Patrick Depallier raced not to get rich nor win championships but because he loved it. Mark Hughes remembers a man of simple needs and mighty talent
Ken Tyrrell is unequivocal on the subject of Patrick Depallier: “He loved being a racing driver more than any other driver I’ve ever known. He was a boy who was living his dream and it showed every time he was in the car.”
It is telling that Tyrrell still refers to him as a boy, this man who was 34 years old when he left Ken’s team, just a week short of 36 when he perished testing Alfa Romeo’s Formula One car at Hockenheim in 1980. Aside from his stint in French national service, Patrick had never had any occupation other than racer, first on motorbikes, quickly moving on to cars. Yet this wasn’t through the indulgences of a wealthy family – he came from an ordinary middle class background in Clermont Ferrand, his father an architect for the council – it was through wilfully following his passion. The love and that will combined were what gave Depailler the life of his dreams and made much of his make-up as a driver. It was a dream from which he never wanted to wake, indeed never did, for the man that died at the Ostkurve that Friday afternoon was still joyfully following his passion with little thought for any of the more mundane, adult concerns of life.
Sophisticates might have passed him off as blinkered and naive, macho types would have been deeply impressed by his embrace of danger wherever it lay on the race track, scuba diving, hang-gliding, downhill skiing, motorcycling yet he would probably have been unconcerned with either reaction. He wasn’t projecting for anyone, he was doing it for himself.
He’d never been the extrovert type. The youngest of three and the only boy, his sister Chantal was his senior by just one year. She remembers him as “a very sweet child, very affectionate with us”, but she also saw the early signs of the will: “We used to fight like cats and dogs even though we were inseparable. My mother used to say we were like twins.”
His lifetime friend Jean-Paul Ray also saw the determination that was not immediately apparent to those who saw only a reserved exterior: “He was a very gentle guy but he had a real power, a will which was very strong. Nothing could stop him doing what he wanted to do.”
What he wanted to do didn’t much involve school. Although it wasn’t realised at the time, this may have had something to do with an eye problem, as Chantal recalls: “Academically, he wasn’t at all strong but it wasn’t until he was 11 or 12 that the doctor discovered a problem. He had to wear glasses for a while and eventually it corrected itself. But by then he found it very difficult to catch up at school.” He was also red/green colour-blind.
But at 16 he was far from blind to the charms of a particular girl, Huop, who walked past his house each clay on her way to school. “He was a friend of a friend,” she recalls, “and I got to know him. We discovered we had the same birthday, 9th August, 1944.” They became boyfriend and girlfriend and, in later years, husband and wife.
But Huop had to share him to another enthusiasm motorbikes. This was undoubtedly intensified by the presence of the Clermont-Ferrand race track nearby. Ray recalls that in his teens, “he had a small moped and later he got a bigger motorbike and would modify the engine in a small garage with the house. He was crazy on it but very good. There was a corner of the track that was part of the public road that he would ride through repeatedly.” From there it was but a short step to race for real on the full track, though this was a secret not to be shared with Depailler père et mère.
“He started racing properly with a Norton Manx 500,” Ray remembers. “He was a fine rider, very sensitive in the wet, and he got very good results for what was an ordinary bike. He could have made a career from it for sure. But he was very shy and it was difficult for him to ask for anything, which was a weakness.”
It might have proved an insurmountable one had it not been for a spectating Jean-Pierre Beltoise at a Montlhéry race in 1964. A bike racer himself, he had recently graduated to cars but injured himself in the Reims 12 hour race. He couldn’t help but notice how well the guy on the unsuitable Norton was going: “I went to seek him out,” says Beltoise, further impressed by Depailler when he learned that they shared the same hero, Jean Behra, a bike racer who had gone on to become France’s finest F1 driver in the ’50s. “I told him that he really needed to give himself a fair chance with a better bike. I offered to lend him my bike, a Bultaco, as I couldn’t use it because of my injuries.” Depailler didn’t need to be asked twice.
After three races on Beltoise’s bike in ’64 and ’65, Jean-Pierre then suggested that Patrick too should consider cars and try his hand at the new racing school at Clermont. As the course required money, this entailed finally bringing Depailler’s parents up to date with his sporting activities. Beltoise was brought along to assure them their boy had talent and that he should pursue it further. “Naturally, they were not exactly thrilled,” says Beltoise, “but they couldn’t do anything against his determination.” Reluctantly they relented and Patrick entered the 1966 Volant Shell, with a fully paid drive in F3 on offer for the most promising pupil.
