Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler BlackJack’sBriefs
Such a list is not easy to compile, and it is even harder to be objective.
The way I reduced 830 F1 drivers to 20 is detailed in Part I. I wanted twenty top drivers (top No.2’s who might have been a team leader.) who had proved their ability to win – not drivers who showed talent but were unable to realise their potential, including drivers whose career was brought to an untimely end, for whatever reason.
. . . was born on St Valentine’s Day in 1944 near Orebro, Sweden and, like many drivers, started racing karts, winning national championships in 1963-64, before moving on to F3, with a Brabham-based car which he built with his father (who was a baker…), and eventually, in 1969, in a works Tecno, won the F3 support race to the Monaco GP which, at that time was a rare opportunity for junior drivers to be spotted by F1 team-managers…
By the end of the year he was European F3 Champion and moved to F2 for 1970. He also made a few F1 appearances with the new March team, formed by Max Mosley, Alan Rees, Graham Coaker & Robin Herd…
March was an unbelievably zealous project – after building just one F3 car in 1969 they announced they would be building F1, F2, F3, FF, and Can-Am cars for 1970… as well as running works teams in F1, F2, and F3… Ambitious, or what…!
Peterson drove the Antique Automobiles/Colin Crabbe entered March 701, while Tyrrell entered another for reigning Champion, Jackie Stewart… who drove it to 3rd in it’s first race, and to victory in the second… followed by two more 2nd places before Tyrrell produced their own car. A second Tyrrell/March entry was shared by Johnny Servoz-Gavin and Francois Cevert, Mario Andretti drove a semi-works entry, while March themselves entered Chris Amon and Jo Siffert… Has any new F1 team ever had a more illustrious start…? March finished 3rd in the Constructors Championship with 48pts. to Ferrari’s 52, and Lotus’ 59.
For as long as the FIA, FOM, and FOCA prevent new teams (works or privateers) just joining in as and when they are able to do so F1, as it exists today, will never regain its former glory. Discuss. ‘Well, you might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment…’ (©House of Cards.)
Peterson started nine of the thirteen races, retired from five, and failed to score any points… but was offered a full works drive for 1971.
In their second year March even surpassed their first, by entering seven drivers (at different times)(including Lauda in the Austria GP), with newcomer, Peterson, leading Andrea de Adamich, and Nanni Galli. Peterson finished on the podium in five of the eleven races to amass 33pts. This was half what Champion, Stewart, scored but was enough to give Peterson 2nd place in the Championship… in his second season…
My theory of a driver needing to establish some sort of claim to the Championship by the end of his third year was knocked cockeyed by Peterson’s performance.
Peterson rarely qualified high on the grid (although invariably fastest of the numerous March drivers) but was more than able to move through the field and of his four 2nd places, three were behind Stewart, and one (at Monza) was just 0.01 secs. behind Peter Gethin – when the first five drivers were covered by just 0.61 secs. in one of the most thrilling F1 finishes ever…
In the clip below (sorry – dreadful picture quality) note especially the race is started before the cars are settled on the grid. The same thing would happen seven years later… And notice Regazzoni, supposedly starting from the fourth row – third car from the left, on the far side – who takes the lead in about 200m. after a ‘rolling start’.
Almost inevitably March experienced a hiccup in their progress and their only success was Peterson’s 3rd place in Germany. The 721 simply didn’t work as expected, and the 721X was even worse, and quickly dropped. March modified their very successful F2 car (722) to take a DFV, for Mike Beuttler, christened 721G (‘G’ for Guinness Book of Records, because the car took just nine days to produce), and was an instant success – bit of a difference to the year or two spent by Red Bull to produce the RB10 which was an instant… er… not a success…
One stand-out fact this year was Peterson was ‘supported’ by Niki Lauda, in the latter’s first season. Peterson finished 9th in the Championship, with 12pts., leaving Lauda point-less, in 23rd – and… “Not a lot of people know that…!”
As March started to go backwards… Lauda went to BRM… but Peterson ‘wasn’t bovvered’ either… having accepted a place at Lotus, with reigning Champion, Fittipaldi who, during the year, won three GP, to Peterson’s four… Fittipaldi beat Peterson 5:3 in further podium places, to beat Peterson 55pts:52pts. to 2nd & 3rd in the Championship.
When they both finished Ronnie beat Emerson 2:1. Peterson also beat Fittipaldi 9:1 for pole positions. There can be no doubt Ronnie Peterson would, could, should have won a World Championship.
Fittipaldi now moved to McLaren leaving Peterson to fight it out with Jacky Ickx although, as both were renowned gentlemen, I doubt there was any actual conflict. However, on this occasion it was Fittipaldi who had shrewdly known when to go… Lotus produced the 76, which was instantly disliked, and the drivers reverted to the old 72 and were largely trounced by McLaren, Ferrari, and Tyrrell. Even so Peterson was still able to take three wins and a 3rd (Ickx only managed two 3rd places), plus two fastest laps and one pole, but could only finish 5th in the Championship – just behind Lauda.
