Ronnie Peterson: a match for anyone

Dear Nigel,

My childhood hero was Ronnie Peterson. How do you rate him on pure speed?

Stefan Nilsson

Dear Stefan,

It doesn’t surprise me that Ronnie Peterson was your hero: countless others felt the same way, both in the grandstands and in the F1 paddock. We all loved his extraordinarily spectacular style and blazing speed – but beyond that there was also a tremendous affection for him. As well as being a great racing driver, he was genuinely a good man.

‘Mad Ronald’ Mike Hailwood used to call him. In the Peterson era, 35 and 40 years ago, F1 may have been infinitely more dangerous than now, but it lacked the hard edge of today, and genuine friendships between the drivers were not unusual.

Peterson was never a textbook racing driver, in the Stewart sense of the word, but rather one who could make a car dance to his tune, a man of reflex and instinct. René Dreyfus once said of Nuvolari that in his case understeer and oversteer were an irrelevance; whatever the car’s inclinations, it would do what its driver required. Ronnie was like that.

In fact, that was just as well, because in all truth he was a hopeless test driver, and admitted as much. “Ronnie was amazing in that respect,” Colin Chapman once told me. “You could change a car really quite fundamentally – and he’d still turn in the same sort of times! So you’d ask him how it felt different from before, and he’d say, ‘Ummm, slides a bit more...’ Where? At the front, the back, both ends? And he’d say he wasn’t really sure! Made me tear my hair out. Then, of course, he’d go and put the thing on pole, so you couldn’t really get too mad with him...”

Chapman always reckoned that Peterson was at his best when partnered with a supreme test driver, and it was lucky for him that, in two spells with Lotus, his team-mates were Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. “He’d mess around in practice, while Emerson worked on his set-up, then copy his settings – and nick pole position from him! Used to madden Emerson, that, and you couldn’t blame him…”

Ronnie’s talent was such that he could drive around any problem his car might have, and he had the confidence to commit to a flat-out corner in the certainty that he could sort it all out.

“I don’t think Ronnie ever had the mental application that a complete racing driver needs,” said Jackie Stewart, “but I admired his ability tremendously. Any number of times, particularly in 1973, I’d follow him into a corner and think, ‘Ooooh, Ronnie, this time you’ve overdone it, you’re gone!’ But he always seemed to get it back somehow. It never surprised me that the spectators loved him – he was exciting to watch from where I was, too!”

As with Jochen Rindt or Gilles Villeneuve, Peterson was a driver who made you seek out a particular corner for the privilege of watching him through it. In all my years of watching F1 drivers, I have never seen anything better than Ronnie’s Lotus 72 through Silverstone’s original Woodcote Corner.

He would have been wasted in the high downforce era, I think, because delicacy, while still required to some extent, is largely hidden by the sheer ability of the cars. That black Lotus through Woodcote was all catch-lose-catch, the tail always trying to come around, the driver always ahead of it.

From a statistics point of view, the career of Peterson – like Rindt, like Villeneuve – is not especially impressive, with 10 victories from his 123 Grands Prix. But statistics alone cannot tell of a man’s significance in his sport. In only four of his nine years in F1 did Ronnie win races, for much of his career was squandered on poor cars. Forty-seven races with March, for example, yielded but a single victory.

Peterson and Andretti were great pals – indeed, in their few months of working together, in 1978, their friendship became as firm as any I have known between drivers, and Mario admitted that he had reckoned without Ronnie’s absolute honesty: “Something, let’s face it, you don't encounter too often in this business...”

What the pair of them had in ‘78 was the Lotus 79, the first true ‘ground effect’ car, and from early in the season it became apparent that the World Champion would be either Andretti or Peterson. The odds, though, were squarely with Mario, because Ronnie’s contract required him, in normal circumstances, not to beat his team-mate.

“A lot of people were very sniffy about that,” recalled Chapman, “but Ronnie wasn’t one of them. He knew damn well that Mario had worked hard to bring Lotus back to prominence, that he should have been World Champion in ’77 – that he’d earned the title. Ronnie was a very great driver, but he owed a lot to Mario, and he knew it – it was Mario who made the Lotus 79 the car it was, and Ronnie benefited from that, and knew it. He was a very honourable man.”

So he was, and that day at Monza, when Peterson died from injuries sustained in a multiple accident at the start, was among the saddest I can remember. Everyone loved him, as I said, and I remember him now not only as one of the greatest chargers of all time, but also as a delightful guy, a loyal team member, a man of complete integrity. As for pure speed, he was a match for anyone.

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Click here for more from Nigel Roebuck.

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