Mike Knight was in charge of operations and remembers his first impressions: “I was standing on the inside of the quickest corner of the circuit. He was the one guy who I thought, ‘Christ, he’s frightening me to death.’ Whatever line he would try, he was always flat, but there is only one line through that corner. He was extremely brave, but he made me nervous. You just got the feeling that he was driving as hard as he possibly could all the bloody time. I didn’t think he was monumentally gifted, just quick and brave.” The will and the passion were standing him in good stead. He finished runner-up in the competition to Francois Cevert.
It helped give him the necessary credibility to get a seat with Alpine in F3, a deal that was again massaged by Beltoise. At Monaco, Knight, who was also racing in the F3 event, saw first hand that for all Depailler’s bravery, there was still a boy at the core: “He was struggling in practice it was a big jump for him in that first year and a few guys came to me asking that I have a word with him because he wasn’t watching his mirrors. I said to him, ‘Patrick, it is not acceptable,’ and I remember thinking then ‘God, he’s really upset by this.’ You didn’t feel you were dealing with a 100% fully developed adult. He possibly wasn’t all that aware of things around him, which is slightly child-like, and when you went at him he just went very quiet; he never fired back.”
Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner confirms that the trait was still there even when Depailler was fighting it out on the F1 circuits of the world: “If you tried to berate him for an excursion or whatever, his defence was to just retreat into himself and that was it, you just couldn’t get to him there.”
The F1 career had come via winning the 1970 French F3 championship and the Monaco F3 event the following year With Elf backing and some F2 drives behind him, he was entered in a third Elf-backed Tyrrell at the 1972 French Grand Prix, alongside Jackie Stewart and Cevert, at his beloved Clermont-Ferrand. He showed a useful turn of speed in quali6ring but suffered two punctures in the race. He had a further promising run at the final race of the year, taking seventh at Watkins Glen. Tyrrell called him up again for a try-out at the end of ’73 but was aghast when on the eve of the event Depailler broke an ankle riding his motorbike…
Nonetheless, with Stewart’s retirement and Cevert’s death, Depailler was recruited as a full-time Tyrrell driver fOr 1974 and would stay there until the end of 78. Ken took the precaution of including a ‘no dangerous pastimes’ clause in his contract and could often be observed treating him like an errant schoolboy. Yet he formed a deep affection for him. “You couldn’t help but like him enormously, everybody did, he had that air of the little boy lost. When he got to an airport, you know, he would get himself lost, wander in and not know where to go or what to do, walking up and down with this look on his face. And always some nice stewardess seeing this would take charge and look after him. Never happened to me…”
“Right to the end, he remained the most down to earth and approachable of all the drivers,” says Ray. “Him and Gilles (Villeneuve) were the only two like that really.”
Although he showed fairly well in his first couple of seasons, and gained an excellent reputation as a development driver, he was a little overshadowed by his team-mate Jody Scheckter. While Scheckter was a regular winner, Depailler proved adept only at finishing second or third. Jean-Paul Ray recalls a conversation he had with him at this time: “He was honest enough to admit to me that he was a bit afraid. He said it was very pleasurable to drive maybe two tenths off but to find those two tenths was not nice, not comfortable.”
Which makes it all the more remarkable that his best drives during this time were the ones that placed even more emphasis than normal on bravery, like his 1975 German Grand Prix at the ‘green terror’ of the Nürburgring. Conquering the fear, one suspects, was very much part of the attraction for him.
Scheckter sees other factors than fear which he felt held his team-mate back from ultimate success. “He was like nearly all the French drivers in that he was optimistic; unrealistically so really. You’d be testing somewhere and be quickest and he’d say, ‘Oh, the car is wonderful, perfect2Then the next day some other teams would arrive and we’d be doing the same times as the day before but be half a second off their pace and then he’d say ‘Oh, the car is a piece of shit.’ He was fast but he was… not a joke, but not really championship material. He would sometimes have a glass of wine before qualifying, a very French thing believing it made no difference he smoked a lot, he went motorbiking, hang-gliding, there were girl problems. One year in Spain, Ken got a call saying Patrick was in jail, could he get him out. It was because he’d come late and overtook all the traffic on the outside and they locked him up. This is on the day of the race, you know. So you add those little bits and pieces up and eventually you’re not there to win championships.”
