Patrick Tambay interview

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It is often cited as a quirk of history that McLaren chose him ahead of Gilles Villeneuve for 1978, but people forget that Patrick Tambay was at the time regarded as a similarly hot property. Subsequent results might not have met expectations, but that doesn’t alter the facts…

Writer Simon Arron | photographer Howard Simmons

The figure in the shadows looked familiar, but it was only as opening doors cast light upon him that the truth was confirmed. I was about to step into a lift with Brian Redman, whose Can-Am accident in 1977 created a fruitful career opportunity for the man I was due to interview elsewhere in the same building. He and Patrick Tambay were at the Royal Automobile Club, London, to promote recently launched books, so the encounter was a touch less coincidental than it might have been, but still it seemed appropriate.

One storey up, Tambay – now 67 – is equal parts culture, charm, good humour and dignity. He has been battling for several years with Parkinson’s Disease, and is keen to help others with the same condition, yet remains active in Formula 1 as a commentator for French channel RMC. He has trenchant views about the modern version of a sport he still loves, but that’s because he cares. That passion has been a constant since he made what would nowadays be considered an impossibly late start to his career, at the age of 23.

“There was absolutely no racing history in my family,” he says, “although my parents were very sporty. Dad played tennis and my mother was a very good swimmer, so there was a competitive spirit. I played lots of sports and found they all came quite easily to me – leastways up to a certain level.”

Or perhaps slightly beyond. The young Tambay was an accomplished skier, a champion on both snow and water, and made it into the French downhill team captained by triple Olympic gold medallist Jean-Claude Killy. “We had a special deal with Renault on 8 Gordinis,” he says, “and used to time each other from ski station to ski station to see who was quickest. We would also take our cars to the Circuit du Luc, a small test track, to wear out the tyres and knacker the brakes. Mine didn’t last all that long because eventually I crashed it…” As confirmation of the group’s competitive zest, future sports car legend Bob Wollek was also at its core.

Mucking about in Renaults bore only a passing resemblance to racing, but Tambay took a step closer during a visit to the Monaco Grand Prix. “By chance I met Alain Boisnard, who used to be a cinematographer for [Elf motor sport boss] François Guiter,” he says. “I ended up spending the weekend carrying his tripod – in those days you could wander around quite freely behind the barriers. There were a few straw bales, but safety measures were very limited. One evening there was a cocktail party and I helped push around some Winfield racing school Formula Renault cars that were there. I asked whether it might be possible to try one and was told, ‘Yes, just go to Paul Ricard.’ I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing. I went on the train with some friends and that’s when the bug really took hold.”

By now studying at – and skiing for – the NCAA university in Colorado, Tambay showed sufficient aptitude at the wheel to be invited to Winfield’s end-of-year finals, where the judges included Ken Tyrrell and his French F1 star François Cevert. “Unlike most of the others I could speak English,” he says, “and that was a big advantage. During the finals my car stopped quite close to where Ken and François were standing. I pulled off and said to François, in English, ‘I don’t have any throttle, I think the cable has snapped.’ He was quite technically minded and told me to look behind the carburettor for a small linkage, which might need to be reattached. I still had my helmet on, so it wasn’t easy to see what I was doing, but I found it, effected the repair and got going again. François said, ‘This one is a smart kid, he’ll go far’.”

Tambay duly won the scholarship, the prize for which was an Elf-funded season in the 1972 French Formula Renault championship “with a small truck, one mechanic and a salary – a fantastic opportunity”.

He was a race winner in that first season, when Jacques Laffite won the title, and in 1973 finished level on points with René Arnoux, although the latter took the championship by dint of having one more victory to his name. “Unfortunately I had to miss a couple of races,” Tambay says, “because I sprained my neck after another car landed on top of mine, but it was the dawn of a great adventure for René and I.”

***

Logic dictated that Elf would promote him to F3, but Tambay had other ideas. “At that stage F3 in France was not very strong, and I felt it would be better to go directly to F2. I still have some of the correspondence, because my stance created all sorts of arguments. Elf thought I was too ambitious but eventually let me move up, to learn.”

He would spend three seasons in F2, his rookie campaign ending with three fourth places and seventh in the standings before he finished equal second in 1975 [behind Laffite] and third in ’76, when Jean-Pierre Jabouille headed an all-French 1-2-3-4. It was a golden age for the nation that invented motor racing, a time when mere possession of a French passport seemed enough to guarantee solid progress. “Our economy was strong,” Tambay says, “and we had the support of Elf…”

He did not, however, have enough backing to secure an F1 seat – for the time being, at least. “I went to Watkins Glen at the end of 1976,” he says, “to chat to teams and ask what it would take to make the next step. While I was in the States Sid Taylor from Theodore Racing got in touch and told me to get to Riverside, because they had an F5000 vacancy.” The Frenchman qualified sixth, but retired early from his heat before finishing ninth in the final. He had, though, created a favourable impression.

