Portrait of F1's Gunnar Nilsson

Written by Kurt | Thursday, 14 April 2011 00:00

nilsson2Normally one would describe a Swede as blond hair, blue eyes and being as temperamental as say, a barn owl. But with Gunnar Nilsson this was slightly different; on his head whirled dark hair with eyes to match, he looked like he was from Sicily or some other mediterranean isle. Nilsson was born in Sweden though, to be precise in Helsingborg in 1948, son of real estate magnate Arvid Nilsson and Elisabeth Nilsson.

He was raised in Sweden, studied there and later in life worked there as well. Until 1972 he led quite a normal life, but then he decides to take a radical change of lifestyle, he becomes a racing driver. Gunnar's love for freedom made him a racing driver. While being a student he could live his life to full, something which he felt he could't after his exams. He felt locked in by his work at a Swedish construction firm, getting more dissatisfied by the day. Before working life he did what he liked, now his life-rythum was controlled by blue prints. Nilsson said in 1976: "I didn't know that feeling until then. My father was rich, he had a huge construction company, and could fullfill all my wishes. I never had worries."

The beginning of a career

But then in 1972 he freed himself from this organised life and bought a Formula Vee-racer. In 1973 he embarked on a full season in Formula Super Vee, racing for Jo Bonnier in a Lola T252 teamed with Formula Vee ace Freddy Kottulinsky. Kottulinsky was very important in the development of the inexperienced Nilsson. In his first race though, Nilsson finished third, and, after a string of good performances, he finished fifth in the championship. In the same year Nilsson had a go at Formula 2, making an instant impression among established competitors by finishing fourth in his debut race at the Norisring in a GRD 273.


One year later Nilsson graduated to F3; he bought a March 743 powered by a Toyota engine and travelled across europe in an Opel Blitz van together with his mechanic. With this, frankly, tiny team he entered both the German championship and a few rounds of the Swedish championship. Luckily, driving around Europe in a van was soon to be history as finishing 8th in the German Polifac F3 trophy was enough to convince Robin Herd to offer him a place in March's 1975 works team. An offer he gladly accepted: "For the first time I actually thought of being a professional racing driver, before I only toyed around with racing cars." The Swede, always running away for appointments and commitments was now driving professionally, immediately winning the first race of the season at Thruxton. Nilsson won another 5 times to take the championship ahead of teammate Alex Ribeiro with a 15 point lead.

At the end of the 1975 season Nilsson was offered a drive in Formula Atlantic. On advice of March bosses Robin Herd and Max Mosley, Nilsson accepted the Chevron(!) drive for the last 6 races of the season. It was a good decision, Nilsson won 5 out of the 6 races. The March contract changed his life completely, as he said in 1976: "I had to test and test and test. I kept on winning races but I had to work hard for it."


Even though he was signed to March in 1976 to drive formula 2, it didn't stop Colin Chapman from trying to lure him away to drive for the Lotus F1 team. Just a few weeks later the March contract was a worthless piece of paper, as Nilsson signed for the ailing Lotus team in a deal which saw Lotus driver Peterson going the opposite way. A controversial switch which was accompanied by not very good results. He wasn't bothered though: "Nobody could have forced me into Lotus, but the conversations I had with Chapman were decisive. Just like me he wanted big success. I liked his optimism, so I signed."

Mario Andretti's arrival at Lotus had a good effect on both the team and Nilsson. He learned a great deal from the experienced American. Already in his third race, the Spanish GP, Nilsson finished 3rd, with another 3rd place coming his way at the Austrian GP, after a string of retirements, being the highlights of his 1976 season. Retirements were mostly due to the Lotus 77's poor reliability record; still, Nilsson was classified 8th in the championship that year, very promising for a first full season driving Formula 1.


Nilsson however kept on smiling and returned for another season with Lotus in 1977. Nilsson had no doubt what his aim for 1977 was: "We want to beat the Ferraris, and we will beat the ferraris." Happily, Lotus gave him and Andretti the tools to do so by constructing the first properly functioning 'wing car', the revolutionary Lotus 78.