Scheckter says all this with affection but also from the perspective of a driver to whom the whole motivation was success. Depailler, one senses, had a love of what he was doing that subjugated that need.
Yet he became better and better. In 1978 he finally climbed the top step of the podium with a fine win in the Monaco Grand Prix. The paddock was universally delighted for him. “He was very confident about that race,” reveals Ray. “Even after all those years without a win and he’d only qualified, I think, on the third row, he said at breakfast, ‘I’m sure I’m going to win today.'”
At around this time he’d split from Huop. Their son Loic, now racing Indy Lights in the USA, confirms that his mother was very stressed by Patrick’s racing: “People tell me that from the first lap to the last she would go somewhere else and wouldn’t even look at the cars, she was so afraid he’d have an accident.”
“At this time,” Ray recalls, “he was going through a terrible time with the divorce and he said it was so nice just to be in the car, he felt it was the only time he could forget everything.” Depailler’s partner for the rest of his time was a girl called Valerie. Ray remembers: “One day they were having a big argument, which was usual, and I said to him, ‘What’s the difference between this and your wife? It looks the same to me.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m just happy to be alive and doing what I’m doing.”
At the end of the season Depailler reluctantly ended his long relationship with Tyrrell too. The team had lost its main sponsor and he’d had an offer to join his friend Jacques Laffite at the French Ligier team. In his half-season with them he won the Spanish Grand Prix in a dominant performance. Then it all went wrong, as Ken Tyrrell recalls: “When he left he phoned me and said ‘Ken, it’s wonderful, I can do anything, go skiing, anything, there are no clauses.’ We had always arranged his life insurance and he asked if I would pay the renewal, which I did. Well, the next communication I had with him was from a hospital bed with two broken feet from a hang-gliding accident. Very predictable.”
On the eve of the French Grand Prix he’d decided to try out his new pastime from a hill which was too difficult for his limited experience. “That was typical,” avows Ray. “He could not run well because of his motorcycle accident in ’73, and really you need that for hang-gliding. Plus he’d had no proper instruction, he had no knowledge of the technical side of it the wind and the turbulences because he assumed he had some special gift. Stupid.” The left ankle was badly damaged and during the summer he endured as many as 12 operations on it. While recuperating, he signed a contract with Alfa Romeo for 1980. There were those who wondered if he’d ever be the same driver.
By the third race he’d silenced such doubters with a strong qualifying performance in Kyalami followed by third on the grid at Long Beach. But the Alfa was woefully unreliable. At Paul Rican’ he suffered a huge accident in testing through suspected skirt or suspension failure. He climbed out unharmed, only to suffer a similar accident at Brands Hatch in qualifying for the British Grand Prix.
“We were using titanium suspension,” says his Alfa team-mate Bruno Giacomelli, “to get the weight down as it was a heavy car, but I don’t think it was really the right material. I had three or four Crashes from broken suspension that season.
“I remember Hockenheim like it was yesterday. He turned up that morning looking better than I’d ever seen him, really fit. He’d Just come back from a holiday with Valerie. He came with a friend of Valerie’s, Agnesa, who was the ex-girlfriend of Didier Pironi, because she couldn’t make it that day. The team were having problems with both our cars but his was ready first. He said why didn’t I try his car, so I did a couple of laps. It felt okay and I was very careful with it. Then when I came in, my car was ready and I said, ‘Look I might as well get in my proper car’. So I got out and they called Patrick over. He stubbed his cigarette out and as we passed we had a little wrestle, you know, just fun. He jumped in the car, came past the pits one time, and never came by again.”
Something caused the Alfa to slide head on into the barrier at the fastest corner on the circuit. He stood no chance. But would have done if the catch fencing had been up. “We were stupid,” sighs Giacomeili. “They were doing some work on the track and the fencing was down. We knew about it but didn’t do anything.” In France, a seven year old boy watching the TV heard the news of his father’s death. Passion has its price.