retiring in the first heat, he stormed through a field of Europe’s best up-and-coming racers to finish fourth, beaten only by Hans Stuck, Patrick Depailler and Jean-Pierre Jabouille, two of whom were already established as Grand Prix drivers.
It convinced Nilsson he had something. But time, and presumably his mother’s patience, was running short. For 75 there was no more running the show; he would drive for the works March team in British Formula Three. “Gunnar changed his approach from that point on,” asserts Petersens. “He became less of a playboy. He even started training.” Suddenly he was winning races regularly though not without some almighty dust-ups with his Brazilian team-mate Alex Ribeiro. “He was my best friend until the flag dropped. Then it was war,” remembers Ribeiro, now chaplain of the Brazilian football squad. “We bent four chassis that year between us and broke 15 nose cones! On Monday morning we’d have to sit in front of Max Mosley (then the boss of March) and explain. We would even be presenting evidence. But Gunnar often convinced Max it was my fault even when it wasn’t. It was difficult for me because everybody loved Gunnar; he knew how to press the right buttons. He was a good politician. It was because of•this together with his talent that he made it.”
Nilsson became that year’s British F3 champion, Ribeiro the runner-up. Gunnar was the darling of the British specialist press and with the help of close fiends Chris Witty and Ian Phillips, both then working for Autosport, his name was acquiring a buzz.
The momentum snowballed faster when, part way through the F3 season, Ken Moore received March’s permission to install Nilsson in his Rapid Movements Formula Atlantic Chevron B29. In between F3 battles with Ribeiro, the Swede claimed the Atlantic series, winning four of his five races. Moore had no doubt just how good Nilsson was: “I saw him as a potential World Champion. He was dominant against some extremely good guys. He would get pole and win races in the wet or the dry. He once got pole with a major brake problem, and he once won a race after the gearknob came off on the first lap. He could relate what the car was doing to our mechanic Tony Harvey. He was just a complete racing driver.”
Harvey concurs. “He knew what I was thinking and I him. When he came into the pits I would know what he was going to ask for. He was sensitive with the car too. If I’d put half an inch on the roll bar he’d go out, come back and it was logged in then. He would know how the car felt.”
Such conviction wasn’t universal, however. “I think he was going to be good,” says his F3 engineer Robin Herd, “but not perhaps true World Championship material.” A judgement that Witty, in retrospect, goes along with: “Not a super-talent, but probably a solid number two who could win Grands Prix.” Though Phillips, now team manager at Jordan Grand Prix, points out that: “He didn’t do many Grands Prix but he won one of them. That must say something.” But it is Andretti, who drove alongside Nilsson throughout 1976 and 77, who was in perhaps the best position to judge: “Well, although there was a little too much haste there, I think he had the right stuff. You cannot make a slow guy hustle, but you can make someone slow down in order to go faster. And he always grasped the —opportunity — like in Belgium. And he had some fire. He probably needed to get his confidence up a bit more, get some more results and he definitely had a future.” Except sadly, he didn’t.
Another of those who thought he had it was Frank Williams. It was Williams who gave Nilsson his first taste of a Formula One car. At the end of ’75 at Goodwood, Gunnar climbed aboard the Williams FW03. “Despite it being neither a particularly reliable nor competitive car,” remembers Williams, “his driving confirmed my impressions.” To the extent that a Williams contract was proffered. And refused. Nilsson was going to continue with March in F2. No budget required.
But in the space of a hectic few weeks, in which he was used as a bargaining pawn in negotiations between March and Lotus over Ronnie Peterson’s 1976 drive, Nilsson became a Lotus Formula One driver without having to bother with F2 at all.
In his third Grand Prix, in Spain, he finished 3rd. He’d made it. For Nilsson’s erstwhile F3 rival Danny Sullivan, it was typical: “1 was supposed to take his Rapid Movements Atlantic drive over for 76, he was going F2. Then my deal falls through as the team quits, leaving me with nothing. Gunnar’s deal doesn’t happen and he ends up in F1! Only Gunnar.”
Nilsson and Sullivan became close friends, sharing a flat in London for a time. “He never had any money with him, he was so tight,” recalls Sullivan. ‘And he’d have all this big talk about how he could drink. Yet after about three glasses of vodka he’d be face-down in his soup.”
Andretti, too, recalls high jinks at Gunnar’s Stockholm pad with unabated glee. “We’d leave the car somewhere, go drinking and raisin’ hell and, not wanting to drive back, we’d steal bicycles to get home. At the end of the two weeks we had seven bicycles in the lobby and we didn’t know where the hell we’d parked the car!”
In fact, mostly everyone who spent time with Nilsson can recite similar stories. But in the midst of all the laughter, Herd could detect something else: “Although he was such a friendly person I think he was also very lonely, very solitary. There was something almost melancholic in his personality once you got beneath it. I’d sometimes catch him in repose when we were playing golf or when he had to drive anywhere, he’d always go alone.”
Harvey remembers it as a sort of detachment: “There was a bit of him you couldn’t get to. It’s maybe a Swedish thing because I found it in Ronnie too. I actually got closer to Gunnar when he was in hospital than I ever did when we worked together.”
