It’s the very essence of storytelling, and finds its origins steeped in Greek Tragedy. A hero rises, enters a New World where he must overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, and ultimately perishes in the pursuit, becoming immortal in the process. In today’s world of remote warfare and a collective aversion to risk, examples of the classic hero’s struggle are becoming fewer and further between. So it is that we cling to our few remaining blood sports, enthralled by the temerity of our athletes to dance on the precipice, and laugh in the face of the potential catastrophe. And perhaps no sporting endeavor has given us more reasons to cheer and more instances to mourn as the loss of some of F1’s legends.
Today, one can tune in on any given Sunday, and see F1 drivers survive horrific accidents with nary a scratch. We can attribute this to the incredible materials and advanced designs used in modern race cars. But such was not always the case. Before carbon fiber and energy absorbent crash barriers was an age of rudimentary and sometimes non-existent safety precautions, and shockingly dangerous vehicles. Between 1950 and 1994, forty-eight grand prix drivers died behind the wheel of their mechanized steeds, yielding an average of one death for every eleven races run. It was a fate that did not discriminate based on talent, as many a World Champion, and indeed some of the sport’s all-time greats met their end in twisted metal and flaming petrol. Titans like Ayrton Senna, Jochen Rindt and Jim Clark rank among the list, and thus live on in our hearts and memories. But what of those who perished before achieving glory? Are they to be forgotten as a footnote in motor racing history? Sadly, this is often the case. But there is a select group whose stories cry out to be told, for they embody the tale of the classic tragic hero, cut down just as great fortune was to be delivered upon them.
Wolfgang von Trips
Wolfgang Alexander Albert Eduard Maximilian ReichsgrafBerghe von Trips’ demise at Monza during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix stands as one of Formula 1’s darkest hours, for it not only saw the death of a dashing and popular driver on the verge of clinching the World Championship, but also that of many spectators in the stands. To this day, the incident represents the greatest loss of life in a Formula 1 event.
Born into a noble Rhineland family on May 4th, 1928 in Cologne, Germany, Wolfgang, or Wölfchen (little wolf) as his parents called him, was attracted to cars and racing at a young age. At seven, his parents took him to see the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, and von Trips immediately identified with, and began to idolize the great German driver, Bernd Rosemeyer. He later said that he made up his mind then and there to one day become the world’s greatest German driver.
At roughly the same time, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were taking control of the nation, and had set about indoctrinating its youth in fascism. Von Trips was not obliged to join the Hitler Jugend, as a bout of childhood meningitis left him with a bad ear, and a palsy of the face. While his friends partook in compulsory youth programs, von Trips was left with plenty of time to learn about motor racing, and, while still in school, enter local races under the pseudonym, Axel Linther. His true identity became known nonetheless, and von Trips quickly became the fascination of thousands of German racing fans, who cheered the young aristocrat on. His fame spread beyond the borders of his home country when he taught Spanish King Juan Carlos how to drive, this in spite of the fact that he held no driver’s license himself. Before long, von Trips found himself in demand as a promotional ambassador, and the young count regularly touted car accessories and agricultural products as well as writing car reviews for one of Germany’s newspapers.
In 1956, von Trips ascended to the pinnacle of Motorsport when Enzo Ferrari chose him to drive one of his fabled Formula 1 race cars. Wolfgang initially had a tough time of it, with his incredible speed being tempered by his propensity to crash out as often as he finished. In 1959, ilCommendatore suspended him for most of the season, as the frequency of the accidents had become too much. The punishment worked to calm the German, and from that point on, von Trips drove with speed and precision. In spite of all this, von Trips won the hearts of grand prix fans, and the favor of Enzo Ferrari, who came to admire the Teuton’s tenacity behind the wheel.
1961 was shaping up to be a banner year for the Ferrari team. The squad had produced the classic Tipo 156 “Shark Nose,” a car of gorgeous, torpedo-shaped design coupled with a 1.5L V6 that delivered its power smoothly owing to its 120º bank. Added to this technical triumph was the prodigious driving team of von Trips and American Phil Hill.
