Ronnie Peterson was born in Örebro, in the neighbourhood of Almby, Sweden. He developed his driving style at a young age, when he was competing in karting, and carried this style forward into Formula 1. He made his Grand Prix debut, driving for March, at Monaco in 1970. Earlier, after his karting years, he had entered Formula 3 racing in the Svebe, a Brabham-derived Formula car he co-designed with his father Bengt. In 1971 he won the European Formula Two Championship driving a March, and five Formula One Grand Prix second places earned him the position of runner-up to Jackie Stewart in that year's World Championship. Peterson stayed at March until 1973, when he signed for John Player Team Lotus to partner Emerson Fittipaldi.
His first Grand Prix win was at the 1973 French Grand Prix, held at Paul Ricard, in a Lotus 72. There were three more wins that year, in Austria, Italy and the United States.
1974 yielded three more victories, France and Italy again, but also at Monaco, the blue riband event of Formula One. After a bad year with Lotus in 1975, in which the Lotus 76 proved a failure and he reverted to driving the 72F, Peterson drove the first two races of 1976 in the Lotus 77 before rejoining March Engineering, with whom he won yet again in Italy, driving their 761.
Another poor year in 1977 with the six-wheel Tyrrell P34B followed, a third place at the Belgian Grand Prix being his best result. Peterson surprised many by leaving Tyrrell to return to his spiritual home at John Player Team Lotus for 1978. Two wins followed, in South Africa and Austria, the latter won in the innovatory 'ground effects' Lotus 79.
The 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza started badly for Ronnie, when in practice he damaged his Lotus 79 race car beyond immediate repair and bruising his legs in the process. Team Lotus possessed a spare 79, but it had been constructed for team-mate Mario Andretti, and the taller Peterson was unable to fit comfortably inside. The team's only other car was a type 78, last years car, which had been dragged around the F1 circus that season with minimal maintenence.
Come racing time, the grid lined up as normal. The race starter, however, was overenthusiastic and several cars in the middle of the field got a jump on those at the front. The result was a massive crush of cars up to the 'curva grande' corner and all hell broke loose. James Hunt collided with Peterson, with Riccardo Patrese, Vittorio Brambilla, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Patrick Depailler, Didier Pironi, Derek Daly, Clay Regazzoni and Brett Lunger involved in the ensuing melee. (Later on, Hunt unjustly blamed Patrese for starting the accident, and viewers of Hunt's commentaries of Formula 1 races from 1980-1993 on BBC Television were regularly treated to bitter diatribes of Patrese when the Italian appeared on screen).
Peterson's poorly maintained and flimsy Lotus went into the barriers hard and caught fire. Though trapped, Hunt, Regazzoni and Depailler managed to free him from the wreck before Peterson received more than minor burns. He was dragged free and laid in the middle of the track fully conscious, his severe leg injuries obvious to all (Hunt later said he stopped Peterson from looking at his legs to spare him further distress). Scandalously, it took 20 minutes for medical help to reach the scene.
At the time, there was more concern for Brambilla, who had been hit on the head by a flying wheel and was slumped comatose in his car (he later recovered and drove on in F1 until 1980). Peterson's life was not, however, seen to be in any danger. The injured drivers were taken to hospital in Milan and, after a major cleanup job, the race was restarted (for those with undamaged or spare cars at least).
At the hospital, Peterson's X-rays showed he had 17 fractures in one leg and 3 in the other. After discussion with Ronnie himself, the surgeons decided to operate to stablise the bones.
Unfortunately, during the night, bone marrow from the fractures had got into Peterson's bloodstream forming fat globules on his major organs including lungs, liver, and brain. By daybreak he was in full renal failure and was declared dead a few hours later. The cause of death was given as fat embolism.
The tragedy was that Peterson's life would most likely have been saved had he received medical attention immediately after his accident.
Ronnie Peterson ran a total of 123 Grand Prix races during his career and was the winner in ten of them. He is arguably the greatest driver, along with Stirling Moss, to have never won the Formula One World Championship.
According to the shops selling flowers in Örebro, there has never been an Örebro funeral with more flowers that the one of Ronnie Peterson. Furthermore, there is a statue of Ronnie Peterson in Örebro, by Richard Brixel. The same artist was asked in 2005 to make a statue of racing driver Ayrton Senna from São Paulo, who had also died during a Grand Prix.
Ronnie Peterson married former top model Barbro Peterson in April 1975 and they had one child, a daughter, Nina, born later that year. Barbro never got over his death and committed suicide on 19th December 1987. She was buried, alongside Ronnie, in the Peterson family grave in Örebro.