Nigel Roebuck's Legends: Patrick Depailler

Automotive SAS man or with a death wish or committed racer who knowingly accepted the risks?

Tyrrell F1 driver Patrick Depailler at the 1976 Spanish GP

Few had Depailler's zest for life, even in the F1 community


Going through some old tapes recently, I came across an interview with James Hunt in the early ’80s. It was typical James, forthright but well-reasoned, and I smiled often as I listened again to that mahogany voice.

Although Hunt was sometimes spiky and disagreeable during his racing career, once he had given up driving, only the better parts of his complex personality remained. On the tape, as always, he took relish in saying exactly what he thought.

Patrick Depailler… well, I’ve no doubt that he had a death wish. Very pleasant bloke but I always thought he was barking mad…” Why? “Look at the way he lived his life,” James said. “Riding motorbikes without a helmet, that sort of thing. Depailler seemed to need to find risk in everything.” It was true that Patrick was never a man to give a thought to safety in motor racing, but still I couldn’t agree with Hunt’s contention that he had a death wish, and neither did Nick Brittan, his manager for many years. “No, no, not at all. Patrick loved life more than most people but he accepted the inevitability of death.”

Patrick Depailler driving for Tyrrell at the 1974 Brazilian GP

First full F1 season came with Tyrrell in 1974

Grand Prix Photo

Depailler’s life ended in August 1980, in a testing accident. There was only the scream of a single Alfa Romeo V12 to be heard at Hockenheim that Friday, which is how they knew the disaster had happened.

Immediately they rushed out into the forest, but their haste was in vain. Depailler had died almost instantly, within seconds of taking in that something in the front suspension had broken. The Ostkurve was then a top-gear corner, taken flat, and the Alfa never started into it, striking a guardrail head on, then vaulting over.

Photographs of the accident were more than usually poignant and wretched: bits of shattered car lying across catch fencing folded up behind the guard rail, ready for the Grand Prix a week hence. For mere testing no one had thought to install it.

But if I disagreed with Hunt’s contention that Depailler had had a death wish, still I always doubted that he’d retire. Brittan concurred: “He knew he floated right out to the fine edge he was powerful quick, and I think he knew it would happen one day. There was never any question of retirement in his mind.

Patrick Depailler driving for the Tyrrell F1 team at the 1978 French GP

Depailler took debut win in ’78

Grand Prix Photo

“Patrick was almost like a professional soldier a combat soldier. He absolutely loved what he was doing – there was nothing better in the world than being a bloody good race driver. He was the nearest thing to a sort of automotive SAS man, and people like that are aware there’s a good chance one day you’re not going to pack your kit bag. But that is not the same as having a death wish, far from it.”

Most of Depailler’s F1 career was with Tyrrell, and Ken always speaks of him with great affection: “Patrick was very French — never without a Gauloise, loved red wine. In a lot of ways he was a little boy all his life, always wanting to go skiing or motorcycling. And he had this trusting belief that everything would be all right in the end. He lived for the present.

From the archive

“I gave Patrick his first F1 drive, at Clermont-Ferrand in 1972, and then offered him a third car for the North American races in 73. A big chance for him — and ten days before he breaks his leg falling off a motorbike! Later, when he was driving full-time for me, I had it written into his contract that he kept away from dangerous toys.”

When Depailler’s Tyrrell won at Monaco in 1978, it was one of the days everyone in the paddock was happy. So many times before his fingertips had been on the hem of victory, but always it had slipped away.

At the end of that season he left for Ligier, and with sorrow, for Tyrrell was truly like family by now. But the Ligier proved more competitive. After winning at Jarama, the fifth round, Patrick shared the championship lead with Gilles Villeneuve, perhaps his nearest kindred soul in the sport.

Ligier’s JS11 was the fastest car of the moment, but Depailler’s rivalry with his team mate Jacques Laffite was very definitely that: a rivalry. There were no team orders, and at Zolder the two of them ran away from the rest — and into tyre troubles. Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari won, and Guy Ligier was furious. Patrick was bemused. “If you are a racing driver,” he shrugged, “surely you race…”

If Ligier was angry in Belgium, a few weeks later he was apoplectic. Unlike Tyrrell, he’d not precluded ‘dangerous toys’ from Depailler’s contact. After the Monaco GP, Patrick went hang-gliding, and severely injured his legs. He had flown too close to a mountain, and turbulence had pitched him into the rockface.

Ligier F1 team mates Patrick Depailler and Jacques Laffite with team boss Guy Ligier

Ligier rival with Laffite boiled over early on

Grand Prix Photo

The general reaction to Patrick’s accident was chillingly hard-nosed. In commercial terms, perhaps it was inevitable, but I found disturbing the lack of sympathy for a man perhaps staring at life in a wheelchair.

When I spoke to him, he said that the worst thing was not knowing if he would recover properly. “For a time there was the chance of amputation, and I was very frightened. Not for five months was I sure to drive again.”

Without that, Patrick seemed to be saying, life would be insupportable; in his terms, being alive meant being a racing driver.

I was very fond of Depailler, not least because his attitude to life and work was refreshingly haphazard in a world where dour automatons increasingly peopled professional sport. That said, working with him must have been sometimes maddening.

Nick Brittan laughed at the memory. “Well, you never knew what was coming next. I remember one day there was a knock on my door, and there stood this strange man. ‘Patrick sent me’, he said. ‘I ‘ave ze packet…’

“He opens his hand — and there’s this packet of uncut diamonds! ‘You’re to pay me £35,000’, he says. Hang on, I said; tried all Patrick’s numbers; finally I got hold of him: ‘Ah dites-donc! Forgot to tell you, sorry!’

“It was a rip-off, frankly, but the guy came back next day, got his money, and at the next race I gave Patrick the diamonds. That was him — spontaneous decisions, quite often wrong. You or I would be appalled at being ripped off on that scale, but it didn’t bother him: ‘I am ‘opeless, you know, with the business matters…’”

Racing had a narcotic hold on Depailler. I remember his speaking sadly of the end of his marriage: “She is scared of what I do — how can I blame her for that? But how can I stop this? First of all, it is necessary to be honest with yourself.”

After the hang-gliding accident, he thought only about coming back to F1. They say no driver is ever the same again after dreadful leg injuries, but Patrick was the exception. He may have hobbled unsteadily, but on the track he was unimpaired.

Alfa Romeo driver Patrick Depailler driving in 1980

The Frenchman was tragically killed when testing for Alfa Romeo in 1980

Grand Prix Photo

His hobbies were such as scubadiving, skiing, sailing — and the hang-gliding. He would look askance at colleagues carrying tennis racquets. “Le sport dur!” he would say. That was the appeal. Patrick had only two heroes: Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, both five-time winners of the Tour de France.

Francois Guiter, Elf’s competitions boss for so long, had a special affection for him. After the British GP they holidayed together in the Azores. “I never knew him happier than then,” Guiter said. “He was with a girl he loved, completely relaxed and at peace. And then, of course, he went back early to do the test at Hockenheim.”

Nick Brittan recalls a dinner with Patrick at Zandvoort “We were in a little restaurant, talking about getting his finances into shape. ‘Patrick,’ I said, ‘we really ought to think about the future.’ And I remember he smiled at that ‘No, no’, he said, ‘The future is for other people…’”