The one that got away: Riccardo Patrese: 1983, San Marino GP
A loss of concentration after a handful of corners in the lead resulted in a popular faux pas, the Italian ace tells Adam Cooper
“There were many races when I was in the lead, like South Africa 1978 or Monza ’92, when the car broke down. But Imola ’83 was even sadder, because in that case I had a crash that was purely my mistake. You were going to win… and then you lose, and you know that ifs all on your shoulders. You made a mistake. It’s even harder to accept.
“It’s a story that I don’t really like to remember much. Apart from the fact that I lost the race, the public was not very nice to me. Of course I was disappointed – I lost – but what made it even worse was that the fans were now much happier because Patrick Tambay went on to win the race for Ferrari.
“The previous year’s Brabham-BMW was very quick, but if I had stayed with my normally aspirated car I might have had a chance to go for the title. At the time I went from the BT49 to the turbo I was ahead of Keke Rosberg – and he eventually won the title. Everybody thought that Ferrari was going to win; no one could have imagined that they would have a problem with Didier Pironi as well as Gilles Villeneuve. So we changed to the turbo to get some reliability into the engine for 1983. And Nelson Piquet and I had many, many failures.
“For 1983, Gordon Murray designed the BT52. The car was very good looking and good to drive, even though it was not very sophisticated from an aerodynamic point of view. It was performing well because of its powerful engine; we could afford to have a lot of downforce from the wings. We benefited also from the Michelin tyres, which were very good that year.
“I qualified fifth in Imola. Nelson stalled on the grid and, by about lap six, I was leading. It’s always a good feeling when you lead a race, whether you are in Italy or not. But when you lead at the beginning, you never know if you’re going to finish; you can only really think about winning when you see the chequered flag.
“I had a very poor pitstop and dropped to second behind Tambay. I had to push very hard to catch him. But I caught him very quickly and, with five or six laps to go, overtook the Ferrari for the lead.
“Because I thought that I’d won the grand prix at that moment, I relaxed a little bit. Unfortunately, the asphalt was breaking up: it was very hot that day, and the track’s surface had just been laid. There was only one line because there were many, many small stones. I put my left-front tyre a little bit too wide in the second Minerali corner and I slid off as though I was on ice.
“The condition of the track played a part, though that’s no excuse because it was the same for everybody. But after pushing so hard, and then relaxing, I lost concentration. I was in the lead and everything felt easy… I had learned a harsh lesson: you need to concentrate until the last metre. The second I thought that I had won was when I had the problem.
“I knew that I hod lost a big chance. When I climbed out of the car I was so absorbed in my own thoughts about the fact that I had lost the grand prix that I did not really care what was going on around me. It was only in the evening when I watched on TV that I realised what the fans had been doing. For them, it was Ferrari or nothing – although when I got some better results, I think they came on my side. A little bit. It was only when I won the grand prix there in 1990 that I could again have a good feeling with the Imola crowd.
“In the short term, that crash took away any chance for me to go for the championship. The team now put its efforts behind Nelson. The idea was that if we had to test something new on the engine, it was tested on my car, because Nelson was fighting for the title. The team had sacrificed one driver to help the other and I retired from a lot of grands prix because of that.”