The season started off on the right foot at Monaco, with Hill and von Trips bringing the Cavallinos home in 3rd and 4th. The Grand Prix of the Netherlands was next, with von Trips winning the race ahead of his teammate. A 1-2 finish was repeated at the next race at Spa, this time with Hill taking the honors, and von Trips coming in second. This set the tone for the season, with the two Ferrari drivers regularly battling one another for podium finishes.
Going in to the penultimate race at Monza, von Trips needed only to finish 3rd to clinch the World Driver’s Championship. He secured pole position for the race with a mighty qualifying lap, much to the delight of the Tifosi in attendance. At the start of the race, von Trips got away cleanly with Jim Clark in hot pursuit in his Lotus. The Italian fans could practically taste the win and the championship, when on lap 10 at the approach to the Parabolica corner, the unthinkable happened.
Jim Clarke described it in his way:
“Von Trips and I were racing along the straightaway and were nearing one of the banked curves, the one on the southern end. We were about 100 meters from the beginning of the curve. Von Trips was running close to the inside of the track. I was closely following him, keeping near the outside. At one point von Trips shifted sideways so that my front wheels collided with his back wheels. It was the fatal moment.”
Footage and photos of the incident suggest that von Trips was killed instantly, as his Ferrari careened into a guardrail which struck the German driver in the head and upper chest. His car penetrated the barrier and went into the crowd at high speed, killing 15 spectators before it flipped over several times and landed back on the racetrack. Wolfgang Von Trips was pronounced dead on the scene. Later on that evening, the plane that he was scheduled to return home on crashed, killing everyone on board as if fate had had a backup plan.
It had all been within sight. The winner’s wreath. The champagne. The Championship awarded and the parties stretching late into the Italian night. But it was all taken away in a heartbeat, as was the pride of Germany: one Wolfgang von Trips.
Some men are born to a great life, and others to a life that was great. Piers Courage had both. The oldest son and heir to the Courage Brewing dynasty in England, Piers spent his formative years growing up in mansions and attending Eton College, one of England’s most hallowed boarding schools. It was there that Courage met Charles Lucas, a fellow student and avid racing fan. Lucas’ enthusiasm for all things fast infected Courage, and soon the two were regularly off together to watch races at Silverstone.
Keenly aware of what sort of vocation was expected of a man of his inbred stature, Courage dutifully attempted to settle into a career in accounting, but soon realized that he was not cut out for board meetings and balance sheets. Perhaps sensing where his son’s true interests lay, Piers’ father purchased him a Lotus 7 sports car in kit form in 1961. Courage and some friends worked dutifully for a year to put the car together, and in the spring of 1962, he entered his first race at Brands Hatch. In spite of showing a great yearning to succeed, this and other outings were rewarded with a notable dearth of success, marked by Piers’ proclivity of spinning and going off track.
Undeterred, Courage self-financed a move to European Formula 3, where more under achievement ensued. Despite this, Courage and his racing buddies managed to have a grand time, holing up in a notorious motor racing flat in London with future racing luminaries such as Frank Williams. Hijinks were the norm, like the time that Frank Williams was bet that he wouldn’t streak nude down the street. Never one to shirk off a challenge, Williams obliged, only to discover that his friends had timed the dare to coincide with when the congregation of an adjacent church was letting out.
In 1965, Courage’s school friend Charlie Lucas fielded his own Formula 3 race team, providing cars for himself, Courage and another driver. It was here that Piers got his first taste of success, winning four races. His efforts did not go unnoticed, and Courage was hired by Lotus chief, Colin Chapman, to drive in his nascent Formula 3 team. Four more wins would result, inflating both Piers’ stock and poise. As a result, the brewing heir found himself with a Formula 1 seat at BRM for 1967. But Courage’s self-confidence had perhaps become too full. Though few would argue that Courage was the most aptly-surnamed man to ever race a car, more often than not observers of the time would see the Piers Courage of old – a driver who was as likely to shunt as he was to impress.
