HERO’s on HERO
‘SuperSwede’ Ronnie Peterson’s on-the-limit sideways style made him the hero of his homeland – and the inspiration for his young countryman, the Sauber racer Marcus Ericsson
Ronnie Peterson was, without doubt, one of the most outstanding racing drivers of the 1970s, nishing as runner-up twice in the Formula 1 world championship. And, of course, like me, he was Swedish. He died young, at the age of 34, after an accident on the rst lap of the Italian Grand Prix in 1978. What happened that day set in motion a lot of the safety protocols that we now take for granted in Formula 1.
Obviously I’m far too young to have seen him race in person. But, for me, Ronnie Peterson is a legend. He’s the biggest racing hero in Sweden and, even today, people still know his name. In fact his reputation extends way beyond the borders of Sweden. Ask pretty much anyone in the sport about Ronnie and they’ll rank him as one of the greats, even though he was never the world champion. What they liked about him, and what they remember him for, was his speed and his spectacular driving style. Whenever you read an interview with someone who worked with him, like Lotus’s Colin Chapman, or drove against him, like Jackie Stewart, they always say that while he maybe wasn’t the right person to develop a bad car into a good one, he could get into pretty much any car and drive it on the limit – usually sideways.
He didn’t always have the best cars, but he drove a lot of interesting ones – the red March with the ‘tea tray’ front wing, the six-wheeled Tyrrell, and he had two stints with Lotus when they were at their most creative. The six-wheeler was certainly a funny-looking car; Jody Scheckter won the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix in it and nished third in the world championship, but by the time Ronnie got his hands on it for 1977, it had lost its competitive edge.
Whatever car he had, it was always the way he drove that endeared him to the fans. Even in an era when it was easier to go sideways – on cross-ply tyres you would always have been adjusting the car to stop
the back overtaking the front – he was really sideways; it was spectacular. Drivers behind him would think he’d lost it, but he’d still be in control. You can see it in action photographs; he’s always a bit wider than the guy following.
Out of the car, I’m told he was a nice, honest, loyal guy as well, with great integrity. He might have been a little wild out on track, but he never crashed into anyone deliberately. When he was at Lotus the second time, it was in his contract that he was number two to Mario Andretti. Even though he was often quicker than Andretti he didn’t take points away from him in the races.
In those days, F1 drivers didn’t just race in F1; Ronnie raced in Formula 2 and sportscars as well, sometimes even rallies. He did Rally Sweden in a Porsche 911 once. It must have been a great time, driving different cars in different countries every weekend. If you could do that now, you’d learn so much more. Even though we’ve got a long and busy season now in F1, with 20 races a year, I wouldn’t mind putting on a few other races in between. Bring it on!
When you look back at old photographs, you can tell that the racing scene in Ronnie’s day, in and around the paddock, was just a bit more chilled out. There weren’t so many security gates and you worked on your car wherever there was a spare space, even if it was under a tree. The drivers hung out with each other a bit more. If I’d been around back then, I’d denitely have had sideburns!
I come from the same area as him, so to follow in his footsteps is something special. There’s a statue of him in his home town of Örebro, which is where I now live – I was born in Kumla, which is only 20km away – and my house is about ve minutes’ walk from the statue. I’m often asked by magazines and newspapers to do photoshoots there, and you see plenty of tourists coming to look at it. I see his daughter Nina a couple of times a year as well. He’s still a big name in that area and, for me, he’s right up there with other Swedish sports legends such as Ingemar Stenmark and Björn Borg – he’s denitely in the top ve.
I did a tribute at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2014, wearing a replica helmet in Ronnie’s colours to mark the 40th anniversary of his win at Monaco in the Lotus 72. That was very cool. The helmet design was proper. I liked that. It went down really well back home, and also with the older people in the paddock who still remember him fondly. Above all, Ronnie was famous and highly regarded because he was super-fast. In my mind, there’s no doubt that if he hadn’t died after his accident, he would eventually have become world champion.
Certainly it’s because of him that F1 became such a major sport in Sweden, and I think he did a lot to advance the cause of motorsport there. He made it possible for other people to come through after him. So when people hear that I’m Swedish, and they mention Ronnie, even just to be associated with him is a big honour for me.
“Out of the car, I’m told Ronnie was a nice, honest, loyal guy as well, with great integrity. It was in his contract that he was number two to Mario Andretti. Even though he was often quicker than Andretti he didn’t take points away from him in the races”