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Gunnar Nilsson

Full Name:
Gunnar Axel Arvid Nilsson
20th November 1948
Helsingborg, Scania
20th October 1978 (Aged 29)
Hammersmith, London (GB), cancer
Most recent race (in database):

Sweden was gripped by Formula 1 fever during the mid 1970s – heady on the success enjoyed by the original "SuperSwede" Ronnie Peterson. When countryman Gunnar Nilsson graduated to racing’s elite in 1976 a golden age seemed assured. But less than three seasons later both were lost to the sport and their country.

Meteoric rise through the ranks

Already 24 years old, Nilsson began in Super Vee during 1973 with Freddy Kottulinsky as his mentor. His rise was rapid and he even made his Formula 2 debut that year when his GRD 273-Ford was fourth at the Norisring. German Formula 3 in 1974 led to a British series ride a year later with March. He won first time out and was crowned 1975 British F3 Champion. Nilsson’s Chevron B29 also won the last five British Formula Atlantic races and he ended the year as one of racing’s most talked about prospects.

Formula 1 with Lotus

So when Peterson abandoned a troubled Team Lotus a race into the 1976 F1 season, it was Nilsson who replaced his countryman. A podium finish in his third race in Spain made the establishment take notice and he repeated that feat in Austria. He won the World Sportscar Championship race at the Osterreichring for BMW and "SuperSwede II" was born.

Mario Andretti’s team-mate again in 1977, they were now armed with the revolutionary Lotus 78 wing car. When Andretti crashed out on the wet opening lap at Zolder, Nilsson passed Niki Lauda’s Ferrari to win the Belgian Grand Prix and score his maiden F1 victory. With Andretti’s confirmed number one status at Lotus for 1978, Nilsson felt it was time to be a team leader so he signed for the new Arrows concern. Tragically, he never raced again.

Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation

Diagnosed with cancer, he fought the disease with the determination and fortitude that had marked his meteoric rise through motor racing’s formulae. He appeared bald from treatment at the 1978 British GP, at ease with his friend Peterson and others in the F1 paddock.

Peterson died after crashing at the start of that year’s Italian GP and barely a month later Nilsson was also gone – shortly before his 30th birthday. Aided by his mother Elizabeth, he set up the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation from his deathbed in London’s Charring Cross Hospital. The fact that Juan Manuel Fangio was among the stars to compete in a race meeting at Donington Park in aid of the cause illustrated the esteem in which Nilsson was held.

Championship seasons