In 1969, Courage was offered a drive in the Gold Leaf Team Lotus after Jim Clark’s untimely death, but opted instead to drive for his old friend Frank Williams’ new Formula 1 team. Although their first full season together in 1969 yielded some positive results, the next season proved to be a let down. Driving the overweight and underpowered De Tomaso that resulted from a business partnership between the Italian firm and Frank Williams, Courage was hard-pressed to deliver results. This did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm, and he delivered aggressive, world champion caliber performances despite his recalcitrant car. People began talking about Courage in the same hushed tones as Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt, and the future seemed bright. That is, until the Grand Prix circus arrived at Zandvoort in late June for the Dutch Grand Prix.
Courage qualified ninth around the sandy seaside circuit, and during the race was running midfield. On the 22nd lap, the front suspension of his car broke on the bump just before the high-speed Tunnel Oost corner, causing the De Tomaso to go straight on instead of negotiating the turn. The car careened into a dune and disintegrated, with the engine and fuel cell breaking loose from the chassis. The car burst into flames. Highly inflammable magnesium parts had been fitted extensively throughout the De Tomaso’s chassis and suspension in a mid-season effort to lighten the car, and when they ignited, a veritable conflagration ensued. It took an hour to extinguish the flames, and when officials were able to examine the wreckage, it was determined that one of the front wheels had broken off and struck Piers in the head, killing him instantly and sparing him from being burned alive.
Piers Courage left behind a widow and a young son. His friends remembered him as a gregarious, worldly and funny man, who enjoyed many interests outside his chosen profession. The racing world mourned his passing with a great outpouring of emotion. They would never forget that horrible June day. The day that courage died.
As the pinnacle of motor sport, Formula 1 has always attracted the most preternaturally talented drivers into its orbit. It also has never suffered from a lack of handsome and dashing figures filling the cockpits of the screaming, four-wheeled bullets. But rarely has the sport seen a critical mass of speed and charisma manifest in a single personage like it did with Francois Cevert.
Albert Francois Cevert Goldenberg was born on the 25th of February, 1944 in Paris, France. Cevert’s father, Charles Goldenberg, was a Jewish member of the French Resistance, and to protect his family from the Nazis, he had his family registered under his wife’s non-Semitic maiden name instead of his.
Francois began his Motorsport career at age 16 on two wheels instead of four, when he started racing friends on his mother’s Vespa. Longing for more speed and power than the little scooter could provide, Cevert bought a 125cc Moroni, but quickly found that that bike could not keep up with his abilities either. At 19 he bought his first piece of serious racing hardware, a Norton café bike. His career as a two-wheeled racer would prove to be ephemeral, though. After competing in one event at Montlhery, he was obliged to do his National Service. Upon returning to civilian life, Cevert’s interests had changed to cars.
In 1966, Cevert attended the prestigious Winfield Racing School at Circuit Magny-Cours, where the Volant Shell scholarship and an Alpine Formula 3 car were the prize for the winner of the competition held at the end of the course. Against prodigious odds, Cevert won, beating out such future racing luminaries as Patrick Depallier.
The tall, blue-eyed and handsome Cevert launched himself on an unsuspecting French Formula 3 series in his newly won racer. Though quick, he hadn’t the money or experience to set up his somewhat outdated F3 car. He nonetheless begged, borrowed and once even stole (a tire to replace a flat one on his race car trailer), and found a way to trudge from event to event. Despite his considerable efforts, results were few and far between. Adding to Francois’ frustration was the fact that he was now estranged from his parents, who had disapproved of his chosen vocation.
Cevert nonetheless persevered, and in 1968 he sold the Alpine, and with the money from the sale combined some sponsorship funds he managed to scare up, purchased a state-of-the-art Techno F3 car. And like that, everything seemed to fall into place. He began winning races throughout Europe, and edged out Jean-Pierre Jabouille to the F3 title in the final race of the season. His success was enough to win back the respect of his parents.
