A Tribute to Gunnar Nilsson by Simon Stiel

Gunnar’s name struck me when I started reading motorsport books for the first time.  It was different to read of a driver that died young during the 1970s, not while racing but of testicular cancer. At school, we laughed nervously as we were taught by speakers from teenage cancer charities how to look out for symptoms. In the 1970s it was very different.

Gunnar had been on the front cover of Autosport in 1975 when British spectators witnessed his abilities. In 1978, he was mourned on the cover.


When I got the opportunity to write my first motorsport feature, I chose Gunnar. I wrote it during the summer of 2007 and I found it a surreal experience calling people like Gunnar’s team-mate and friend Mario Andretti and others. Vintage Racecar published my piece and I had an idea about doing a book on Gunnar. It looked like it would just remain an idea as I struggled to find money to commit to the project as well as a publisher who would accept the proposal.  There were several rejections.

Then during the winter of 2016 I came across a page on Facebook about a book being written by Darren Banks about British driver Stephen South, another talent who never got to show his gifts in Formula One. Following an accident in 1980, South had only spoken three times publicly about his career. I commented on the page, connected with Darren and later got to meet him. Darren had approached many people, written a manuscript with South cooperating and had found a publisher. I got a copy of the book and it was an extraordinary achievement recounting South’s career and the insights from motorsport insiders. It inspired me to carry on the research about Gunnar. To be honest, had I not found Darren’s page, I would not have carried on with it.

I have managed to visit Gunnar’s hometown of Helsingborg twice to meet Gunnar’s friends and a stone was unveiled for him at the town’s sports museum. Gunnar’s name is now on the walk of fame there.


There was a ceremony to unveil a Walk of Fame at Helsingborg’s Sports Museum to honour the town’s prominent athletes. Gunnar was one of them.


The kindness of many people in Sweden has been great and touching. People who have contributed their memories have ranged from Gunnar’s childhood friends, his contemporaries in Formula Vee, Super Vee, Formula Three and friends like Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, mechanics and his journalist friends including Fredrik Af Petersens.

Fredrik wrote his book about Ronnie and Gunnar called The Viking Drivers in 1979. He has very kindly given my book his blessing as well as being very helpful too. I would not have got anywhere without them and other authors have been helpful with advice and counsel about research and how to interview people. One such person has been historian Ed McDonough who I have known since I was 12 years old.

As with Darren’s book, Ibrar’s book about 1994 and Richard Jenkins’ book about Richie Ginther, the book will be for Performance Publishing. I have selected them because of their interest in Lotus matters through Absolute Lotus magazine and their growing reputation. At the time of writing, Darren and Richard’s books have been shortlisted by the RAC Motoring Book of the Year award.

As British people fell in love with Swedish talent like the band ABBA or Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon during the 1970s, they fell in love with Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson. If Ronnie was named Super Swede, Gunnar was called Crown Prince as he was deemed the heir to succeed Ronnie. Gunnar had risen quickly. Racing was initially a fun thing to do with friends from Helsingborg and then Gunnar made his competition debut in 1971 in Formula Vee. Five years later he would be on the grid for Team Lotus at Kyalami for the South African Grand Prix. In just his second reason, he would be a race winner at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. As Gunnar signed for the new Arrows team for the 1978 season the future looked bright for him.


Gunnar’s campaign captured the attention of many and this badge features artist Michael Turner’s painting of Gunnar’s victory at Zolder.


Then he found out he was sick with cancer. 1978 would be spent not at the racetracks but going in and out of Charing Cross Hospital, London. During the summer, he would find out it would be terminal. He would mourn Ronnie who died after an accident at Monza in September. On 20 October just six weeks afterwards, Gunnar would die.

But not before organising a cancer treatment campaign that had as its original aim a new linear accelerator for Charing Cross Hospital. In the end, the campaign raised enough for a whole new wing at Charing Cross to be built. The Gunnar Nilsson Suite was opened in November 1981.

When Gunnar was ill, he said: “I have had an absolutely fantastic life up to now, unfortunately I’ve got this s*** now.” I aim to celebrate that life and the great legacy he left behind.


Gunnar Nilsson: A Free Spirit will be published soon by Performance Publishing. If anyone has anyone has any photos of Gunnar Nilsson, they would like to see within the book please email them to simonstiel@yahoo.co.uk

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