Elf offered full backing for a fourth season of F2 in 1977, but couldn’t promise anything beyond limited assistance in F1. Tambay persisted with his dream, however, rejecting his sponsor’s firm offer in favour of a winter of telex and counter-telex, liaising with F1 teams until finally striking a deal to race a Theodore-run Ensign in the second half of the season, notionally starting in France. 

That was only a couple of weeks away when Redman flipped his Haas Racing Lola T332CS, while practising for the opening round of the revived Can-Am Championship at St Jovite. Which is where we came in. The Englishman sustained serious injuries that would keep him out of the cockpit for several months, so French photographer Bernard Cahier passed Tambay’s phone number to Carl Haas. The consequence? Six wins from seven starts and a first championship title on anything other than skis.

It was to be a busy summer of constant transatlantic voyages, but the Ensign wasn’t ready for the French GP. Tambay turned up, though, and on Saturday was asked to take the helm of Larry Perkins’s Surtees TS19, which the Australian had been struggling to qualify. Tambay fared little better and eventually went off. “With greater maturity,” he says, “if I’d been offered the same kind of opportunity I’d have said ‘no’, but I was a mad young dog at that stage and needed to earn enough money to feed myself, so I accepted.”

***

A fortnight later Silverstone was the stage for a collection of F1 firsts: Gilles Villeneuve’s debut in a third McLaren, Renault’s maiden post-war GP appearance, the arrival of turbocharged engines, Michelin and radial tyres, plus the belated baptism of the Theodore Ensign, for which Tambay had been required to find sponsorship to the tune of $80,000 (for the full half-season, not just the one race). Villeneuve stole many a headline, but Tambay was also impressive: they were first and second in pre-qualifying, then the Frenchman started 16th while Clay Regazzoni failed to make the cut in the works Ensign. Electrical problems condemned him to an early retirement, but it was a promising start. 

“After that,” he says, “Theodore wanted me to commit to a long-term contract and [team owner] Teddy Yip told me I couldn’t drive in Germany if I didn’t sign. I said ‘F**k you’ but he allowed me to carry on anyway!” Tambay finished sixth at Hockenheim, scrapped with the Ferraris of Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann in Austria, was on course for third place in Holland until he ran out of fuel (although he was still classified fifth) and took another fifth in Canada – startling results for a small, new team in an oversubscribed field. Small wonder, then, that there was widespread interest in Tambay’s services.

“I’d been due to see Enzo Ferrari, but he was unwell so I didn’t go,” he says. “Subsequently I was in London, about to head back to America for a Can-Am race, when Marlboro called me to a meeting. McLaren boss Teddy Mayer walked in with a massive briefcase and pulled out a contract. You have to remember that I’d been racing for only five or six seasons, so to have the chance to join a winning team like McLaren… At the time it seemed a logical choice.

“At Monza, after signing for McLaren, I asked Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri if I could meet the old man and we went together to Fiorano. I was allowed to speak French, which Forghieri translated, then at the end Mr Ferrari said to me – in very good French – ‘Tambay, you’ve made a terrible mistake. You should have waited and signed for us. You could have earned good money here and become world champion’.”

While Ferrari swooped for Villeneuve, that McLaren deal bore little fruit. The M26 chassis was past its best by 1978, as Colin Chapman rewrote the aerodynamic rules with Lotus, and the following M28 was – to coin a technical term of Tambay’s choosing – “a shitbox”.

Despite modest results, there was the possibility of staying with McLaren for a third term, but one day McLaren boss Teddy Mayer rang Tambay’s Notting Hill Gate flat. “He said I was needed at a Paul Ricard test, to drive alongside Alain Prost. I replied, ‘You want a shoot-out? I’ve been with you for two years and you still don’t know my capabilities? Forget it, I’m going back to the States.’ That’s when I called Carl Haas…”

***

The renewed alliance picked up another Can-Am title in 1980, after which Tambay contemplated a combined Indycar and Can-Am programme with VDS. F1’s siren call lured him back, however, to drive the Theodore TY01 for Teddy Yip’s reconstituted team. He was sixth in the opening race at Long Beach, but that would be his only point – despite switching mid-season to Ligier, to replace the retiring Jean-Pierre Jabouille (who had not recovered fully from leg injuries sustained the previous year).