Progress continued, and in June of 1970, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Johnny Servoz-Gavin, second driver for the Tyrrell Formula 1 team, had abruptly announced his retirement mid-season. Team Principal Ken Tyrrell was left with an urgent need to fill the spot alongside his number one driver and star, Jackie Stewart. Cevert came highly recommended by no less a person than Stewart himself, who had been unable to pass Cevert in a prior Formula 2 event, and walked away impressed by the Frenchman’s speed and race craft. The endorsement carried weight, and Francois ultimately got the job.
Tyrrell’s racecar, a March 701, was in no way a superlative car, but Cevert nonetheless made good use of it. Additionally, Cevert’s movie star looks, charm and good nature quickly won over everyone in the team, especially Stewart, who formed a mentor/student relationship with the young upstart.
“He was very anxious to learn,” said Stewart. “He was a good listener, and wanted to know everything we were doing. He was a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed racing driver with incredible enthusiasm and energy. He learned [from me] that he had to be smooth, so that he wouldn’t upset the car.”
Ken Tyrrell was likewise enamored of Cevert:
“He was a very charming young man. He was very handsome, so the girls all loved him. He only had to flutter his eyelashes and the girls fell about. He wasn’t just an employee of the team.”
For 1971, Team Tyrrell introduced its own chassis mated with the then irrepressible Ford-Cosworth V8. With the right equipment under him, Cevert began to shine. He placed second at both the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard and at the German Grand Prix on the infamous Nordschliefe circuit at the Nurburgring. After finishing a strong third at Monza, Francois Cevert fulfilled one of his life’s ambitions by winning the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
He had arrived.
Success can be a fickle beast, however, and the 1972 Tyrrell was not the car its predecessor had been. Second place at Nivelles and Watkins Glen were the best that Cevert could muster. Francois bounced back and truly came of age in 1973. As his teammate conquered all on his way to a third driver’s title, Cevert dutifully followed in his mentor’s tire tracks, in spite of the fact that he regularly showed that he had the pace to pass Stewart. It was a testament to his friendship with the Scotsman, as well as an insight into the humility and respect with which Cevert carried on his life. The duo finished 1-2 at Zolder, Zandvoort and the Nurburgring, and Cevert finished second in three more races. Francois came to the final Grand Prix of the season at his favorite track, Watkins Glen, eager to finish the season out in style.
“He was very confident,” recalls Cevert’s race mechanic, Jo Ramirez. “His first win had been there and he wanted to do it again. I think he’d really made the decision to get pole and win the race.”
Though it has never been confirmed, Cevert’s optimism at Watkins Glen was likely the result of Stewart having confided in him of his intent to retire after the race, his 100th. Cevert would be the number one driver for Tyrrell in 1974, and as such, was the leading contender to win the championship.
With a skip in his step, Cevert climbed into his race car for Saturday morning qualifying, and set off around the track. Approaching the fast left-right combination known as The Esses, Francois had positioned his car a bit too far to the left of the track. He brushed the curbing, which unsettled the car, sending it swerving towards the barriers on the right. Cevert tried to correct for the slide, but it was too late. The car spun and slammed into the guardrails at a 90º angle. The impact of the car’s nose uprooted and lifted the barrier, causing it to strike Francois in the upper chest and head.
Stewart approached the scene of the accident in his own Tyrrell, and got out to help.
“I didn’t know where he was, because there was so much of the car on the track. In fact he was over the barrier, with the main part of the monocoque. I regret to this day that I didn’t stay with him. But in my mind there was nothing to stay for, as it was so horrific, so horrendous. Just brutal. I got back in the car and went back to the pits, and I was angry the waste, the destruction, the scale of the accident. But there was nothing to be done.”
