Gunnar Nilsson

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For other people named Gunnar Nilsson, see Gunnar Nilsson (disambiguation).
Gunnar Nilsson
1976-07-10 Gunnar Nilsson im BMW CSL.jpg
Nilsson in 1976
Born (1948-11-20)20 November 1948
Died 20 October 1978(1978-10-20) (aged 29)
Formula One World Championship career
Nationality Sweden Swedish
Active years 19761977
Teams Lotus
Races 32 (31 starts)
Championships 0
Wins 1
Podiums 4
Career points 31
Pole positions 0
Fastest laps 1
First race 1976 South African Grand Prix
First win 1977 Belgian Grand Prix
Last win 1977 Belgian Grand Prix
Last race 1977 Japanese Grand Prix

Gunnar Nilsson (20 November 1948 – 20 October 1978) was a Swedish racing driver, born in Helsingborg. Before entering Formula One, he won the 1975 British Formula Three Championship.

Nilsson entered 32 Formula One Grand Prix races, qualifying for all of them. He won once, the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder while driving for Team Lotus. After losing his Lotus seat, he signed for Arrows, but was later diganosed with testicular cancer which meant he couldn't drive the car, however he did compete in three International Race of Champions (IROC) races in 1977. He had two sixth place finishes and a fifth place finish.[1]

As soon the cancer was terminal, he created the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation, he died in October 1978.

Gunnar Nilsson is buried in Pålsjö cemetery in Helsingborg, Sweden, close to his parents Arvid and Elisabeth Nilsson.

Early years[edit]

Nilsson was the second son of a Helsingborg building contractor. He attended school in his home town and went on the serve as a submarine radio officer in the Swedish Navy. After leaving the navy, studied engineering for four years at the Stockholms universitet and gained a degree. It was hoped he would follow the family business, but eight months working as a supervisor in the construction industry; he left to start his own business.[2]

Although his background and training was in construction, this held no attraction to the young Swede. Together with his associate, Dan Molim they aimed to establish a transport business. This proved to be very successful and Nilsson continued to be a partner in the company, even when he became a full-time driver. He that seen the exploits of follow Swedes; Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell and knew he wanted to be racing driver.[3]

Junior Formulas[edit]

Nilsson began racing in national events in Sweden, in the late 1960s. It was 1972, when he acquired a RPB Formula Vee car set forth to learn the trade. This first season in Formula Vees, saw he race just ten times, and included one race win at Mantorp Park. At the age of 26, he decided to try his hand and raced in Formula Super Vee series in 1973, where end graduated with Ecurie Bonner. Driving a Lola T252 alongside his team-mate Freddy Kottulinsky, he would learn many valuable lessons from this seasoned campaigner. In his first race though, Nilsson finished third, and after a string of good performances, he fininshed fifth in the championship. He was clearly good as he stepped up to Formula Two, and promptly finished fourth in the Norisring-Trophäe, at the Norisring, in a Team Pierre Robert entered GRD-Ford 273, mainly due to misfortunes of others. One of these lessons learnt was that if he would to race at the top and with the best, his next step would be in Formula Three. It was while racing at Nürburgring that he was approached by Västkust-Stugan, who offered sponsorship for 1974.[4][5][6][7]

Formula Three/Formula Atlantic[edit]

With Västkust-Stugan help, a March 743 was acquired along with a Toyota engine. This enable Nilsson to contest the Polifac Formula Three Championship. The results were as good as expected. He did score some second places, but victories and the season was punctuated by many spins and minor accidents. Nilsson did not go unnoticed and towards the middle of the season, he was given a drive with Team Västkuststugan, in their F2 March-BMW 732. Later in the season, he got another opportunity with Brian Lewis Racing, in their F2 March-BMW 732, where he did scored a fourth place in the second heat of the Preis von Baden-Württemberg und Hessen, at Hockenheim. This is strong form in the German Formula Three series earned him a works March ride in the British series in 1975.[8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

