One off Grand Prix winners: Gunnar Nilsson Belgium 1977
In 1975 young Swede Gunnar Nilsson was just about the hottest property in world motorsport. Not only had he won the incredibly competitive British Formula 3 Championship in dominant fashion, but he had also won races in Formula Atlantic, proving that stepping up to a more powerful car was well within his ability. He finished the year with a coveted works March Formula 2 contract in his pocket, but at the start of the 76 GP season, established “Super Swede” Ronnie Peterson came to the conclusion that the new JPS Lotus was no more competitive than the one in which he’d endured a dreadful 75, so he decided to return to the March team with which he’d started his F1 career. A complicated deal was worked out between Max Mosely and Colin Chapman which meant that Nilsson would step up to F1 and replace his fellow countryman as team mate to Mario Andretti.
Gunnar’s first season as a GP driver started well, a podium finish coming in only his third GP start in Spain. Another podium came his way in Austria and two thirds of the way through the season he was comfortably out-scoring his experienced American team mate, before a late season burst saw Mario winning the Japanese GP to come out on top. Lotus was back in winning ways and for 1977 Chapman had one of his legendary innovations up his sleeve. The new Lotus 78 would introduce ground effect and Formula 1 would be changed forever.
By the time the GP circus arrived at Zolder for the Belgian GP, Andretti had already won two races. But many in the GP fraternity had failed to grasp just what made the new Lotus so quick and the team was locked in a row over the locked differential that Mario was thought to be using. Just to rub it in, the American put his car on pole by more than 1 ½ seconds with Nilsson lining up in third on the grid. The whole weekend had been grey and damp and the rain started falling again as the cars lined up for the start, everyone changing to wet weather tyres. All except for James Hunt who took a gamble on slicks – a gamble that didn’t pay off. On the opening lap conditions were atrocious. In fact they were so bad that even Andretti was caught out and he slid into John Watson’s Brabham Alfa at the chicane, taking both cars out of the race. Nilsson should have taken the lead, but he had to take to the grass to avoid the accident, allowing Jody Scheckter’s Wolf to lead the first lap. Nevertheless, Gunnar still held on to second and this became first when, with the rain stopped and the track drying out, Jody span off the track. In 1977 pit stops were not usually part of GP racing, but now the whole field was heading for their boxes for a change to dry tyres. Some stops went like clockwork, Niki Lauda’s Ferrari mechanics turning his car around in just 17 seconds, but others were shambolic and by the time the field sorted itself out again, Lauda led with Gunnar’s Lotus back in 8th.
Now Nilsson had the bit between his teeth. Another quick shower of drizzle caught out some drivers, but the young Swede seemed completely unfazed. He overtook Lafitte, Peterson, Jones and Brambilla in the space of a few laps and was soon up to second as others made mistakes. Still Lauda, the man who was on his way to a second World Championship, had a good lead. But Gunnar was driving like a man possessed and was catching Niki hand over fist. 20 laps from the end the Lotus was right on the Ferrari’s tail and, at the same chicane where Andretti had got it all wrong, Nilsson got his braking right to take the lead. As Gunnar sprayed the Champagne from the top step of the podium watched by Lauda and Peterson, few people doubted that they had just witnessed the drive of a future champion.
For 1978 Nilsson knew that he needed to move out of Andretti’s shadow and jumped at the chance to become lead driver of the brand new Arrows team. Sadly he was never able to drive his new car. The first signs of possible illness had appeared while he was still driving for Lotus and the diagnosis during the off season was devastating – Gunnar had cancer. He fought the disease bravely while the GP world carried on in his absence, even finding time to catch-up with old friends at the British GP. In September it took an almost superhuman effort for him to attend the funeral of his great friend and countryman Ronnie Peterson who had died following a multiple crash at the start of the Italian GP (ironically driving Gunnar’s old Lotus). On October 20th 1978 the disease finally beat Gunnar and the world lost a potential World Champion.
by Mel Turbutt