Reine Wisell was the dashing flaxen-haired Viking with the long flowing locks, sideburns to his chin and the flashing white smile. On the same trajectory as his close friend Ronnie Peterson, he looked set to be a grand prix star. Finding himself replacing Jochen Rindt in the Gold Leaf Team Lotus 72 after the death of the Austrian at Monza, he repaid Colin Chapman by finishing an impressive third in his Grand Prix debut at Watkins Glen.
But there was a caveat. At the end of a race of attrition, the team’s new number one Emerson Fittipaldi took his first Formula 1 victory, some 45 secs ahead of the Swede. Pedro Rodríguez was second in the then competitive BRM. The season then concluded with the Mexican Grand Prix, a race held up because the crowd swarmed over the barriers and wanted to sit in front of the Armco.
This was not a good race for Gold Leaf Team Lotus and while Emerson retired, Reine limped home at the back of the field unclassified. But Chapman had seen enough, was impressed and signed the charming Swede with the broad smile to race alongside Fittipaldi for the 1971 season. Reine had come into the team hugely confident of his own speed and ability but was out-performed week after week by his Brazilian team-mate and it is no doubt that it shattered his confidence. Indeed he never matched that Watkins Glen podium finish again in an F1 career that dragged on through a season with BRM, a brief re-call to Team Lotus and a handful of one-off rides until 1974. He raced on for many years with some success in GT, Sports and Historic racing but the potential was never realised.
Born in the small lakeside town of Motala, his early racing exploits as a teenager were in a Mini-Cooper, followed by a Ford Anglia and then back to a Mini. There was a thriving Formula 3 scene in Sweden and so for 1966 he decided to buy a second-hand Cooper T76 and was soon showing considerable speed, taking a win and finishing eighth in the championship. The following year he purchased Picko Troberg’s championship-winning Brabham BT18. With this well-sorted car Wisell raced to the Swedish F3 Championship as well as an impressive second at the Spanish GP F3 support race.
He also became friendly with another, slightly younger, rising Swedish star Ronnie Peterson and indeed Reine mentored him in the early days. For 1968 the duo decided to buy a pair of the stubby but effective Tecno F3 machines and headed off to Italy together to collect their new machines. With new-found sponsorship Reine’s plan was to race all over Europe, while Ronnie targeted the Swedish F3 title. Eleven victories followed as far afield as Brands Hatch, Vila Real in Portugal, Barcelona and in the Swedish Grands Prix at Karlskoga.
For the following year he was signed by the British-based Chevron team to race in both F3 and sports cars. The highlight of a somewhat disappointing year was an incredible battle with his friend Ronnie Peterson at the Monaco F3 support race. The two Swedes – Reine in the Chevron and Ronnie still in a Tecno – regularly swapped places around the tortuous streets with Peterson just taking victory at the flag. Reporting this spectacle at the time I described it as the best Formula 3 race ever – and I’d seen plenty. With John Hine there was a class win in the factory Chevon B8 in the Brands Hatch 6 Hour sportscar race.
That victory put Ronnie on the map and he was picked ahead of Reine for a privateer Formula 1 ride in Colin Crabbe’s March 701 while Reine had to be content with racing for Jo Bonnier’s sports car team where he survived a huge Le Mans accident. But redemption came in a call-up towards the end of the season to drive Sid Taylor’s McLaren Formula 5000. He won three of the last four races and this meant he was firmly on Lotus’s radar when it needed to find a replacement not only for Rindt but also John Miles, who had stepped away from the team.
Thus followed a hectic 1971 season racing both for Team Lotus and in Formula 2 including an outstanding win in Pau. By this time he had joined the gang of racers who occasionally found their way to sleeping on my flat floor in Hampstead. Reine was always upbeat and fun but very rarely arrived as expected – his time-keeping always left something to be desired. In terms of results with Lotus that year he just missed out on the podium in South Africa at the start of the season, was also fourth in Austria, fifth in Canada and sixth in France. He also got to drive the turbine car at the British GP.
He finished ninth in a Championship year dominated by Jackie Stewart and three places behind team mate Fittipaldi. The writing was on the wall and he was replaced by the 1971 Motor Sport Magazine British Formula 3 Champion, the Australian Dave Walker.
Reine found a home in the five-car BRM team for 1972. It was nothing short of a disaster and bar a twelfth place at Monza he never made it to the flag such was the unreliability. There was a ray of light at the end of the year when he re-joined Lotus — replacing Walker — for the two season-ending North American races but by then the car was uncompetitive. His F1 career wound up with one-offs March drives: in France in 1973 and Sweden the following year. There were still the flashes of talent – he won the F2 Eifelrennen race at the Nürburgring in 1973 in the unfancied Team Pierre Robert-GRD.
There were also the occasional decent sportscar drives for Scuderia Filipinetti and Gulf. He won another series too, in 1975 sharing a Porsche RSR with Hartwig Batrams to victory in that year’s European GT Championship. There were also regular appearances back home in the Swedish Touring car Championship and at the Spa 24 Hours – indeed he took the pole in a Camaro for the 1981 race. In the mid-‘80s he took part in the Supersports Historic series, appropriately in a Chevron.
In later life he lived mainly in rural Thailand but was a keen member of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Club and often attended their functions in Europe. He was also a keen user of Facebook and recently posted a photo of his elaborate 80th birthday cake.
The man with the bright green crash helmet – even brighter than Henri Pescarolo’s – was on a path that suggested he would become a grand prix winner, particularly when Formula 1’s top team of the time came calling. Sadly this genial Swede with the film star looks never realised his true potential.
Motor Sport offers condolences to Reine Wisell’s partner Jongluk, his son Christopher and daughter Jacqueline.