In deference to his fallen friend, Stewart declined to race that weekend, and duly retired from the sport. The effect on the racing world was immense, and drivers and fans alike were heartbroken at the demise of Formula 1’s Young Prince.
“He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” said Stewart, “and one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He was one of the family.”
Some men have everything. Such was the case with Peter Jeffrey Revson. Born in New York City in 1939, Revson was the son of Revlon Cosmetics co-founder and board-member, Martin Revson, whose fortune was estimated to be in excess of $1 Billion USD. Peter was intelligent, handsome and free-spirited, and by virtue of all of this, was able to do whatever he wanted in life. And what he wanted to do was go fast.
After successfully completing undergraduate studies at the top of his class from Cornell University, Revson attended graduate school at the University of Hawaii. It was here that Peter was bitten by the racing bug. While his family had assumed that his Ivy League education would lead him down a conventional path to success in the cosmetics industry, Revson had other ideas. He acquired a Morgan, and duly won in it on his second competitive outing. The die had been cast.
Along with former classmates Timmy and Teddy Mayer, Revson founded the Rev-Em Formula Junior Team. It was intended that this would serve as his springboard up through the higher classes of racing, with the ultimate goal of becoming a Formula 1 driver. Peter and Timmy would be the team’s drivers, while Teddy would serve as the team principal. Their first season in the States yielded limited success, and Peter became convinced that in order to achieve their goals, Rev-Emwould need to relocate to the home of Formula 1, Europe. In 1963 the trio did just that, and set up shop in England as Revson Racing.
With a budget limited only by how much of his own money Peter felt like spending, success came in the latter half of the season, and amazingly, by the end of the year, he had landed his first Formula 1 drive in a non-championship race aboard a Lotus-BRM at Oulton Park, England. When word began to spread as to who this young upstart was, Revson found himself dismissed by competitors and the media as a rich dilettante who lived the life of a playboy. But his close friends and confidants knew that Revson worked very hard at his craft, and was actually inclined to eschew most material things in his life. A perfect example of this was Peter’s preference to live in the team’s rather squalid transporter in lieu of staying at posh hotels near the venues he competed at.
Undeterred by the unfair criticism, Peter competed in Formula 1 in 1964 for both Revson Racing and Reg Parnell Racing, though the results were poor. Tragedy then hit home for Revson late in the year, when in practice for a race in Tasmania, Australia, Timmy Mayer was killed in a racing accident. Revson was deeply shaken by this, and decided to return Stateside to race in SCCA sports cars for 1965.
Over the next few seasons, Revson competed in many different forms of racing, including Trans-Am, Can-Am and IndyCars. Through his ubiquitous presence, Peter began to amass a strong following of fans in the US. Things were looking like they were just getting back on track when death touched Revson’s life again. This time, it was Peter’s younger brother Doug, who perished in a Formula 3 race in Denmark. Revson briefly considered throwing in the towel, but his love for the sport won out.
1971 became a watershed year for Revson. At that year’s Indianapolis 500, he qualified on pole and finished second, and he won the title in the Can-Am series. After these performances, Formula 1 came calling again. By this time, Peter’s old friend Teddy Mayer was managing the Yardley Team McLaren F1 outfit, and he hired Peter to drive alongside Denny Hulme for the 1972 season. In spite of missing three races, Revson acquitted himself well, achieving four podium positions and finishing a strong fifth in the championship.
The following year, Revson fulfilled one of his life-long goals and won a chaotic British Grand Prix in which 11 cars were taken out in a first lap pile-up. He backed this up with another victory at a rain-soaked Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park.
Revson joined the UOP Shadow Racing Team for 1974 and had high hopes to capitalize on his success. On March 22nd, 1974, Peter Revson climbed into his Shadow for a test at the Kyalami circuit in South Africa. After several laps, Revson entered a section of the track known as the Barbecue Bend at very high speed and suffered a failure of a front suspension titanium ball joint. The car swerved off the track, wrapped itself around the Armco barrier and burst into flames. Safety workers arrived on the scene and somehow managed to pull Revson from the flaming wreck, but it was already too late. The man who had everything, who turned his back on a life of leisure and luxury to pursue his passion, was gone.
