• Belgian Grand Prix

Nilsson secures maiden victory at Zolder

ESPNF1 Staff
June 5, 1977
Gunnar Nilsson on his way to his only grand prix victory © Sutton Images

Twenty-eight year old Dane Gunnar Nilsson secured the only win of his tragically short Formula One career in the Belgian Grand Prix at a soggy Zolder.

Qualifying, held in the wet, had resulted in pole position going to Mario Andretti's Lotus and it had just started raining at the start of the race as well. Most of the field started on wets but James Hunt started on slick tyres which proved a costly gamble, although he eventually managed seventh.

In a cloud of spray which blinded many drivers, John Watson made the best start in his Brabham to lead Andretti and Nilsson but at the first chicane Andretti braked too late and ran into the back of the Brabham eliminating them both. Nilsson had to swerve off the track to avoid the melée, allowing Jody Scheckter's Wolf into the lead ahead of the Lotus and Jochen Mass (McLaren). As the conditions improved a succession of cars pitted for slicks, allowing David Purley in his privately-owned and built Lec-Ford to briefly lead - the first time for more than a decade an independent owner-driver had been at the front of the field.

Niki Lauda had been one of the first to change tyres and as he surged into a lead it seemed that would be enough to give him his second win of the season. Nilsson moved second when Mass spun off, and eventually overhauled the Ferrari with Ronnie Peterson taking third.

"Colin Chapman told me that if ever Andretti drops out then it's my job to win the race, so I thought I ought to pull my finger out" beamed Nilsson. "I knew my car was quickest on a dry track so I concentrated hard in the wet and delayed my challenge until the track began to dry."

Chapman was equally thrilled. "He played it just like an old pro and although I feel sorry for Mario, I am delighted that such a fine effort from Gunnar has been properly rewarded."

Nilsson's performances dropped off after his win and his drives were inconsistent. No one knew it at the time, but he was suffering from cancer, and he was diagnosed at the end of the year. He was too ill to start the 1978 season and died later in the year after devoting his last few months to fundraising for his cancer charity.

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