“My mechanics are pushing me into the car. I’m really angry. But I go out, and on the warm-up lap, the car feels perfect. I think ‘well, maybe’. And suddenly I have pole!”
Riccardo Patrese possessed the talent to be world champion, but is remembered best as one of F1’s true gentlemen. Are the two qualities mutually exclusive?David Malsher believes not
As Patrese stepped from the broken Brabham at Imola, the crowd applauded his gaffe. He had appeared to be coming between a Ferrari and victory.
At the same circuit, seven years later, the tifosi cheered his win to the echo. In a moment, he exorcised the demons of ’83, scored his first win for over six seasons, and completed his rehabilitation in the eyes of both the Italian crowd and the Formula One community. All applauded an enfant terrible-turned respected and loved elder statesman.
Enfant terrible? Hard to remember now, isn’t it? In 1977, his first year in F1, Riccardo showed a blend of great pace and F3-style tactics when duelling. But even his speed was underappreciated at the time. He was closely matched with Shadow team-mate Alan Jones, but noone yet knew how to peg the Aussie.
“Alan was a fantastic team-mate,” recalls Riccardo. “It was more important to us to beat each other than to go for pole. On my pitboard in qualifying I used to have his lap times as well as my own, and the same for him.
“Shadow wasn’t a top team, but as a young driver I had time to mature. Also, there were really good people there, like Alan Rees, who was close to me and gave me advice to make me better.”
Riccardo was thus part of the plan when Rees and Jackie Oliver and designer Tony Southgate split away to form Arrows.
“When he led in the FA1 at Kyalami, I felt it was down to his talent rather than our car,” says Southgate. “But he was always quite hard on the machinery. He never over-revved going up the ‘box, but he used a lot of engine braking, and whereas we should have been using a 10,800rpm limit, he would occasionally buzz it to 11,600 on dovvnchanges. But he was very quick, if a bit wild.”
Brabham personnel too had taken note of this raw pace. Says Patrese: “Bernie Ecclestone wanted me to sign a three-year contract with him, the same one that Nelson Piquet signed. But unfortunately I couldn’t do that because I already had a letter of intent with Mr Ferrari, because Gilles Villeneuve was not going very well at the start of ’78.
“It was a dream of mine to drive for Ferrari, so I couldn’t say yes to Bernie.But then Gilles went better, won the final race of the year, and Mr Ferrari said to me, ‘Sorry, I cannot honour the letter’.”
And so Riccardo missed out on two highly-prized seats one that might have made him a championship contender in 1979, the other that would have put him in the running for the ’80 and ’81 titles. It is as well that he didn’t yet know this, for his season had already turned grey — then black. First, a court decided [in favour of Shadow] that the Arrows FA1 was too similar to the car he had been driving for his erstwhile team. The hurriedly-crafted A1 was no substitute.
Then his fellow drivers gave him a horrific and unjustified mauling after the Monza shunt which killed Ronnie Peterson, in which Patrese was very clearly an innocent party.
This shaped Riccardo’s F1 persona for some years. “I became closed and suspicious. And this made people think I was arrogant,” he says. And he found little solace in the racing side. Other than second at Long Beach in ’80, the next two years were largely barren.
The same track the following year brought team and driver their first pole position — and a retirement. This was followed by two more podiums and a handful of top six qualifications.
Southgate remembers feeling sad for Riccardo. “That season started really well; the A3 was a basically good car, with good amounts of downforce, and we had a good set-up for most circuits. But then the enforced switch from Michelin to Goodyear lost us our speed. The year just went downhill from there.”
By then, though, Patrese had signed a two-year deal with Brabham. “And he wasn’t signed as a number two,” says Gordon Murray. “Bernie and I wanted two excellent drivers in the team.”
Brabham was going through a transitional phase in 1982. Piquet had won the title the previous year, but Ferrari had at last produced a half-decent chassis in which to install their powerful and reliable turbo engine, so Murray had accepted the ’82 honours would go to Maranello. Thus he decided to concentrate his efforts — and those of new partner BMW — on regaining success the following year with a turbo.
“Everyone expected Gilles to win the title in ’82,” says Patrese, “so Nelson went straight into the BT50 to help develop the BMW. But I won with the Cosworth BT49D in Monaco, and when I swapped to turbo I was still ahead of Keke Rosberg in the points. In a BT49D, I just might have been champion.”
“My fault,” admits Murray. “I didn’t realise how much quicker than the Williams the 49D was; it was a big step forward from 49C. Concentrating on the BMW and its engine management made it all too easy to overlook the potential of something we already had.”
The increase in development speed after Patrese switched to BMW power meant Brabham entered the 1983 season in a very strong position. But Riccardo’s Imola faux pas meant Piquet would become their prime challenger.
“If I had won, I might have been in discussion for the championship,” says Riccardo, “but I lost the points, and a bit of morale for a few races. And Brabham had to decide who to support. I agreed to test new things during races, so they would be reliable for Nelson at the next race, and I would help him get the title.”
And that is precisely what he did — though there was a moment of conflict at Monza, when Patrese took pole. The issue was blurred because Ecclestone had not yet re-signed his ‘number two’.
“I said, ‘Bernie, what do I have to do tomorrow?’ I hoped he would say, ‘You must help Nelson and let him through. If you do this, we can sign a contract.’ Instead, he said Do what you feel; if you think you can win then win — but it would be nice if you gave us help with the championship.’ As usual with Bernie, you never get a precise answer. So I went to Gordon, we argued, and I said, ‘OK: I haven’t won a race this year, you haven’t given me a contract, I’m on pole in Italy, I want to win.
“Well, I did one and a half laps, and the bloody thing blew up.”
