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Gunnar Nilsson Memories: Part One

Submitted by on June 2, 2012

There are some guys who are quickly forgotten. Gunnar Nilsson could well be one of those. But he shouldn’t be. One Grand Prix win 35 years ago doesn’t do him justice. His work for cancer research has helped a lot of people.

By Andy Hallbery

It was Zolder, 1977, and Gunnar Nilsson won the Belgian Grand Prix. It’s hard to believe it’s 35 years ago. When I started this it was going to be one story, but everyone I interviewed said “You must speak to ‘so-and-so.” I did, and ended up talking with his Lotus team-mate Mario Andretti. But here is the first part, Chris Witty. Chris was a writer at Autosport, and became good friends with Gunnar and was in the hospital room when he passed. He has some great memories. Here are a few.

Gunnar Nilsson

“Gunnar’s career was short and sweet,” recalls Witty. “Really, he was only around for five years. He emerged relatively late in his early 20s, and he was gone by his late 20s, from Formula 3 in Sweden to Formula 1 and the top of his game in no time. He was a little bit naive in some ways when he first arrived, but you would expect that.”

In 1974 Gunnar moved to North West London, and shared a flat with legendary F1 journalist Fredrik Petersens. Other locals in that area included Danny Sullivan and Jochen Mass. They became a bit of a gang. Danny and Gunnar became good friends.

“It was actually quite prophetic, says Witty. “I remember Danny was struggling with Europe. One day he said to Gunnar: ‘How am I gonna crack it?” Gunnar laughed and said… “Go back to America!

“He did, and he cracked it, and he won the Indy 500 and became a superstar in the States!”

Gunnar’s win in Belgium in 1977 was a landmark moment. It was also the start of the end… Even by then in May 1977 he was asking his Lotus mechanics not to make the belts to tight. Testicular cancer was the reason, even though he didn’t know at the time, but he would not stop racing.

“He was definitely suffering towards the end of the season,” remembers Witty, “and the boys on the team were saying he didn’t like his lap straps being done up too tightly because he was suffering in the ‘lower regions’.

“Gunnar said to Mario (Andretti) he didn’t feel so good, and Mario sent him to see someone. That guy passed him on to a doctor who passed him on to a specialist in that area. But by the time he got to see the proper doctors, it was too late. The cancer had got too big of a hold.”

Gunnar left Lotus, and signed for the new Arrows team for 1978 – replaced at Lotus ironically by compatriot and friend Ronnie Peterson. He never got to drive the Arrows.

“The sad thing is that with the advancement in medicine since that time,” says Witty, “I talked with one of the junior doctors who was at that time with Gunnar. He is now one of the top cancer doctors. We were talking about Gunnar’s plight, and he said: ‘Had he had that problem now, it’s curable.’ And that just shows the advancement of cancer research over the last 30 years. I guess it’s being in the right place at the right time.”

While Gunnar fought, he knew what the outcome would be. CAT scans and treatments, hospital visits and chemo… Witty remembers it well. “We had to go somewhere in Wimbledon to have a CAT scan done. It was not good, and when the doctor took me to one side and said to me ‘this isn’t good, but don’t tell him…’

“Then I remember Gunnar stopping me one day and saying: ‘This is not good. I’m not going to get through this. I know my own body, so let’s just enjoy the summer as much as we can.’”

So they did!

They went to the British Grand Prix that July in 1978, Gunnar now hairless through chemo, and wearing his Arrows jacket.

Then he changed his focus to cancer research, and raised a load of money by calling favours on friends. Among the many were George Harrison, who recorded a single “Faster” with all proceeds going to the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation. And Sir Jackie Stewart helped with a cameo in the video!

There is so much more to say, and Mario Andretti’s memories will come next. Followed by the legacy Gunnar left to cancer treatment. Then there be more from Chris, including hi-jacking the kitchen at Charring Cross Hospital, and how Gunnar’s foundation fund raised some £5m… please share this.


Thanks to Chris Witty, for great memories

LAT photographic, http://www.latphoto.co.uk/

Sarah Storer for graphics enhancement.

Thanks to The Cahier Archive for the additional images.

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