Formula One Profile: Patrick Tambay

There can be few Grand Prix drivers whose careers have been subject to such violent fluctuations as that of the genial Frenchman Patrick Tambay, for the 34-year-old from Cannes has faced two occasions on which his Formula One career seemed to have come to a complete stop. Yet, in 1983 he is an envied member of the Scuderia Ferrari’s driving team, a fact that is a testimony to his quiet confidence and considerable good fortune over the years. Some drivers enter Formula One and sustain an impressive curve of achievement, right to the very top of the sport, from the day they first handle a Grand Prix car. But for Tambay things have been very different: at two crucial points in his career he has been the right man, available in the right place at the right time.

Born in Paris on June 25th, 1949, Tambay was the son of a building developer who moved to the Cote d’Azur when Patrick was still very young. While at school the young Tambay became highly accomplished at skiing, actually gaining a place in the French national team, winning the national junior downhill title at the age of eighteen. In 1970 his love of the sport earned him a skiing scholarship at the University of Colorado, and the fact that he still has a slight American “twang” to his accent betrays the two years he spent there pursuing a course in business administration.

It wasn’t until 1971, at the relatively late age of 23 years, that he set his sights on motor racing, and then only after he’d been tempted into taking part in a racing school programme at Paul Ricard while he was holidaying nearby. By the end of the course Tambay had made such a good impression on the chief instructor, former F3 ace Phillipe Vidal, that it was suggested that he return to Ricard for the finals of the school’s competition the following October. He managed to get ten days off from University and jetted back for this important “club” race, which he won by three seconds over ten laps. The judging panel, which included Ken Tyrrell and Francois Cevert, had no hesitation in awarding him the top prize— a year’s racing in the national Formule Renault category the following season!

From that moment onwards, Patrick Tambay was locked into the well-organised and sensibly structured system, largely sponsored by Elf and Renault in a variety of ways, which is responsible for the healthy number of French drivers currently participating on the 1983 F1 scene. His progress was secure, not that he didn’t show an abundance of promise, however. Although Jacques Laffite was the man who won the 1972 Formule Renault title, Elf continued to support Tambay’s career into the 1973 season. At the wheel of an Alpine, he battled throughout the year with one of his contemporaries for the tide, eventually losing out to this rival by a single point at the end of the season: and that man was, by a curious twist of fortune, to be his Ferrari team-mate from the start of 1983, Rend Arnoux!

Tambay’s progression to Formula One followed via a series of Elf-financed F2 teams: the Elf 2 organisation, the March-BMW squad and the Renault V6-engined Martinis. He eventually put together a deal with Teddy Yip to drive one of the promising Ensign N177s and it was the intention that the car should make its debut in the 1977 French Grand Prix at Dijon. Unfortunately, although Tambay turned up in hopeful anticipation, the Ensign wasn’t quite ready and he would have been obliged to sit out both qualifying sessions had it not been for the generous intervention of John Surtees. The English team chief asked Patrick whether he would like to try his hand at the wheel of the second works TS16, so the Frenchman happily accepted. Unfortunately, Tambay’s first official practice session in an F1 machine ended with the Surtees off the road, enmeshed in the catch fencing, but it’s typical of his character that he doesn’t blame anybody but himself — even though it’s pretty clear that he inwardly considers himself not to be responsible for the excursion. “I’m pretty certain I know what happened, and that’s all that matters,” he reflects quietly, “there’s no point in casting round any blame . . let’s just say that I’m quite satisfied why, and I don’t wish to cast any blame on anybody so long after the event…”

By the end of the 1977 season, Tambay had forged a reputation as a promising rising F1 star, but it was still a trifle surprising when the McLaren team selected him to succeed Jochen Mass as James Hunt’s number two for 1978. Surprising because Gilles Villeneuve had been recruited to drive a third works McLaren in the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and the French Canadian’s sparkling form in this race had marked him out as an outstanding talent. Teddy Mayer’s decision to opt for Tambay rather than Villeneuve has been a matter for speculation ever since, but lest the decision cast an adverse cloud over Tambay’s ability, it should be recalled that Patrick was second in pre-qualifying behind Villeneuve at Silverstone and it was with some satisfaction that the Frenchman brought his McLaren M26 home in sixth place at Buenos Aires at the start of the following year. That was one place ahead of Gilles’ Ferrari T3!