With the advantage of adequate pre-season testing and growing self-confidence, Nilsson scored his first F3 win in the season-opener at Thruxton. This was the catalyst for run of success that would see him win the B.A.R.C. BP Super Visco British F3 Championship, and included wins at Aintree, Ring Knutstorp, Snetterton and Silverstone. In winning the F3 support race at the British Grand Prix meeting, part from winning the FOCA Trophy, he attracted the attention of Ted Moore of Rapid Movements Ltd., who signed Nilsson to race their Formula Atlantic Chevron. Gunnar had interspersed his success with some spectacular accidents, but with Ted Moore, he made no mistakes. Following a fourth place in his first Atlantic race, he would win the next five, four from pole position.[15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26]

For 1976, Nilsson was going to return to Formula Two, driving for works the March-BMW in Formula Two, but after just one Grand Prix for Lotus, Nilsson’s fellow countryman, Peterson, decided he wanted to drive for March in Formula One. As part of this deal, March offered Nilsson to Lotus, where he joined Bob Evans, another new signing in the team to help develop their new car, Lotus 77. Prior to this, Nilsson had tested Formula One power with Frank Williams Racing Cars at Goodwood.[27][28][29]

Grand Prix years[edit]

In all his Grands Prix, Nilsson only drove for Colin Chapman and his Team Lotus. He got his chance with the famous marque when Jacky Ickx and Ronnie Peterson abandoned ship when the Lotus 76 proved a disastrous replacement for the legendary Lotus 72. The replacement car for 1976, Lotus 77 was promising, meanwhile the team was undergoing big change at the time and Mario Andretti soon replace Evans, the team was soon back on the way up, with Nilsson taking advantage of Andretti’s experience.[30][31][32][33]

Following Peterson departure, Nilsson was thrown in at the deep end – racing the Lotus-Cosworth 77 in the South African Grand Prix. His debut was not an auspicious one; he qualified last of 25 drivers, in what was acknowledged to bad car, and which had caught fire during practice. The next was the non-championship, Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. This was more promising: he started from the second row of the grid and stormed into an immediate lead. However, his race only lasted to lap six, when the Cosworth DFV shed a plug lead. Before the other English non-championship race, the BRDC International Trophy, there was the small matter of the US GP West, around the street of Long Beach, California. He had survived a huge first turn accident, only for his rear suspension to break, half a lap later, pitching him into the wall at 160 mph.[34][35][36]

Nilsson in his Lotus 77, during the 1976 British Grand Prix

His debut season saw a podium finish at only his third Grand Prix, the Gran Premio de España. He also scored another impressive third place in the Grand Prix von Österreich, fifth in Germany and sixth in Japan, but the rest of the season was marred by accidents – in Belgium, Sweden, and Holland – and by car failures – in Monaco, France, England, and at Watkins Glen.[37][38][39]

For 1977, Lotus retained Nilsson alongside with Andretti, and the pair worked on developing the new ground-effect Lotus 78. After a slow start to the season, as Andretti took over his car for the Argentine Grand Prix, Nilsson really got going at Jarama with a 5th place. Two races later, he took a magnificent win at the rain-soaked Zolder. As the race progressed, and the track dried, Nilsson suffered from a vibrating wheel nut, therefore he made a stop to have a tyre change. On these new tyres, he drove around the outside of Niki Lauda’s Ferrari with 20 laps to go, to take the lead and stayed ahead to take victory. With further good results at Dijon-Prenois (4th) and Silverstone (3rd) saw Nilsson climb the Championship standings. Come the Autumn, his performance was blighted by poor qualifying efforts and there was a sudden downturn in his performances, retiring from all the last seven rounds of the Grand Prix season.[40][41][42][43][44][45]

His last appearance in a Formula One car, was at Fuji, where he drove an Imperial-liveried Lotus 78. Nilsson’s last race was a lacklustre performance. Towards the end of the season, Nilsson’s relationship with Chapman deteriorated to some extent, and with Peterson having signed to return to Team Lotus, he was on the way out at Lotus. By now, he was already fighting the symptoms of cancer. He would finish the season, in eighth place with a total of twenty points. He might have scored more points but a whole catalogue of accidents.[46][47]

