The sad story of Gunnar Nilsson

Gunnar Nilsson raced at a time when Formula 1 was still highly dangerous, but his life was cut short not by a racing accident – it was cancer. "His rare talent had taken him swiftly to the top as n°2 to Mario Andretti," wrote The Times, "[and] he was perhaps the most naturally gifted of the new generation of Grands Prix drivers."

Gunnar Nilsson didn’t match the image of Gascon and playboy driver, anything other than track and models, of which the late ‘70s Formula One, a sort of film set, was filled with. He didn’t have the icy detachment of Niki Lauda or James Hunt’s wild and lady-killer stigmata. He was a simple guy and a serious and dedicated driver. He invited writers, artists and scientists to his home: his living room was open for culture. He spoke English, French and German fluently, in addition to Swedish. He had special affection for his mother and his girlfriend. Born into a wealthy family, even though his father Arvid died when he was only 15, he inherited enough money to devote himself to his passion for race cars, that he loved just like people tend to enjoy the few things on behalf of which they could give up the most comfortable life. Ken Tyrrel was one of the first to predict him to become a future world champion.

Born in Helsingborg, on Sweden's west coast, on 20 November 1948, Nilsson was the second son of a building contractor. He attended school in his home town, then studied engineering for four years at Stockholm University and gained a degree. It was hoped that he would join the family business but he had seen the exploits of fellow Swedes, Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell, and knew he wanted to be a racing driver.

Nilsson began racing in national events in the late 1960s. At the age of 26, he decided to try his hand in Britain; in 1975, he won the title of British Formula 3 Champion.

In 1976, he joined Bob Evans, another new signing in the team to develop the new Lotus 77. In all his Grands Prix, Nilsson only drove for Colin Chapman and his Team Lotus. At the end of the year, Andretti gave the team a victory and Nilsson scored 11 points.

In 1977, in Belgium, Nilsson won his first Grand Prix at a race-soaked Zolder, driving around the outside of Niki Lauda's Ferrari with 20 laps to go. It was in December of the same year, during a routine check-up with a London doctor, when Nilsson was faced with the news that he had testicular cancer. From then on, he saw a rapid decline in his health. At the Charing Cross Hospital in London, he was treated with intensive radiotherapy.

In 1978, he signed for Arrows. By July, he was almost unrecognisable, having lost over 30 kg in weight and all his hair, but he still talked of a possible comeback. But the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, his condition worsened and eventually he had to admit that that he would not be able to drive. That summer Nilsson grew weaker and weaker. He started work on setting up the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Research fund, his final race, declining pain-killing drugs so he could work as long as possible, and grieved in September when Peterson was killed in a crash at Monza. One of his last public appearances was the funeral Peterson. Weakened by the treatments and limping, he told reporters he’d like to come back soon on track in place of Ronnie, to defend the honour of Sweden in the world of car racing. He walked behind the coffin, carried by Lauda, Hunt, Fittipaldi and a few more champions. It was as if  with Ronnie, Gunnar also said goodbye to everyone: it was as if a whole country, which in fact will cancel its Grand Prix, would shut down the engines as a sign of mourning. Five weeks later in Hammersmith, London, on 20 October 1978, Nilsson collapsed and died, aged 29. Shortly before he dropped into a coma he shook his mother’s right hand and his girlfriend’s Kristine left one, leaving just like that.

Gunnar Nilsson was buried in Pålsjö cemetery in Helsingborg, Sweden, close to his parents Arvid and Elisabeth Nilsson. The Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Foundation, instituted in 1979, has financed dozens of projects and initiatives for the study and treatment of cancer. “Maybe I’m a little different from the rest. Of course, it’s not that I don’t like pretty girls, champagne and crazy adventures. However, I’m happy especially at my place, with my records, my girlfriend Kristine and my books. And I like, above all, to be close to my mother.” With these words, spoken only a few months before the outbreak of the implacable disease that will be the death of him, the whole Gunnar Nilsson comes out, the opposite of the stereotype of the “viveur driver”, so glamorous in the late ‘70s.

It was the short story of Gunnar Nilsson, who one day overtook Niki Lauda; who didn’t have time to let us describe all victories that would come; who was not yet 30, like a lot of guys to whom destiny unfastens seat belts.

Jan 08, 2018
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