Petersens agrees: “I think he missed a father figure. His step-brother was much older but he hated him for personal, family, reasons, to such an extent that he wrote to him a couple of weeks before he died telling him he didn’t want him at the funeral. So Gunnar hadn’t had someone he could talk to about certain aspects of life. I think that’s why he and Mario became such close friends.”
“It was very much a teacher/pupil relationship,” remembers Glenn Waters, who served as Nilsson’s chief mechanic in ’77. “They were very compatible and they each knew their respective positions within the team.”
Though unsurprisingly Andretti was much the more successful, Nilsson was a closer match for his team-mate in his first season than in his second. “Well the Lotus 78, being a ground effect car, needed to be driven in a different way,” asserts Andretti. “It had a much higher limit and he never knew where it was. He wasn’t totally confident in it, didn’t totally understand it. But it would have come.”
The Belgian win came after Andretti clashed with John Watson at the first corner. Nilsson drove aggressively around Zolder and without mistakes in treacherously wet conditions. He also starred in Austria later in the year, again in wet conditions, and would probably have won had his engine not let go. All of which tends to confirm Andretti’s belief that any deficit was in technique rather than raw ability.
It was in the second half of the season that Nilsson first complained of tenderness in the groin. “We were strapping him into the car once,” recalls Lotus mechanic Rex Hart, “and he winced, said `bloody hell’.” Later he complained of headaches and back pains too. “He put it down to an uncomfortable seat and his helmet being one size too small,” recounts Petersens. By the end of the season he was driving with loosened lap straps.
At around this time Sullivan left London to take part in the Formula Atlantic Tasman championship in New Zealand. “I’d stopped off at my home in Kentucky on the way out and he tracked me down. I said, ‘This is pretty impressive, Gunnar’ but I knew something was wrong because he just said l need to talk to Frank’.” Professor Frank Faulkner was Sullivan’s mentor, a leading paediatrician and motor racing fan who attended most of the Grands Prix and had become a good friend of Nilsson’s.
It was at one of the races towards the end of the season that the Professor took a look at him. He insisted on a proper examination; an appointment was made for after the final race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix. In that race he retired with a severely bent gear linkage. “That is a little pointer,” says Glenn Waters, “that there was something wrong. You couldn’t bend a piece of 41/30 tube like that if you stood there all day with a sledgehammer and vice. I think he was having to put so much physical effort into just driving the car by that stage.”
Nilsson had already agreed terms for 1978 to drive for the still-secret new Arrows team. He felt the need to step out of Andretti’s shadow. Andretti also says Nilsson was not accorded due respect by Colin Chapman. In the event the diagnosis saw to it that Nilsson never even sat in the Arrows. Carcinoma of the testes – a cancer that spreads with lethal speed. If caught early, there is hope. Nilsson had secondary tumours by the time he was diagnosed. He was installed in a private ward of Charing Cross Hospital in January and would move between there and a nearby recuperation flat for the remaining 10 months of his life.
Sullivan returned from the Tasman series soon after Nilsson’s chemo and radiation therapy course had begun. He was shocked to the core by the appearance of the friend he had left looking perfectly fit two months before: “He looked like a concentration camp victim. The transformation was devastating.” Mrs Nilsson, Phillips, Witty, Sullivan, Petersens and Gunnar’s girlfriend Christina devoted virtually all their time administering to Nilsson’s needs. “I’ll never forget the final time I took him to the hospital,” remembers Sullivan. “The flat was up one short flight of stairs and it took me over an hour to get him down to the car. He was so frail I couldn’t pick him up, so he had to go down the stairs one at a time on his butt. After two stairs he was exhausted.
“Yet Gunnar thought it was very sad that he was the oldest person in the hospital. He saw all these kids with cancer and that upset him very much.”
His nurse Jackie Critchley (who later married Andrew Ferguson, an active figure in the Nilsson Campaign) was captivated: “Although it was a harrowing time I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much. He had us running round after him, breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone orbited around him, not because he expected them to they just did.”
The initiative for the Gunnar Nilsson Appeal came from a doctor keen to acquire a linear accelerator for more targeted destruction of cancerous cells. He knew Nilsson’s name would do wonders. Remembers Phillips, “Gunnar’s answer was always the same: ‘Yes, when I’ve conquered this, not before’.” But even Nilsson gained a sense of futility when the cancer reached his brain. Not long after, Peterson died of complications arising from an accident in the Italian Grand Prix. Gunnar gathered his last shreds of strength and flew to Sweden for the funeral. On his return he had a telephone line installed in his room against hospital regulations and set up the Gunnar Nilsson Appeal to raise £360,000, refusing more powerful painkillers to make the final few calls. The appeal raised £13 million within nine months and though there is no active campaign now, the fund still received £12,000 in private donations last year.
Before turning in on his final night, Nilsson looked at Petersens and said, “Thanks for all your help.” He died in the early hours of the morning. Mario Andretti who said Nilsson was his first real friend among racing drivers could not face the prospect of the funeral. “Everyone was left with this huge emptiness,” recalls Jackie Ferguson, “because he was such a larger than life character. But what I remember most is just laughing all the time. He was a person you only meet once in a lifetime.”