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Won in Grands Prix, lost to cancer



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Gunnar Nilsson


Lotus-Cosworth 78




1977 Japanese GP


Not all F1 drivers failing to reach a senior age have died in the harness. We had Graham Hill, Carlos Pace, David Purley and Harald Ertl dying in tragic plain crashes, while Didier Pironi crashed fatally in a powerboat off the Isle of Wight. All these causes of premature death have one thing in common with a lethal F1 accident: the violent and sudden way in which they took place. Gunnar Nilsson's death in 1978 had none of these 'qualities' but the tragedy of his passing away was felt all the more throughout the paddock. This was largely due to everyone's admiration for the way he coped with life after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In his 31 Grands Prix Nilsson only drove for Chapman, Gunnar getting his chance with the famous marque when Lotus was down and out after Ickx and Peterson abandoned ship when the difficult 76 proved a disastrous replacement for the fifth-generation 72. But thanks to its promising new 77 and Andretti also joining, the team was soon on the up again, with Nilsson taking great advantage of Mario's experience. His debut year saw a podium finish at only his third race and talk of a future World Champion was abound.

After a slow start to the new season, with Andretti taking over his car in Argentina, Gunnar really got going at Jarama and took a magnificent first win at the rain-soaked Zolder track. Good results at Dijon and Silverstone saw him climbing the Championship ladder but come Autumn his performance was blighted by several poor qualifying efforts. Little did we know that Gunnar was already fighting the symptoms of cancer.

Gunnar Nilsson's final appearance on the F1 scene, at Fuji, saw him drive an Imperial-liveried car (Imperial Tobacco being the parent company of the John Player Special brand), the only occasion in the mid-seventies that a Lotus didn't wear JPS black. Nilsson's last race was a lacklustre performance, however, and with Peterson signed for 1978, Gunnar was on his way out at Lotus. He did come to an agreement with the new Arrows team for the following season but as it happened he didn't have the health to drive the car. The drive went to Rolf Stommelen instead.

Gunnar died in October 1978, having lived to see the lauch of the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Treatment Campaign.