Of all the crashes that have taken the lives of Formula 1 drivers, none is more horrendous than that which killed Tom Pryce. The fact that he was so talented and so universally well thought of by his fellow drivers and fans makes the story that much more terrible.
Thomas Maldwyn Pryce was born on June 11th, 1949 in Ruthin, Wales to Jack Pryce, a World War II aerial hero and policeman, and his wife Gwyneth, a hospital nurse. Tom’s older brother, David died at the age of three, leaving Tom an only child.
As a youngster, Tom dreamed of becoming a military pilot, but upon learning of the amount of study it would take, turned his interests to what he thought was the next best thing – motor racing. At the time that Pryce’s interest developed, Jim Clark was considered to be the best driver in the world and Tom was a devoted fan of the Scottish World Champion. He was utterly devastated, as was every racing fan the world over, on that horrible day in April, 1968 when Clark was killed in an F2 race at the Hockenheimring. Nonetheless, Pryce announced to his parents that he intended to one day become a Formula 1 driver just as his fallen idol had been. Unlike how many parents would react to such news, Tom’s parents encouraged him to pursue his dreams, but insisted that he take a tractor mechanic apprenticeship as a fall back plan.
Tom’s childhood friend, Trefor Williams, remembers:
“We started off on our bicycles. Even back then speed was the name of the game. We knew all the bumps in the road, where all the best hills were. Of course when we were 17, we got into cars. We probably could be described as naughty boys, or boy racers, speeding up and down the country lanes, although I wouldn’t recommend that now. We had to watch out because the police would be forever after us, and Mald’s [Tom’s childhood nickname] father was a policeman. He stood no messing. Even back then Mald seemed to be better than the rest of us, though we wouldn’t admit it at the time.
Pryce’s entre into the world of racing came with his enrollment at the British Racing School. Tom readily adapted to all that he was being taught, and was soon competing in a series established for racing pupils by the Motor Racing Stables. Tom easily won the series, and for his efforts was awarded a Lola T202 to race. By this time, Tom had become convinced that he would and could make it as a professional driver, and moved to West Kingsdown, near Brands Hatch, one of England’s premier race tracks.
Early success came swiftly. Pryce won the 1971 Formula F100 championship with ease, followed by taking the Formula Super Vee title later that year. For 1972, Tom signed with Team Rumsey Investments in Formula 3. He won his first outing, an F3 support race for the Formula 1 Race of Champions, comprehensively beating drivers such as James Hunt, Roger Williamson, and Jochen Mass. At Monaco, Pryce was injured in a race car for the first time, when he was struck by another competitor while standing beside his stalled car. Pryce was launched through a nearby shop window and sustained a broken leg. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed. The tough Welshman was back racing in a few weeks’ time and won the final Formula Atlantic race of the season.
Pryce next graduated to Formula 2 where he was awarded the Grovewood Trophy for outstanding race car driver.
In 1974, Tom attained his goal of driving in Formula 1, joining the struggling Token Racing Team for a few races. His performances were good enough to inspire the Shadow Team to sign him for the remainder of the season. Pryce’s start with the team was inauspicious, as the first few outings saw him have a shunt, spin out, and DNF in Canada and the US. At the Nurburgring, he showed improvement, and scored his first World Championship point for a solid 6th place effort.
Things got better in 1975. Tom won the non-championship Formula 1 Race of Champions at his old haunt at Brands Hatch, qualified second at Monaco, took his first pole position at Silverstone and achieved his first podium at an absolutely torrid Austrian Grand Prix. Owing to these performances, Pryce became the hottest ticket in the drivers market, and received offers from several teams including Lotus. For various reasons, he chose to stay with Shadow for the time being, though all of the interest served to bolster Pryce’s confidence.