Nilsson signed to race for Arrows in 1978, in their debut season, but as it happened he did not have the health required to drive the car, and was forced to stand down before the first race. Rolf Stommelen was signed to replace him instead. As Nilsson got weaker, Andretti and Peterson race to the World Championship.[48][49][50]

Away from F1[edit]

Nilsson and Peterson sharing a BMW 3.5 CSL in the Silverstone 6 Hours

Nilsson was versatile; having driven a BMW saloon in both the World Championship for Makes and European Touring Car Championship in 1976 and 1977. For 1977, he joined Dieter Quester in a BMW-Alpina to contest a limited-numbered of races, taking the BMW 3.0 CSL to victory at Salzburgring and Nürburgring.[51]

Nilsson briefly sampled American style oval in the International Race of Champions series, scoring a fifth at Michigan in September 1977. A month later, he followed this with two sixth places at Riverside, and expressed plenty of enthusiasm for this form of racing.[52][53]

Cancer[edit]

It was in December 1977, during a routine check-up with a London doctor when Nilsson was faced with the news he had cancer. From then on, he saw a rapid decline in his health. At the Charing Cross Hospital, London, Nilsson was treated for his lymph node cancer by intensive radiotherapy. By July 1978, he was almost unrecognisable, having lost over 30 kg in weight and all his hair, but he still talked of a possible comeback.[54]

After resigning from Arrows, he dedicated his remaining months on running the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation, linked to Charing Cross Hospital, declining pain-killing drugs so he could work as long as possible. His death came just five weeks after that of fellow Swede, rival and friend, Ronnie Peterson was killed in a crash at Monza. Peterson death had a big impact on Nilsson. Whilst in Sweden, mourning at his friend’s funeral, it was too much for him, he lost the courage which kept him alive all for these months and finally collapsed.[55][56][57]

On 20 October 1978, he died due to his testicular cancer.

Nilsson’s was a career cut short, not a by tragic racing accident, as was the case with so many drivers, but to testicular cancer, at the age of 29. "His rare talent had taken him swiftly to the top as No.2 to Mario Andretti," wrote the Times, "[and] he was perhaps the most naturally gifted of the new generation of grands prix drivers".[58]

Racing record[edit]

Career highlights[edit]

Season Series Position Team Car
1973 Formel Super Vau GTX Championship [59][60] 6th Ecuire Bonnier Lola-Volkswagen T252
Formel Super Vau GTX Gold Pokal [61][62] 6th Ecuire Bonnier Lola-Volkswagen T252
European Championship from Formula 2 Drivers [63][64] 13th Team Pierre Robert GRD-Ford 273
1974 Polifac Formel 3 Trophy [65][66] 8th Riene Wisell Racing Canon March-Toyota 743
Svenska Mästerskapet [67] 12th Riene Wisell Racing Canon March-Toyota 743
1975 B.A.R.C. BP Super Visco British Formula Three Championship [68][69] 1st March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
MCD/Southern Organs British Formula Atlantic Championship [70][71] 2nd Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
Svenska Mästerskapet [72][73] 5th March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
John Player British Formula Atlantic Series [74][75] 12th Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
1976 FIA Formula One World Championship [76][77] 10th John Player Team Lotus Lotus-Ford 77
European Touring Car Championship [78][79] 10th Luigi Racing BMW 3.0 CSL
1977 FIA Formula One World Championship [80][81] 8th John Player Team Lotus Lotus-Ford 78
European Touring Car Championship [82][83] 11th BMW-Alpina BMW 3.0 CSL
1977-78 International Race of Champions [84][85] 10th Chevrolet Camaro

International Race Victories[edit]