Had it all come together too quickly for Peterson, only to fall apart before he could claim his inheritance…?
At that time an international jury of motor sport journalists handed out a 100gr. gold ingot, the Prix Rouge et Blanc Joseph Siffert, to the best performing driver in each race. The driver who received the most votes overall also received a half kilo gold ingot at the FIA’s prize party in Paris. Peterson won this in 1974.
There are two things to consider at this stage of Peterson’s career: that he was apparently a useless test-driver; and that Lotus (just like today, ironically…) were financially stretched. It was known that Emerson had previously done the development work while Ronnie learnt the circuit, until his car was adjusted to match Emerson’s, and he would go out and take pole position. Peterson could perhaps drive any car round a circuit as fast as anyone, and frequently beat them but, on his own, as also previously at March, he was lost…
Meanwhile, Chapman, who was a renowned smooth-talker, was perhaps not such a good businessman. During 1974 John Player declared they would not be renewing their contract. Chapman and Peter Warr managed to talk them into staying but the budget was cut by 40%. Having nothing with which to replace it Chapman and Warr looked at the balance-sheet, and asked Ronnie to drop his salary, that he was already contracted to receive – for the current year. Ronnie’s management rightly objected, because it would drastically affect his future negotiating power. Peterson was paid… and Lotus was left ‘penniless’… and unable to develop a new F1 car. I don’t think…!
[NB: There’s an interesting story here, for an investigative journalist…]
In 1974 Lauda had moved again, to Ferrari… and would be Champion this year, his fourth season… Meanwhile, having lost one year, and wasted another, Peterson accepted a swap with a ‘cheaper’ Shadow driver, but then decided to stay put – some say Chapman was simply trying to coerce Ronnie. It was the wrong time for Mr Nice- Guy to be loyal. Shadow wouldn’t necessarily have been the place to be either, but McLaren, Ferrari, Tyrrell, and Brabham were all booked – there was no room at the F1 Inn…
For the sixth season Lotus again fielded the, now ancient, 72, without the promised development. Ickx had a surprise 2nd place in Spain, just one sec. behind Mass, but Lotus was going nowhere. Ickx, on the other hand was… He pulled out mid-season, and retired from F1.
After five full seasons in F1 Peterson, who everyone agreed was fast… had finished 2nd, 9th, 3rd, 5th, & 13th in the Championship. While others were jumping overboard, swimming to other teams, and winning Championships in the process, Ronnie Peterson was either too nice, poorly advised, or perhaps naive… because he stayed for yet another year – with a new teammate, Mario Andretti (in a one-off deal for Brazil), and with lots more promises, from Chapman.
Even so, options were still limited and, although Ronnie was much liked in the pit-lane, he didn’t seem to be receiving many other offers… After 1975 Fittipaldi joined the Brazilian Copersucar team, and was replaced at McLaren by James Hunt. Ferrari, Brabham, Tyrrell, March and Shadow all stayed as they were while, allegedly, Chapman still tried to sell Peterson’s contract, in order to stay afloat. Strange how history repeats itself…
At Interlagos the Lotus’ qualified 16th & 18th… and both drivers retired after accidents early on. For the second race, two months later, Lotus had two new drivers…
Gunnar Nilsson (another very fast Swede who was sadly to die of cancer after two promising seasons) appeared, along with Bob Evans, who joined the fold for two unsuccessful races, after a disastrous 1975 with BRM… having won the F5000 Championship in 1974. Back then as well it was possible for a ‘junior’ Champion to fail to set F1 alight. ‘Feeder series’ have never been a guarantee of future champions.
Peterson returned to March, to take Lella Lombardi’s seat who, after a year, had failed to really shine. In America Peterson qualified 6th but he had to get through seven more dismal races before finishing 6th, in the points, in Austria, after qualifying 3rd. At Monaco he had also qualified 3rd behind the Ferraris and then, in Holland, he was able to stick his March on pole.
At Monza he was only eighth on the grid but, in the race came right through the pack to take a surprise, but deserved win, setting fastest lap in the process.
In Canada he qualified 2nd, still ahead of other drivers in basically the same car, and 3rd at Watkins Glen, and managed to finish 11th in the Championship, courtesy of the Italian win.
Meanwhile… Andretti had failed to progress the Parnelli and Chapman enticed him back to Hethel, full-time, to help develop the new 77. How Lotus was suddenly able to afford Mario is not recorded… but it was worthwhile because in the last five races of the season Mario was on the podium twice before taking victory in the final race at Fuji.
