The Story of ­Ronnie and ­Barbro Peterson

A long time ago, our author was driving through the Canadian Arctic with Hans-Joachim Stuck. At some point, the two came to talk about one of motorsport’s most tragic episodes.

  • Text
    Kurt Molzer
  • Photos
    © IMAGO / TT, Getty Images

Almost exactly twenty-one years ago, I spent several days driving a black SUV through northern Canada towards the Arctic Ocean, i.e., to the end of the world, together with racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck, who, besides Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips, is Germany’s most famous non-Formula 1 world champion. The car was a wretched Lexus RX 300 that we were putting through a grueling, near-sadistic endurance test at temperatures as low as minus 63 degrees Celsius. We took turns at the wheel and had a lot of fun. “Strietzel” is a clown at heart who is always up for a bit of nonsense and you can really have a good laugh with. He’s also very knowledgeable. From him I learned that you’re no longer allowed to call the Eskimos Eskimos. That you should call them Inuit instead.

On the sixth day, however, as my journal shows – we had crossed the Arctic Circle and had a fantastic view of the Richardson Mountains – things suddenly became bitterly serious. Hans came to talk about the darkest hours of his career. He was referring to September 10, 1978 – the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. Where my Bavarian co-driver was involved in the worst multi-car pile-up ever seen in Formula 1. A premature start signal led to the collision of ten cars, with Ronnie -Peterson’s Lotus going up in flames. 

“I was taken to the track hospital along with Ronnie and Vittorio Brambilla,” he told me. “It was like being in a wartime field hospital. Ronnie was moaning in pain; his legs were completely shattered. But since he didn’t seem to have any other injuries, I wasn’t too worried about him. Vittorio, on the other hand, was lying next to me seemingly near death with severe head injuries. He was in a coma. A wheel flying through the air had struck his head. I was sure he wasn’t going to make it.”

I wondered why no one had yet come up with the idea of filming the story of Ronnie and Barbro Peterson – a story with all the ingredients of a great Hollywood drama.

“But things turned out differently,” I said.

“That’s right,” he continued, “I was mistaken. Vittorio lived for another twenty-three years after that. He was probably the only Formula 1 driver who died while gardening, and he died of a heart attack. Ronnie, however – I still can’t understand it to this day – was dead the next morning. I ran into Barbro, Ronnie’s wife, in the lobby of the Hotel Fossati at eleven o’clock, in tears. ‘Ronnie’s dead,’ she said, ‘Can you imagine? Ronnie’s dead! Why?’ This news was so shocking to me that I couldn’t get a word out. It was so unbelievable, I couldn’t even comfort Barbro at first. I hadn’t been injured that seriously in the accident myself, they had only taken me to the track hospital to look me over before I was discharged. On my way out I had said to Ronnie: ‘Be brave, my friend, soon you’ll be back up on your feet!’ We knew each other well, having won the Kyalami 6 Hours together in a Group 5 BMW the previous year. And on the Wednesday before the Italian Grand Prix he came to see me in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We then drove to Monza together. And now he was dead. I couldn’t believe it! Barbro was standing there in front of me with her eyes filled with tears. So I took her in my arms and said how terribly sorry I was and that I couldn’t believe it. She started to cry and barely managed to say: ‘I don’t know how to go on living.’ As if she had foreseen her own tragic end. That was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever experienced in racing.”

As “Strietzel” was relating this tragic event to me, I began to wonder why no one had yet come up with the idea of filming the story of Ronnie and Barbro Peterson – a story with all the ingredients of a great Hollywood drama: courage and heroism, victory and defeat, love and death. I’ve never read anything about it either. Someday, I said to myself on Canada’s Dempster Highway, I’m going write it down. Now, twenty-one years later – I truly am a lazy dog – I’ve finally gotten around to it.

My story starts in 1969, on the dance floor of the Prisma Night Club in Örebro, an unexciting small town in central Sweden that is home to a castle, a university and a water tower. A shy, clumsy young man – twenty-five years old, 1.85 meters tall, roundish baby-face, melancholic gaze – gathers up all his courage and approaches a woman three years his junior, who, with her long blond hair, full lips and thoroughly seductive overbite, looks a bit like Brigitte Bardot. In any case, she was the most beautiful secretary in all of Örebro. But where did the baby-faced young man get all that courage from? Quite simple: He was – hard to believe, because he was yawning all the time – the fastest Formula 3 driver in the world with sixteen victories in the last season! A few months before, he had won the prestigious race in Monaco, and now he had a pre-contract for Formula 1 in his pocket. With such laurels, of course, you can easily make a pass at a blonde you wouldn’t normally even dare to dream of. The son of a baker was an elevator mechanic by trade. And like the secretary Barbro Edwardsson, he was from Örebro.

Monza was the end. Never again would we see the blue crash helmet with the yellow visor – Ronnie’s ­trademark – sticking out of a Formula 1 cockpit.

It probably wasn’t love at first sight – at least not for her. How else can you explain that shortly afterwards she left for America for a year to work as an au pair? But they kept in touch, and after her return they became a couple. A lot had happened to him in the meantime. First, he was now driving in Formula 1, in the (non-competitive) March 701 of a private racing team called Antique Automobiles Racing Team (the owner dealt in historic racing cars). Second, he had moved to England. Third, he had served time in prison. And that happened like this: On the Sunday before the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, June 1970, the perpetual Nordic yawner had overslept. He sped to the racetrack, got caught in a traffic jam – and illegally drove past the line of stopped cars. When he was about to be pulled over by the police, he floored it. Because of all the traffic, however, the officers were able to stop him. He was arrested, and it looked as if he was really going to miss the race. The Minister of the Interior, who was among the spectators as a guest of honor, intervened. The start was postponed. Peterson was released – but only for the race. When he retired on lap 20, he was immediately re-arrested and taken away to Liège, where he had to spend a night in jail. That was the first time that the name Ronnie Peterson made headlines around the world. ( . . . )

→ Read the full story in ramp #61 "Love Is in the Air".

Kurt Molzer

Kurt Molzer

Freelance Author & Columnist
Kurt Molzer was born and raised in Vienna and worked for years as chief editor for Bild, Penthouse and Bunte. From 2000 he was a writer for GQ magazine, where he had a monthly column. His debut novel "Kurt's Stories" was published in 2006. Now he writes for ramp (again). And he has to drive fast cars for it - although he had actually already sworn them off.
ramp #61 Love Is in the Air + Porsche LeMans-Special

ramp #61 Love Is in the Air + Porsche LeMans-Special

Ein blauer Himmel, der Duft des frischen Grases, Sonne und die Wärme des Augenblicks, vor allem Licht. Das Licht der Sonnenstrahlen, erklären die Wissenschaftler, ist der entscheidende Faktor, wenn uns zu Beginn der warmen Jahreszeit ein flotter Gute-Laune-Mix aus Glückshormonen energisch in den Sommer lockt.

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