“My first race with Ligier was at Dijon and the car was bottoming terribly,” he says, “although things were much better next time out at Silverstone. I was as quick as Laffite and getting on exceptionally well with Gérard Ducarouge, my engineer. I think Jacques and his crew realised I was going to give them trouble – and the next thing I knew Ducarouge had been fired. After that things weren’t so good…”

He was dropped at the season’s end, but offered another F1 chance early in 1982 when Arrows boss Jackie Oliver asked him to replace the injured Marc Surer in the South African GP. “That was a good deal for Jackie,” he says, “because I had no retainer and paid for my own flights from Hawaii to London, then London to Johannesburg – and arrived in the middle of all the political turmoil, with drivers threatening to go on strike in a row about superlicences and the possibility that we’d all be fined $5000 for doing so. My daughter had just been born and life away from F1 felt good, so I just said, ‘Look, I have other things to do in the States’ and left. 

“That year’s Arrows wasn’t particularly good, either, and it was a time when the drivers’ feet were so far forward that the risk of serious leg injuries was quite high. Some years later Michael Schumacher was asked to drive one of my old Ferraris at Fiorano. He took one look and asked, ‘Did you really race this kind of shit?’ It was freshly rebuilt and he still didn’t fancy driving it!”

Early in ’82, of course, this was one of Tambay’s future Ferraris. He might not have needed F1, but the reverse wasn’t necessarily true. “I was in my father-in-law’s office in Hawaii,” he says, “10 hours behind European time, when the phone rang and somebody said, ‘It’s for you’…” Even today his voice tails off as he recalls the moment Didier Pironi called to inform him of Gilles Villeneuve’s passing. “I’d known Gilles since 1976, when we were racing in North America, and we’d become friends, but then everybody liked Gilles. He was just one of those people, charming, always laughing, a lovely guy. When I heard I felt as though the world was shrinking around me.

“Didier later told me it was his idea that Ferrari should offer me a drive, although I don’t know whether that’s true. He was leading the championship at the time and perhaps thought there could be nobody better than one of Gilles’s closest friends to support him.”

Tambay made his debut for Ferrari in Holland, scored his first F1 podium at Brands Hatch and took a maiden victory at Hockenheim, on the weekend that Pironi suffered career-ending leg injuries in a practice accident. The following year, on the anniversary of Villeneuve’s final GP start, Tambay – by now racing alongside old sparring partner Arnoux – added another F1 success at Imola, but the second would also be the last. “My biggest moments in racing have come at times when things were emotionally charged, but I’ve no idea why,” he says. “Perhaps I draw extra motivation from outside influences, but I’m really not sure.”

***

His 18 months with Ferrari form the focus of his new book. “Writing it was interesting,” he says, “because I learned stuff about others – and also about myself. I wanted to do it for my family, so that the younger members could find out about my life before I became a has-been!

“I have only good memories of my time with Ferrari, with one exception. That was when [Italian journalist] Pino Allievi called and said, ‘Have you heard?’ He’d been told Ferrari was hiring Michele Alboreto to replace me and called to get my reaction. I was aware that things were a bit touch and go with [team manager] Marco Piccinini, but that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with racing. At Detroit, for instance, I didn’t stay for the post-race briefing because I wanted to watch Yannick Noah play Mats Wilander in the French Open tennis final! Piccinini saw that as unprofessional.”

The first recorded instance of a Formula 1 driver being fired because of a tennis match? “You could say that…”

From there Tambay transferred to Renault, for the final two seasons of the company’s first F1 adventure, then reunited with Carl Haas as the American joined forces with Ford for a short-lived Grand Prix programme. “On paper we had the dream team – Neil Oatley, Ross Brawn, Adrian Newey, Alistair Caldwell… a really good bunch of people. The chassis was as good as any I raced, but at the end of the year Carl had two choices, one financial – to invest in business – and one sentimental, to carry on with the F1 team. He put his money into real estate instead and became very rich.”

Tambay later competed in sports cars and wondered about returning to F1 after turbos were banned at the end of 1988, but accepted that he was now considered too old. “I never announced my retirement,” he says, “but can probably make it official now. I competed in a VW Polo race at Hockenheim not too many years ago and afterwards Laffite gave me a hard time on French TV. I thought, ‘Have I really come back to this?’”

And so to his present role, as a pundit.

“The GPDA needs to be more forceful with Bernie, who hasn’t changed over the years,” Tambay says. “He wants a dictatorship, but we all know what happens to dictators nowadays.

“If I were in charge I’d bring back steel brakes, to extend stopping distances, and get rid of vanes and all the other crap they use to cool brakes. Teams know too much – and that’s not how you’re supposed to cool brakes. Bring back small ducts! We should get rid of diffusers, too, and return to a completely flat bottom. They also need to raise ride heights and simplify wings. As the cars will be higher, with reduced downforce, the suspension will work properly. I want to make things more spectacular…”