Peterson was one Andretti’s four closest racing driver friends
Andretti and Peterson finished first and second in the 1978 F1 standings, having started strongly in the year-old Lotus 78 and then really getting into their stride when the stunning 79 came on song. Andretti won six times, Peterson twice, the pair claiming four one-twos. In the context of the super-competitive 1970s, this was true domination.
But at Monza, on the day Mario’s title was sealed, Ronnie lost his life in a horrible first-corner pile-up. His injuries appeared to be serious but not life-threatening, but during the night complications set in and when Andretti arrived at the hospital the following morning to visit his friend, he was told Peterson was dead. The title had been Andretti’s goal since signing for Lotus in 1976 and over time he’d certainly take great pride in it, as was his right. But Peterson’s loss tarnished it then, and still does today.
In the book Andretti discloses just how much Ronnie Peterson meant to him – and the heavy price he’d paid for racing in the sport he loved. “I’ve had just four really close friends – among the drivers – in all the years I’ve been racing,” he says. “Billy Foster, who I knew well for just a couple of years, was killed in a NASCAR accident at Riverside in ’67. Then Lucien Bianchi and I were very close. I always used to stay with him when I came to Europe, and we drove together at Le Mans one year . He was killed there in ’69 in a testing accident. And the other two were Gunnar Nilsson and Ronnie Peterson.”
Nilsson also died, just weeks after Peterson, succumbing to cancer. “Gunnar’s illness… you just find it hard to accept that something like that can happen so quickly to a man so young,” says Andretti. “You know, team-mates aren’t necessarily friends. It happens or it doesn’t. Gunnar was such a loose, extrovert kind of a guy you couldn’t help but get along with him, but Ronnie was different, quiet and reserved. He took more getting to know. I mean, we’d known each other for years, but only when we became team-mates did we become really close friends. For all his reserve, he had a really great, dry sense of humour. There’s such a hole in motor racing now, and it’ll never be filled, no question about it.”
Peterson would be 76 were he alive today. If only. Imagine he and Mario in a black and gold Lotus train, running together up Goodwood’s Hill. Such stuff as dreams are made on.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.