Gunnar Nilsson

There is a cruel irony in the life of Gunnar Nilsson. He raced at a time when Formula 1 was still highly dangerous but his life was cut short not by a racing accident but by cancer.

Born in Helsingborg, on Sweden's west coast in 1948, Nilsson began racing in national events in the late 1960s. At the age of 26 he decided to try his hand in Britain and raced in Formula Super Vee in 1974. He returned with a private March to race in the British Formula 3 series and this led to the offer of a works March drive in Formula 3 in 1975. He ended the year with eight wins and the title of British Formula 3 Champion.

He was going to drive for March in Formula 2 in 1976 but, after starting the year with Team Lotus, Nilsson's fellow-countryman (and rival) Ronnie Peterson decided that he wanted to drive for March instead. As part of the deal March offered Nilsson to Lotus and he joined Bob Evans, another new signing in the team to develop the new Lotus 77. The team was undergoing big change at the time and Mario Andretti soon replaced Evans when Parnelli decided to suspend its F1 activities. Together Andretti and Nilsson developed the 77 into a competitive machine and at the end of the year Andretti gave the team a victory at the dramatic World Championship showdown at Mount Fuji. Nilsson scored 11 points that year with impressive third places in Spain and Austria.

For 1977 he was retained alongside Andretti and work began to develop the new ground-effect Lotus 78. It was not easy but by the midseason the cars were competitive and in Belgium Nilsson won his first Grand Prix victory at a race-soaked Zolder, driving around the outside of Niki Lauda's Ferrari with 20 laps to go.

Towards the end of the year Nilsson was diagnosed with cancer. He signed for the new Arrows team that winter but his condition worsened and eventually he had to admit that that he would not be able to drive in 1978. That summer, as Andretti and Peterson raced to the World Championship in their Lotuses, Nilsson grew weaker and weaker. He started work on setting up the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Research fund and grieved in September when Peterson was killed in a crash at Monza. Nilsson died five weeks later.