There were many reasons fans adored Ronnie Peterson, but two of the most significant were the way he drove and his personality. Forty years after his death at Monza, David Tremayne tells the story of Super Swede.
The photographs belong to the same classic genre as that wonderful Michael Tee shot of Juan Manuel Fangio in a four-wheel drift at Rouen.
A black and gold Lotus 72 dances on the edge of adhesion at 150 mph through Silverstone’s chicane-less ‘old’ Woodcote corner, back in the days when the high-wire artistes of the era were still able to demonstrate their other-worldly talent without a safety net. Ronnie did not just make the Lotus slide – he made it dance, its continued forward progress dependent upon its driver’s extraordinary talent and will rather than the laws of physics.
The handsome blonde Swede made his F1 debut in Colin Crabbe’s yellow and brown Antique Automobiles March 701 in 1970, the season in which Jochen Rindt posthumously won the World Championship in the innovative Lotus 72. And in so many ways, Ronnie was the Austrian’s natural successor. He took over not just his mantle as the king of Formula 2, but as the most spectacular man in the big league. And, like Jochen, it would be many years before he finally had machinery that did him justice.
Monza had traditionally been benign to Ronnie. In 1971, he just missed his first Grand Prix win by 0.1s. In that five-car blanket finish of those pre-chicane days, his March 711 crossed the line neck-and-neck with Peter Gethin’s BRM P160. The two were visually inseparable. “Just to make sure, I threw my hand up,” Gethin, a jockey’s son, said. “I figured that if it did ever come to a photo finish they would go for the guy who did that…”
Two years later, Ronnie won there for Lotus, as team mate Emerson Fittipaldi vainly waited for team boss Colin Chapman to signal the Swede to move over and let him pick up the breaking threads of his own diminishing World Championship chances. Ronnie repeated the victory in the same car in 1974, and in a March 761 in 1976. But in 1978, his entire weekend was a nightmare.
His relationship with Chapman, never great, had soured by 1975. He’d had enough of struggling with the ageing 72, the new-for-1974 Lotus 76 had been a flop, and at the beginning of 1976, the all-new 77 seemed no better. The previous year, there had been talk of swapping him with Tom Pryce at Shadow. Now he went back to his spiritual home, March, before a disastrous year with the six-wheeled Tyrrell in 1977.