Tambay’s mild-mannered and somewhat deferential approach to the Formula One business didn’t really stand him in good stead during his two seasons with McLaren. Although he wouldn’t admit it, he certainly wasn’t forceful enough in his dealings with the management and, while James Hunt continued to monopolise everybody’s attention, the Frenchman got pushed into the background. One might rightly say that Hunt, as 1976 World Champion, fully deserved the lion’s share of attention, but by 1978 the team had been well and truly left behind in the ground effect race and even Hunt seldom managed to run near the front.

“Not only did I feel as if I was nothing more than a hired hand,” Tambay remembers, “but that M26 was an incredibly heavy car to handle. In fact, I think I can honestly say that it was the heaviest car I’ve ever driven; and that includes cars from the ground effect era as well. . .” Whether Hunt and Mass, who were both tremendously strong drivers, had simply shrugged this feature of the car aside during the previous season isn’t clear, but Patrick insists “that you could only drive it for about ten laps before your arms felt as though they were going to fall off. . . I just used to hang on and wait for the race to end!”

At the end of the 1978 season Hunt left McLaren and moved off to take up a brief stint with the Wolf team before abruptly retiring mid-way through the following season. Tambay, however, stayed on with the McLaren squad where he was now partnered by John Watson, the Ulsterman moving across from Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham-Alfa outfit. Gordon Coppuck had pencilled a brand new car, the ground effect M28, but this proved to be a total disaster: by the end of the season acrimony was rife within the team’s management hierarchy and Tambay became one of the casualties of a “clear out” which very nearly finished Watson’s reputation and effectively scuppered Coppuck’s future with the team.

Patrick remained philosophical over his treatment by McLaren, but there was no hiding his acute sense of disappointment. Looking at the situation objectively, he’d been allowed a good crack of the whip. Two years with an ostensibly top line team had left his reputation almost in a worse state than it was before he’d started. Outsiders tended to write him off, even though a close examination of his form during those two seasons indicated that his practice times had always been comparable with his more experienced team leaders.

His 1980 season provided him with a morale-boost win in the North American Can-Am Championship at the wheel of a V8 Chevrolet-engined Lola sports racing car, but beyond this it didn’t seem clear where his career would lead. Ironically, the man who’d given him his first F1 chance, Teddy Yip, was the man who beckoned him back onto the Grand Prix stage. Yip was regrouping his F1 team at the start of 1981 with a modest little Cosworth V8-engined chassis designed by Tony Southgate and, rather than stay out of the F1 firmament, Patrick agreed to drive it.

Tambay’s next major stroke of luck came at Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s expense a few months later. Badly injured in a crash during the previous year’s Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, Jabouille had clawed his way back to some semblance of fitness in order to take his place alongside his brother-in-law Jacques Laffite in the Talbot-Matra team. Unfortunately, Jean-Pierre’s legs hadn’t healed properly and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to drive the machine effectively. After a particularly poor showing at Jarama in the Spanish GP, he was quietly retired and Tambay was recruited to take his place.

Patrick’s easy-going nature made it easy for him to work with Ligier’s organisation, an organisation which, by that time, was totally built round Laffite’s priorities and requirements. Jacques had been with the team ever since it started in 1976 and anybody coming in as his team-mate was clearly going to be faced with a pretty difficult situation. If there was any new, special equipment going, then Laffite would have it. Tambay didn’t bitch and bind about this situation, but simply concentrated on getting on with his job as number two. Even when he had to start the 1981 British Grand Prix in the knowledge that defective gearbox bearings would certainly lead to his car’s retirement within 20 laps, he wasn’t unduly irritated. And at the end of the day he was one of the few drivers to congratulate John Watson on his tremendous success in winning his home Grand Prix. “After all his problems, I’m happy for John,” he said reflectively, “I know what he’s been through.” He certainly did, having shared that nightmare 1979 season at McLaren with the Ulsterman!