First win

Nilsson was able to claim his first win at an almost completely wet Belgium GP at Zolder. Nilsson qualified third but advanced to second place in the paddock chicane due to Andretti's error rear-ending leader John Watson. Nilsson had to avoid the collision, which enabled Jody Scheckter to take the lead. As the race progressed, and the track dried, Nilsson suffered from a vibrating wheel nut which was improperly fastened. Nilsson therefore made a stop to have a tyre change to new wet tyres and at the same time taking on a full fuel load.


A very smart move by the Lotus team, just after Nilsson's stop it began to rain again and Nilsson was able to overtake Brambilla, Scheckter, Laffite and Peterson and Mass (who spun off the track). On lap 40 Nilsson began closing in on Lauda. A breathtaking finale followed as the tension built with Nilsson creeping up to Lauda's Ferrari. Would he or would he not win his first ever grand prix? At the same time though, the dreadful weather continued and caused a few more buttock-clenching moments but then, on the 50th lap Nilsson overtook Lauda with a superb delicate move and stayed put to take the victory.

Another podium finish followed at the British GP but then there was a sudden downturn in his performances retiring from all the 7 remaining rounds of the GP season. Strange of course as he had progressed so well throughout the season.



With Peterson returning to Lotus for the 1978 season Nilsson had to find another team. All hope was not lost on a seat in F1 as the new Arrows team offered him a seat and a contract for the new season. Unfortunately for Nilsson, he had grown a cancerous tumour in the meantime, something of which he was totally unaware.

During a routine checkup with a London doctor in December 1977, Nilsson was faced with his cancer for the first time. From then on Nilsson saw a rapid decline of his health. As a result he never got the chance to drive the new Arrows car.

At the Charing Cross Hospital Nilsson was treated for his lymph node cancer by intensive radiotherapy. This combined with the tremendous perseverance of the patient resulted in a temporary succes of the treatment. Nilsson seemed more his spirited self again and even made some public appearances again. Just as he regained some self-confidence another set-back turned up. Nilsson had to be treated again. By July 1978 though, Nilsson had fought his way back again and visited his colleagues at the British Grand Prix on the Brands Hatch circuit.


He was almost inrecognisable. Since the beginning of his cancer treatment Nilsson had lost over 30 KG of weight and lost all his hair, but this didn't stop him from talking of a possible comeback. With an old BMW he had been training during the week-days, desperately trying to keep in good shape and not giving up the hope of a return. But the death of his mate Ronnie Peterson at the Italian GP subsequently had a big impact on Nilsson, the mourning at the funeral in Sweden was too much for him, he just lost the courage which had kept him alive all these months and finally collapsed.

He returned to England on his last legs supported by his fiancee Christine and mother Elisabeth. There he was once again admitted to the Charing Cross Hospital, renowned for its superior cancer treatments, for further treatment. Meanwhile Nilsson did find the strength to set up the 'Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Treatment Campaign'. In a letter to friends and other contacts Nilsson (beside asking for money for the campaign) finally gave in to his ilness: "With remorse I have to admit that I'm about to lose my battle against cancer. Even the loving treatment at Charing Cross Hospital can't change that."

In October, only weeks after Nilsson set up his cancer campaign, he passed away due to his testicular cancer. The world was shocked, Mario Andretti: "The year before he was a rising star, he had various offers, and now this." His mother, Elisabeth, with whom he was very close, phoning her after every race, was devastated. But she was a strong woman and decided to continue Nilsson's idea of a foundation, and so, about a year later she founded the 'Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation'. It would go on to become her life's work.

As a tribute to Nilsson in June 1979 there was the 'Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Trophy', a fundraiser for the foundation held at the Donington circuit. A total of 5 F1 cars turned up, also seeing a return and final appearance of the Brabham 'fan-car' and former F1 champion James Hunt.

Had he fallen ill only a year later Gunnar Nilsson might have been cured as the treatment of his type of cancer was going through radical changes at the time. Sadly Formula 1 lost a great driver and a chap who would regularly be the clown of the paddock, always spicing things up a little and being the most amusing nailbiter of the F1 fraternity..

With thanks to: Annita Thursfield (Gunnar Nilsson Cancerstiftselsen) and Michael Garbacz.