1976 saw a less competitive start of the season for Shadow. New technical regulations seemed to have caught the team out, and financial struggles began to affect the team’s competitiveness in 1977. No points were scored at the first two rounds of the championship, but Tom, ever the optimist, went into the third race at Kyalami, South Africa with a positive attitude.
The weekend got off to a good start, with Tom posting the fastest time in the first practice session, a full second clear of title favorite Niki Lauda. Qualifying did not go as well, and Pryce started the race from 15th. Tom started moving up through the field and was running in 13th on lap 22, when his teammate, Renzo Zorzi pulled on to the grass along the front straight with an engine failure. The car caught fire, and Zorzi was quickly out of the car.
The situation prompted two amateur marshals, William Bill and 19 year-old Frederick Jansen van Vuuren, to run across the track from the pit wall, the latter carrying a 40-lb fire extinguisher. At that very same moment, the battling race cars of Hans-Joachim Stuck and Pryce crested the brow of the straight at close to 180mph.
“As we got to the top I suddenly sensed this marshal running across the track from my right, carrying an extinguisher. I took a big chance and I don’t know how I got away with it. There was no time, I just reacted on pure instinct.”
Film footage of the incident shows that Stuck was able to jink slightly to the right, avoiding the two marshals by millimeters, but Pryce, tucked in behind Stuck’s car to take advantage of the aerodynamic draft, had no time to react. He struck the teenage van Vuuren. The young man’s body was cut in half, with his torso and legs hurtling through the air and landing in the grass in front of Zorzi and Bill.
Tom might have survived had the marshal had not been carrying the fire extinguisher. It smashed into Pryce’s head, almost completely decapitating him. Such was the force of the impact that the extinguisher was flung over an adjacent grandstand where it hit a parked car. Tom’s car continued down the straight, colliding with Jacques Laffite’s Ligierbefore coming to a halt at Turn 1. The remains of van Vuuren were so unrecognizable that he was only identified at race end, when all of the marshals were assembled and a process of elimination determined who he was.
Many in the Formula 1 paddock felt that Tom Pryce would one day be Formula 1 Champion. He had all the speed he needed, but alas not the fortune to escape fate’s cruel hand.
When the question is asked who the fastest Formula 1 driver of all time was, disagreement will inevitably result. Some will say Senna, some will say Schumacher, others will claim Clark, or Stewart or Fangio. A select few aficionados however, especially those familiar with the sport in the 1970s, will put forth the name Peterson. And they just might be right.
Bengt Ronnie Peterson was born in Orebro, Sweden on February 14th, 1944, the son of a race car driver of modest accomplishments. The young Peterson inherited his father’s love for cars and all things mechanical, and at the age of eight built a 50cc go-cart with his dad. Ronnie drove the machine until the engine literally wore out.
Peterson then turned his attention to kart racing. After winning the 1963 and 1964 Swedish karting titles, he moved on to Formula 3, piloting the Svebe, a 1 liter car he designed and built, again with his father’s assistance. Ronnie achieved immediate success, and attracted the interest of the Tecno Company, who signed him for the 1968 F3 season. Ronnie achieved fine results in his first season, and the following year, won the Formula 3 Championship. His raw speed impressed many, including the factory March Formula 1 team, who signed him for the 1971 F1 season.
Peterson’s meteoric rise continued as he finished in second place in no fewer than five races, and finished runner-up to Jackie Stewart in the Formula 1 World Championship. He would also win the Formula 2 Championship that year. It was around this time that Peterson acquired the nickname “SuperSwede.”
Ronnie spent another season at March with overall good results, and then joined Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus for the 1973 season, partnering the then current World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi. He would not have to wait long for his first Grand Prix victory, which came at the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard in a Lotus 72. He would triumph three more times that season in Austria, Italy and the United States, but owing to poor reliability, would only finish third in the championship.