Date Event Circuit Entrant
co-driver
Car – Engine
1975
31/03/75 Thruxton – F3 [86][87] England Thruxton March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
19/04/75 Blakeford Trophy [88] England Aintree March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
27/04/75 Hyllingeloppet [89] Sweden Ring Knutstorp March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
26/05/75 Thruxton – F3 [90][91] England Thruxton March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
15/06/75 Snetterton – F3 [92][93] England Snetterton March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
19/07/75 TOCA Trophy [94][95] England Silverstone March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
14/09/75 Brands Hatch - FAtlantic [96] England Brands Hatch Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
21/09/75 Brands Hatch - FAtlantic [97] England Brands Hatch Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
28/09/75 Silverstone – F3 [98][99] England Silverstone March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
04/10/75 Oulton Park - FAtlantic [100] England Oulton Park Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
12/10/75 Thruxton - FAtlantic [101] England Thruxton Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
19/10/75 Brands Hatch - FAtlantic [102] England Brands Hatch Rapid Movements Ltd.-Ted Moore Chevron-Ford B29
15/11/75 B.A.R.C. Forward Trust BBC-TV Trophy [103][104] England Thruxton March Engineering Ltd. March-Toyota 753
1976
27/06/76 1000 Martha / Österreichring 6 hours [105][106] Austria Österreichring Team Schnitzer
Austria Dieter Quester
BMW 3.5 CSL
11/07/76 Grosser Preis der Touenwagen [107][108] West Germany Nürburgring Luigi Racing
Belgium Hughes de Fierlant
Belgium Claude De Wael
BMW 3.0 CSL
06/11/76 Kyalami 1000 km [109][110] South Africa Kyalami BMW Motorsport/Faltz-Alpina
West Germany Harald Grohs
South Africa Jody Scheckter
BMW 3.0 CSL
1977
24/04/77 Austria-Trophäe [111][112] Austria Salzburgring BMW-Alpina
Austria Dieter Quester
BMW 3.0 CSL
05/06/77 Belgium Grand Prix [113][114] Belgium Zolder John Player Team Lotus Lotus-Ford 78
10/07/77 Grosser Preis der Touenwagen [115][116] West Germany Nürburgring BMW-Alpina
Austria Dieter Quester
BMW 3.0 CSL

Complete Formula One World Championship results[edit]

(key) (Races in italics indicate fastest lap)

Year Entrant Chassis Engine 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 WDC Points
1976 John Player Team Lotus Lotus 77 Cosworth V8 BRA
RSA
Ret
USW
Ret
ESP
3
BEL
Ret
MON
Ret
SWE
Ret
FRA
Ret
GBR
Ret
GER
5
AUT
3
NED
Ret
ITA
13
CAN
12
USA
Ret
JPN
6
10th 11
1977 John Player Team Lotus Lotus 78 Cosworth V8 ARG
DNS
BRA
5
RSA
12
USW
8
ESP
5
MON
Ret
BEL
1
SWE
19
FRA
4
GBR
3
GER
Ret
AUT
Ret
NED
Ret
ITA
Ret
USA
Ret
CAN
Ret
JPN
Ret
8th 20

Formula One non-championship results[edit]

(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position) (Races in italics indicate fastest lap)

Year Entrant Chassis Engine 1 2
1976 John Player Team Lotus Lotus 77 Cosworth V8 ROC
8
INT
6

Complete European Formula Two Championship results[edit]

(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)

Year Entrant Chassis Engine 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 Pos Pts
1973 Team Pierre Robert GRD 273 Ford MAL
HOC
THR
NUR
PAU
KIN
NIV
HOC
ROU
MON
MAN
KAR
ENN
SAL
NOR
4
ALB
VAL
12th 6
1974 Team Västkuststugan March 732 BMW MON
HOC
PAU
SAL
HOC
MUG
KAR
Ret
ENN
VAL
NC 0
Brian Lewis Racing March 732 BMW HOC
15

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  114. ^ "GP Belgium". Racingsportscars.com. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  115. ^ "1977 ETCC - round 6". Touringcarracing.net. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  116. ^ "GP Nürburgring". Racingsportscars.com. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Fredrik af Petersens. The Viking Drivers: Gunnar Nilsson and Ronnie Peteron. William Kimber & Co Ltd. ISBN 978-0718303662.

External links[edit]

Sporting positions
Preceded by
Brian Henton
British Formula Three Championship
BARC Series Champion

1975
Succeeded by
Rupert Keegan