The Sublime Swede
On June 5th 1977, the emerging Swedish star driver – Gunnar Nilsson – won his one and only race at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in a Lotus-Cosworth.
Nilsson began racing in Swedish national series events in 1968, but relocated to England in 1974 and landed a seat in a privately entered March car in Formula 3.
The 26 year old Swede impressed sufficiently to be offered the works March F3 drive in 1975. He promptly won 8 races that year and claimed the title of British Formula 3 champion.
March promoted Gunnar to their Formula 2 car, however, Ronnie Peterson wished to switch from team Lotus to March. So as an act of appeasement, March offered Nilsson an opportunity to join Team Lotus and help develop the now iconic Lotus 77 car.
Nilsson teamed up with another new recruit for Team Lotus – Bob Evans – though he was replaced after just three races when Mario Andretti became available following Parnelli’s decision to suspend its F1 programme.
Andretti and Neilson worked together developing the Lotus 77 which was nicknamed, “the Adjustacar”. Chapman was pioneering a suspension system designed around a series of rocker arms instead of the usual set up of wishbones.
The idea was that the suspension could be set up for the specific characteristics of each track by changing the ride height, and it worked but only to a fashion.
The drawback of the car was that with almost an infinite number of adjustments possible, the optimum setting was rarely discovered.
Alain Prost is famous for calling his Ferrari a ‘truck’ and getting sacked by Enzo Ferrari. Mario Andretti did not like the Lotus 77 saying it lacked straight line speed and at times reported the steering and ride were ‘vague and unresponsive’.
He named the car ‘the dog’, but retained his job with Chapman.
Despite having competed in Formula One for eight years, Andretti had scored just one win four years earlier in South Africa. He and Nilsson developed ‘the dog’ sufficiently well during 1976, for Mario to claim the win at the final race of the season.
This was the 1976 GP at Mount Fuji, where James Hunt piped Niki Lauda to the drivers’ title in torrential rain conditions.
Lotus and their ‘dog’ were fourth in the 1976 constructors’ championship and Nilsson along with Andretti were retained by Chapman for 1977. This was the year of the ground breaking Lotus 78 was introduced. The car that introduced ‘ground effect’ into motorsport.
The 1977 Belgium GP in Zolder was the seventh event of the year.
Mario Andretti had achieved pole position, from John Watson and Nilsson was P3 on the grid. On race day, the circuit was wet from rain earlier in the day and from the off John Watson took the lead at the first corner.
The resulting lap one battle between Watson and Andretti saw them come together when Andretti ran into the back off Watson. Both cars spun off the track.
A charging Jody Scheckter then took the lead with Nilsson behind him and the circuit began to dry.
The drivers who pitted early to change their tyres benefitted greatly. This saw Niki Lauda take the lead, behind him was Jochen Mass and Nilsson found himself back in P8.
A stellar drive with impressive passing moves saw Gunnar quickly regain his third place
Mass spun out and Nilsson set about chasing down championship leader Niki Lauda in his Ferrari. The Swede caught and passed Lauda with an impressive move and went on to win the race by almost 15 seconds.
Nilsson’s win saw Team Lotus jump Wolff Ford into second place in the constructors’ championship, though they still trailed the might of Maranello by 13 points.
During the final 7 races of that year, Nilsson retired 7 times and Andretti 4 times, yet Team Lotus secured second in the constructors’ championship, after three years in the doldrums finishing 4th, 7th and 4th.
This era in Formula One saw multiple driver deaths each year, and 1977 was to be Gunnar Nilsson’s last in Formula One.
Towards the end of the year, Gunnar Nilsson was diagnosed with cancer and due to his illness Chapman let him go for the following season. He was offered a drive by the new Arrows team for 1978, but as the winter progressed his condition worsened and he was unfit to drive by the start of the racing season.
In 1978 Andretti and Peterson battled for the World Championship in their Lotuses, but Nilsson grew weaker and weaker as the months progressed.
He began work on setting up the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Research fund and was devastated in September that year when countryman Ronnie Peterson was killed in a crash at Monza.
Gunnar Nilsson died five weeks later.