Fittipaldi decamped for McLaren at the end of the season, and for 1974, Peterson found himself as the number 1 driver at Lotus along side new teammate Jacky Ickx. The duo started the season driving the Lotus 76, but it was quickly apparent that the car was a disaster, and Peterson and Ickx both opted to run the old 72 in its place. Peterson managed to win three races that season in the aging car, including Formula 1’s most prestigious event, the Monaco Grand Prix.
1975 was a bad year for Lotus and again the drivers were forced to drive the now archaic 72. By this time, Ronnie had lost faith in Lotus and re-signed with March for 1976. A sole win came at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
In 1977, Peterson jumped to Team Tyrrell, and drove the innovative but recalcitrant six-wheeled Tyrrell P34B. He could only muster one podium finish all season, a third place in Belgium. Not convinced that Tyrrell would make advancements in the off-season, Ronnie surprised the world of Formula 1 by rejoining Lotus, and agreed to be the number two driver alongside Mario Andretti. While many thought this was a mistake on Ronnie’s part, he accepted the arrangement without issue. Andretti himself questioned the situation, as he knew that Peterson was a far cry from being a number two.
In the iconic, ground-effects Lotus 79, Ronnie took a last lap victory over Patrick Depallier at Kyalami, and also won the Austrian Grand Prix in storming fashion. While Ronnie was often the faster of the teammates in the race on Sunday, Andretti’s superior development skills enabled him to often out-qualify Ronnie, and he successfully converted that edge into four race wins. Going in to the Italian Grand Prix, Peterson was trailing Andretti by 12 points. If Ronnie was to keep his championship hopes alive, he would need to beat his teammate at Monza.
The weekend would not start well for the SuperSwede, as he shunted his Lotus in practice, rendering it beyond repair. The team had another chassis on hand, but it was one of the previous year’s cars. Peterson had no choice but to use it. The result was that Andretti took pole, and Ronnie had to settle for 5th on the grid.
At the start of the race, the official dropped the green flag prematurely as cars were still forming up the grid. As a result, the cars that were still moving when the flag dropped got the jump on the cars ahead that had come to a stop on the grid. As the pack approached the Variante Goodyear chicane, they were densely bunched together. Suddenly, Riccardo Patrese’s Arrows touched James Hunt’s McLaren, sending the latter hurtling into Peterson’s Lotus.
Ronnie spun into the Armco barriers on the right side of the track, crushing the car’s nose. Vittorio Brambilla tried to avoid the accident but couldn’t, and his Surtees slammed violently into Peterson’s Lotus, which burst into flames. Another ten cars collided with the maelstrom, creating a huge pile-up of wrecked racers.
James Hunt leapt from his crippled McLaren, and with Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depallier, pulled Ronnie from his burning car and laid him out on the track. Track marshals quickly extinguished the fire, and attempted to take stock of the situation amongst the chaos. Hans Stuck had suffered a serious concussion, Brambilla a severe head injury, and Peterson’s legs had been badly broken. With good intentions, the Italian Police formed a human shield to stop extraneous people from entering the accident area. In the process, they accidentally prevented Formula 1’s chief medical officer, Professor Sid Watkins, from attending to the injured drivers in a timely fashion.
When order was finally established, the injured drivers, including Ronnie, were taken to a Milan hospital, while at Monza the race was restarted. X-rays showed that Peterson had suffered seven fractures in one leg and three in the other. He was taken into surgery, and during the night his condition became grave. He was diagnosed as suffering from a fat embolism. By morning, Peterson was in full renal failure, and was declared dead at 9:55am.
Ronnie’s teammate Mario Andretti clinched the championship at the race, but his joy was tempered by the news the next day. Years later he would reflect:
“It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career. I couldn’t celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me.”
At his funeral, many of his racing compatriots, including Niki Lauda, Colin Chapman, Ken Tyrrell, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, and Jody Scheckter would pay tribute to Ronnie. If you had asked any of them who the fastest Formula 1 driver was, there would have been no disagreement.