Jody Scheckter now moved to Wolf, so Tyrrell ‘rescued’ Peterson, but he failed to out-perform teammate Depailler, recording one 3rd place at Spa, and fastest lap at Watkins Glen… while the Lotus 78 had won five races, and started on pole seven times, also scoring four fastest laps.
Chapman now invited Peterson back, which was unfortunate for Spa winner, Nilsson, who was picked up by newcomers, Arrows, but was sadly unable to drive for them…
I have mentioned before in this series the recurrent problems these drivers all had that conspired to keep them off the top step at the end of the season. One is the competition at the time and Peterson’s era was especially difficult – during this period (1968-78) an astonishing 148 drivers had their first experience of F1 GP racing and 75 lasted for three years or more. Within a year or two of Peterson’s entry into F1 Derek Bell, Andretti, Jackie Oliver, de Adamich, Pescarolo, Cevert, Gethin, Stommelen, both Fittipaldis, Regazzoni, Lauda, Jarier, Pace, Merzario, Scheckter, Reutemann, and Depailler also appeared.
The inimitable Murray often liked to say: “In order to win, you must first finish.” but also… in order to finish, one must actually start, and with so many good/great drivers fighting for a seat this was always going to be a problem. While Peterson was floundering in his March/Lotus sojourn in the wilderness (for which his management needs to take some responsibility) he was also joined by Hunt, Mass, Watson, Jabouille, Pryce, Stuck, Brambilla, Lafitte, Jones, and Nilsson… all fighting over, at most, a dozen decent seats.
Peterson was hired strictly as No.2 to Andretti, who had spent a year or so developing the 78/79, with which Peterson was quite content – it was an offer he had no reason to refuse. They took 1st and 2nd in the Championship, finished four races in 1-2, in best Fangio/Moss tradition, and between them took eleven poles from the sixteen races, and six fastest laps. Twice, when Andretti had a problem, Peterson was there to take victory. Lotus were on top again, after four years in the doldrums – and Peterson seemed re-set for stardom. He had even accepted (allegedly) the No.1 seat at McLaren for 1979 although, in retrospect, as McLaren would not come good again until 1982, even that would not have given Peterson the crown.
By the Italian GP only Peterson was in a position to wrest the Championship from Andretti, and that wasn’t going to happen. What did happen is that the race was started before all the cars had assembled [See video-clip above.]. Several cars in the rear half were still moving when the ‘flag fell’ and almost inevitably they were so close that a coming together at the chicane put ten cars out of the race – and Peterson into the barriers.
The Lotus caught fire. Peterson, with severely damaged legs, was trapped. Hunt, Regazzoni and Depailler managed to drag him free before he was severely burned. Fully conscious, Peterson lay in the middle of the track for twenty minutes before the medics could get through. Vittorio Brambilla had been hit on the head by a flying wheel, was unconscious, and was attended to first (as would be normal in such a situation), before both were flown to hospital.
In the way that so often happens, that causes one disaster after another, it was three hours later when the cars reassembled for the re-start. Scheckter crashed on the formation lap and hit the barrier. The spot was inspected by five drivers who insisted on repairs. When the race finally got under way, shortened because of failing light, Andretti won, in front of Villeneuve, but both were deemed to have jumped the start and penalised one minute.
Nevertheless, Andretti was still crowned Champion, to naturally subdued applause.
That night a bone-marrow embolism developed and caused Peterson to fall into a coma. He died the following morning.
While researching this article I discovered that Peterson and I shared a birthday. A few years after his death I also suffered embolic problems in hospital from leg injuries after a severe car crash, although I was also unaware this was Peterson’s problem until I came to write this. It somehow makes this article more poignant for me than usual, although it had no effect on Peterson taking 5th place in this list.
There is a statue of Peterson in his home town of Orebro and his daughter, Nina (named after Jochen Rindt’s wife), opened the Ronnie Peterson Museum there in 2008. After eighteen months it was forced to close due to lack of funding. One of the most famous Swedes of the 20thC, and their government finds itself unable to assist…?
Nigel Roebuck, in MotorSport, wrote: “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.
“Everyone loved him . . . 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.”
Colin Chapman recalled, “Ronnie 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.”
In 123 race starts Ronnie Peterson won 10 races, 16 additional podiums, 14 poles, 9 fastest laps, and twice finished 2nd in the World Championship – both times to his teammate.
to be continued, next week…
6th – Gerhard Berger
7th – Juan Pablo Montoya
8th – Giles Villeneuve
9th – David Coulthard
10th – Felipe Massa
11th – Mark Webber
12th – Tony Brooks
13th – Rene Arnoux
14th – Rubens Barrichello
15th – Dan Gurney
16th – Clay Regazzoni
17th – Didier Pironi
18th – Richie Ginther
19th – Francois Cevert
20th – Peter Collins