Out with a whimper

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The worst car I ever drove

The Alfa Romeo 185T was slow, heavy, unreliable and failed to score a single point. Not only did it almost finish Patrese’s career, it also ended Alfa’s once awesome presence in F1. By Adam Cooper

Will Riccardo Patrese’s record of 256 GP starts ever be beaten? Today it’s hard to imagine anyone surviving 17 years at the top level of the sport without burning out and the days of the 40-something F1 driver seem almost certainly over.

Patrese’s record is put into perspective by Jean Alesi. It sometimes seems that the Frenchman has been around for ever, but in order to usurp Riccardo he will have to still be in action around the time of the 2005 Monaco Grand Prix.

It was Patrese’s good fortune that not only did he finish his career with a top team (Benetton, alongside a certain Michael Schumacher), he also had access to reasonably competitive cars for almost the whole of his long career. But there was one unfortunate glitch, and it occurred on the only occasion he strayed away from a British team.

“The worst car I ever drove was the 1985 Alfa Romeo 185T,” he recalls with a sigh, “I didn’t get any championship points in it and quite apart from the fact that it was not reliable and competitive, it was also not very nice to drive, because the turbo lag was very uncomfortable. It was not pleasurable…”

After supplying engines to Brabham for several seasons Alfa returned to F1 in its own right in 1979, under the direction of the legendary Carlo Chiti. There were a few highs: Bruno Giacomelli took pole at Watkins Glen in 1980, Andrea de Cesaris repeated the feat at Long Beach in 1982 and led at Spa the year after that. But for the most part the team bumbled along in the shadow of Scuderia Ferrari.

In 1983 Alfa made a half-hearted attempt to cut its losses, and handed its racing operation to Paolo Pavanello, boss of the successful Euroracing F3 team. The following year Benetton came on board as main sponsor, and Patrese and Eddie Cheever joined the team to complete the fresh new look.

“Because I had an English attitude towards motor racing, I always found myself much happier racing for English teams,” says Riccardo. “In my time with Euroracing there was more pressure, because of course Alfa was behind the project, even if there was no direct involvement from the marque.

“In ’84 it was not great, but at least I got a podium at Monza, and fourth in South Africa. Anyway it was the first year, and everyone was expecting more the following season. But in fact it was much worse…

“The team owner, Mr Pavanello, always had something to say, and the designer didn’t have a free hand to do what he really wanted to do. He always had to compromise with the ideas of Mr Pavanello, and because of that the car didn’t come out well.

“When you first shake the car down you can see immediately if it has potential. It has to be quick, and then you find reliability, and of course you tune the car and go better. But if you come out of the box slow, with big problems, you’re in trouble.

“The new chassis and aerodynamics were not very good. I suppose that everything they did during the winter was not done the right way. The engine was very thirsty, so we had to carry a lot of fuel for a Grand Prix distance, so we were always very heavy

“More than that, the reliability was always bad. The turbos were always breaking, and we couldn’t manage many kilometres. This is also a problem; if you don’t have reliability to develop the car, you stand for four hours in the pits during testing, instead of being out there trying to find solutions.”

The season started out badly, and stayed that way. Although the cars could qualify in midfield, they faded in race trim, and rarely finished. In desperation the team fell back on the 1984 chassis in July, fitting some 1985 parts. Inevitably, the `bitza’ was hardly better.

“I don’t have any good memories. The only thing people remember about that season is my accident with Piquet at Monaco. It was very spectacular! Apart from the fact that the car was not performing, the relationship inside the team was not good. Everybody blamed everybody else. Somebody was blaming the engineers, the engineers were blaming the drivers, the drivers were blaming the engine people, and so on. In the end it was a big mess.” It gradually became apparent the team would not continue beyond the last race of the season Morale was not helped when at the penultimate event in South Africa Patrese and Cheever managed to take each other out on the first lap…

“I think I tried to overtake Piercarlo Ghinzani on the inside, and Eddie tried to overtake on the outside, and I touched my left rear with Ghinzani’s front right The car went left, on the outside, and Eddie was in the way. Pavanello was not happy, and having this bad atmosphere didn’t make the crash any better!

“We stopped because Alfa no longer wanted to commit themselves. It was my worst season, and for Eddie it was also not a good one. But it was, of course, much worse for the team, because after they withdrew there was a problem of bankruptcy. So the team had to close altogether, and they didn’t have the money to pay everybody. I did get something in the end, but at one stage it looked like we couldn’t have anything.”

Today Patrese admits that his record-breaking career might well have ground to a halt some eight years ahead of schedule.

“It was really fortunate that I had a very good relationship with Mr Ecclestone, and he gave me the chance to go back to Brabham. Otherwise after a year like that you risk stopping racing and finishing your career, because nobody looks at you with trust. But he took me back, and from that moment in 1986 I was able to begin a new chapter in my career. I started to get good results, went to Williams, and I finished my career in a good way.”