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Ronnie Peterson, dying to win: ‘Superswede’ reviewed

A documentary about the fastest man in 1970s Formula One - when death rates were sky high - is not entirely charitable to Lotus.

I just saw a cinema documentary about Ronnie Peterson, the Formula One driver reckoned to be the fastest in the world in the 1970s, who was – along with Abba and Björn Borg – one of the signature figures in Swedish life of that era. Like Abba and Borg there was something wholesome and innocent about him – and all three had a lot of connections to England.

Abba had a particularly devoted fanbase in the UK; they won the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton with their hit Waterloo, and lyricist Bjorn Ulvaeus moved to England later because of his affinity with the country. The composer in the group, Benny Andersson, admired the Beatles and the Kinks, and the British film co-production of their West End musical Mamma Mia is actually one of the top box office performers in British history, with an English director and scriptwriter.  Ulvaeus called Mamma Mia “Anglo-Swedish”, in line with the group’s general culture.

Borg of course had his greatest victories at Wimbledon; and Peterson, who moved to Maidenhead from Sweden after going professional, was the favourite son of Lotus during the high noon of the Colin Chapman era.

Chapman, the engineer who pioneered many of the things that we take granted in Formula One cars today, doesn’t come off entirely well in the documentary, which is a rueful look at an era in which the Formula 1 was never more glamorous but also extremely dangerous. The wives bite their nails in the stands never quite knowing whether their man will end up in a fireball on the asphalt. The list of casualties from that era is a long one – 18 drivers died between 1967 and 1982, while only two drivers have died in Formula One in the past 15 years. 

Formula One cars were known as coffins on wheels. One of the many veterans of that era – the film interviews track engineers as well as former driver legends such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda – comments that you could cut into the body of a car with a pair of household scissors.  They were that fragile.

Jackie Stewart, who appears in archive footage as a cheeky young Scot sending up his own appearances on BBC sport while strolling with George Harrison and the latter’s mansion, with Peterson and wife shyly bringing up the rear, said that a driver who carried on for five years without interruption had a two in three chance of dying.  A quick mental calculation of probabilities makes you wonder if that’s right, but anyway it reflects a perception that it was an ultra-high-risk occupation, and several drivers end up in charred junk on the tarmac before the film climaxes with Peterson’s own demise at Monza in 1978. He came second in the overall championship that year, and second in 1973, but his failure to ever clinch the top spot despite being regarded as the fastest driver of his time (affirmed by several of Peterson’s competitors in the film) could be put down to, perhaps, an absence of the will of steel and total application a champion requires.

Two further causes the documentary hints at which I found journalistically interesting were the constant mechanical problems of Lotus cars and a secret agreement with Mario Andretti and Lotus management as a condition for Peterson rejoining Lotus in 1977, never to allow him to overtake Andretti, the number one driver in the team, because of a desire to have an American winner that year when Lotus was marketing its civilian cars in the United States. To make sure he kept his promise, Lotus’s British engineer confessed that they overloaded Peterson’s car with extra fuel and harder tyres than his American teammate’s.

Other drivers spoke of Peterson’s incredible loyalty to Lotus through some unproductive seasons. His fellow driver David Brodie appears on camera to say he wrote a letter of complaint to Colin Chapman after the 11 failures in the brake system (apologies for not being more technical) which not only contributed to Peterson’s high non-completion rate in the years he under-performed but was dangerous. The result of the letter the film leaves hanging in the air. Of course there are dramaturgical reasons, even in a documentary, to have a villain, even if only by implication. Chapman had engineered Lotus cars to be fast – but they were fragile, even by the standards of the day. Peterson of course must have been aware of the trade-off, and many other drivers would have leapt at the chance to be in a Lotus for the speed boost, even if it meant an added risk.

We learn of repeated pillow fights on 747s between the team drivers as they shuttled across the world, forcing F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to compensate airlines with large amounts of money as feathers ended up in the air conditioning system. We see how friendships between the drivers who took such risks became very strong. Perhaps it is just old men reminiscing, but in those golden, halcyon days, it seemed easier to forge strong friendships; the modern motorsport industry seems more professionalised, is definitely safer, but is also less intimate. (And tobacco advertising has disappeared: I even had a black-and-gold John Player Special Lotus car as a child.) Ronnie’s driving style was not only very fast but visually very attractive: he specialised in a deliberate oversteer that led to a characteristic slide through every corner. This he managed to do lap after lap.

If he was a speed demon on the track, he played it impeccably safe in his private life  - unlike some noted ‘shagmeisters’– staying devoted to his beautiful wife Barbara, who committed suicide 10 years after her husband’s death, still distraught. He was equally devoted to his aquarium fishes, which he said she watched while at home in his Maidenhead mansion: “It is better than watching television.”

The documentary had a big emotional impact on me – not only because he resembled my father-in-law but also because his style is like so many unassuming working-class Swedes I see every day who built their country with modesty and extremely hard work. Peterson, his fellow drivers said in the documentary, was completely honest and completely lacked any political ego.  He acquiesced to playing second fiddle to Andretti, the slower driver, with good grace, and even became close friends with him. In this, he couldn’t be further from Ayrton Senna, the other subject of a high profile motorsport documentary in recent years.

I do hope the documentary gets an airing in England. or that it least it gets on to Netflix or something.  Me, I am looking forward to the next biographical film – by coincidence about Björn Borg – which is out in two weeks, featuring more kipper ties and Shia LaBeouf as Borg’s Wimbledon nemesis, the tousle-haired John “You cannot be serious” McEnroe. But I doubt it will be as affecting. Borg was a winner. And he did not die for his sport. 

Superswede: the life of racecar legend Ronnie Peterson (2017)


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