By the end of 1981, Tambay found himself unceremoniously dropped by Ligier and, in the absence of any other firm offers, decided to concentrate on a North American racing programme. It looked as though he might have a brief return at the wheel of an Arrows for the South African GP, after Surer broke his ankles in testing, but he found himself disillusioned at the prospect of the drivers battling with FISA over the terms of their licences and cried off shortly after arriving at Kyalami. “My business is racing, and racing alone,” he says forcefully, “I don’t care for the political side of this business and it’s something which I consider is not my affair. The politicians should sort the rules and regulations out before we ever get to a race circuit.” It honestly didn’t look, at this stage, as if Tambay would make a third appearance on the F1 stage.

What followed next was interesting from two points of view. Firstly, it was obvious that Patrick’s F1 aspirations were by no means exhausted, and secondly it was eventually to underline just how a driver’s ability can come to flower under circumstances where a great deal of pressure and responsibility is placed upon his shoulders.

With Gilles Villeneuve dying after an accident during practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, there was suddenly a vacancy in the Ferrari F1 line-up. Patrick Tambay had no second thoughts and accepted an offer from Maranello as soon as it was made, joining the team to play the role as Didier Pironi’s number two as from the Dutch Grand Prix. Then came Pironi’s dreadful practice accident at Hockenheim and, within six weeks of joining the team, Tambay suddenly found himself with the pressure and responsibility of leading the team.

To his great credit, he managed to win a significant victory in the German Grand Prix: significant not so much because of the fact it was his first F1 triumph, but because of its timing. The Ferrari team was in the depths of despair after Saturday qualifying; it had started the season with the strongest driving team in the business and now it was reduced to relying on a relative newcomer with little experience at the wheel of the turbocharged 126C2. But one only had to see the reaction on the Ferrari mechanics’ faces on the Sunday afternoon to realise that Tambay had secured a very special place in their hearts. Psychologically, the benefit which accrued to him from that win has given him an impetus from which he is still benefiting a year later.

This year Tambay’s position has changed significantly. From being the man who “held the act together” so heroically, he’s now pitched in as equal number one with the uncompromising Rene Arnoux, a man who’s gained a reputation as one who drives a pretty hard bargain, both on the track and off. Many people felt that Rene would easily outclass his former F/Renault rival and Teddy Mayer, whose path crossed with Tambay’s in the McLaren days, was moved to remark: “I think Arnoux will eat Tambay for lunch . .” But because Arnoux has turned out to be a disappointment as a test and development driver, Tambay has made him look foolish on more than one occasion.

There’s an air of steely, controlled confidence about Patrick Tambay in 1983. The charm is still there, but he is clearly taking Formula One more seriously than ever, relishing the amount of time spent by the Ferrari team analysing every aspect of its cars’ performance in every test session, practice and race they carry out.

“After a race, we talk, talk, talk,” he says with great relish, “I then go home and have a long think about my car’s performance before composing a telex to the factory in which I itemise every detail about the engine’s performance, the chassis behaviour through the corners — on entry, apex, exit — its revs on the straight, its oil pressure, its water temperature. . . This, for me, is what’s been missing in my relationship with teams in the past. At McLaren I never heard from anybody between races; but now hardly a day goes by without me speaking to Mauro Forghieri on the ‘phone. . .”

Twelve months ago, Tambay was content in his role as a Ferrari driver. Naturally, his vision has now widened to encompass the possibility of winning the World Championship. But he refuses to make it an obsession. “I can only go out and do the best possible job I’m capable of in each race. I can’t control what other people do, so I may end up with the Championship, and I may not. Obviously I think it’s possible. If not this year, then perhaps next.”

All Grand Prix drivers have egos, but Tambay’s unhappy experiences on the way to his current position of prominence have ensured that his is rather more under control than many of his rivals’. He admits that his family and his racing are his two main preoccupations in life, interestingly in that order. Critics may suggest that he lacks the total commitment that makes a real Champion, but many more might suggest that he simply retains a sense of perspective lacking in many of his colleagues. Either way, Champion or not, Patrick Tambay is acknowledged as one of the most pleasant and accommodating individuals in a world which is not always characterised by displays of personal charm. — AH.