At Brands Hatch though, Patrese couldn’t have been more helpful, delaying Prost for many laps to allow Piquet to win. In the final round at Kyalami, Riccardo got his reward with a second victory, as his team-mate took the title.
“But still I had no deal for ’84, so I signed for Alfa Romeo. And then I had a phone call from Bernie saying ‘Why did you sign for Alfa?’ Pah!”
“Alfa had big plans, but in the end, everything was just rubbish. They were bad technically, and the atmosphere in 1984 and ’85 was very dodgy.”
Riccardo ran into Ecclestone’s arms for 1986 to drive the fabulous-looking lowline BT55, a leaving present from Gordon Murray as he departed for , McLaren. Riccardo, like everyone, was 5 impressed by what he saw, but rather less enamoured with what he drove.
“It wasn’t comfortable, lying down with 1300bhp in your neck. I don’t know how we qualified sixth at Monaco!”
Immediately following that race, there was a test at Paul Ricard. “I was supposed to go but Elio [de Angelis] specifically asked whether he could do that test instead. When he was killed, it was the worst day of my career. Other drivers died while I was in F1, but a team-mate is something different I felt so bad in the soul. Mr Ecclestone consoled me, and I went on.”
A single third place was the only reward for his commitment the following year, so Ecclestone, knowing there would be no Brabham team in 1988, took up Patrese’s cause.
“He said to me, ‘You are the quickest, you are the best, you ought to test with Williams, because they have the best cars. These ones are shit,’ he said, pointing to his own BT56s! So I tested for Williams at Imola and I matched their qualifying times from the San Marino GP, and I got the drive.”
What could have been the twilight of Riccardo’s career would become the zenith. But Williams was not the best place to be in 1988 with Judd engines and, initially, active suspension.
“Williams were used to winning everything, so they got very depressed. But for me, it was quite normal to be low down the grid and a little bit in the shit. So I had to keep the morale high. Then in September, we started testing Renault engines, and from that moment we all got some fresh motivation.”
The first round of 1989, in Brazil, marked the start of the Williams-Renault partnership, the start of Patrese’s most consistently successful period in F1, and the race in which he became the most experienced grand prix driver ever. He started his record-breaking 177th GP from the front row.
“It was a fantastic season, lots of podiums. I was third in the championship behind the McLarens and was always competitive. I got pole in Hungary, and deserved to win there and Montreal.”
Perhaps even more impressive was the pace of a man in his 13th season of F1; in two years with team-mate Thierry Boutsen, Riccardo outqualified him 20-12, though the Belgian had it in wins, 3-1. But the second of these two seasons, 1990, was a curious one for Riccardo, almost the opposite of the year before. He won at San Marino, and generally the cars were in the hunt But he failed to register another podium.
“FW13B was not a great car, but then came FW14, which was fantastic from the first moment it was drawn!”
And Riccardo was with it all the way. Nigel Mansell’s return to Williams was heralded with great fanfare by the media, but in the first half of the season it was the Italian veteran who carried the hopes of the British team. The man least surprised by this was Riccardo.
“Nigel was made very welcome by the team, but I was established there and Biked the car very much. That confidence gave me speed.”
At each of the first seven races, ‘white six’ qualified ahead of ‘Red Five’ and Riccardo took three poles on the not One of these led to a brilliant win in Mexico ahead of Mansell and Senna.
“Nigel was not happy. Even before that, at Monaco in qualifying, he was really miserable, said he couldn’t feel the car. He asked the team WI could try his car in a test to help him find some speed. A very unusual situation.
“Then in the second half of the year he was very quick again and he got to a position where he could fight for the championship. I started to be out of contention when Gerhard Berger and I collided at the start of the British GP”
But there was still another moment I of magic from Patrese, at Estoril.
“In qualifying, my own car had broken the engine. I walked back to the pits and was very unhappy. There were about five minutes to go. Patrick Head said ‘You have to go in Nigel’s T-car,’ and I said ‘To do what?’ He said ‘You have one set of qualifiers left’ And I said ‘Yes, but I never drove this car once. It’s silly. It’s a waste of time.’
“So then my wife came and said like this [he puts on a sweet, cutesy voice]: “Riccardo, please can you get into the car?” My mechanics are pushing me down into this bloody car, and I’m trying to get out, and I’m really angry.
‘Anyway, I go out on the warm-up lap and the car is feeling perfect, so I think, `Mmm, maybe…’ And I do my lap, and suddenly I have pole position!”
And after all that, he was still prepared to race for the good of his team and move aside for Nigel.
“As part of a team, you must help everybody get the best result. On this occasion Nigel had a problem with his wheel in the pitlane and I could win.”
It would be his last for a while. The following year’s Williams FW14B soon proved one of the greatest F1 cars ever, but it was not to Patrese’s advantage. With traction control and active suspension, it required less feel, more bravery, less finesse, more muscle. Less Patrese, more Mansell.
Nigel won the first five rounds of the ’92 season, and Riccardo was immediately cast into the supporting role. At Magny-Cours he led the first 18 laps, resolutely battling with his team-mate until the race was halted for rain. In the interval, Head told Patrese in no uncertain terms just what was expected of him.
“I think it was very hard for Patrick to say, because he was always on my side. But I realised I had to come down from the cloud; it wouldn’t be possible for me to win the title that year.”
It would get worse. By the time Riccardo discovered that Nigel was leaving the team in protest at Prost’s imminent arrival, it was too late for the Italian to back out of a new contract with Benetton.
“I asked Benetton if they would release me, but they said, No, you are too important to us; without you we cannot do anything,’ and so on. I thought ‘Okay, if these people cannot live without me, then I will have to honour my word. But after two races of the 1993 season, Mr Briatore wanted to send me away, because he said it was time for me to go for my pension! In the end I survived to the end of the year with really very bad enthusiasm, and bad motivation.” A sad way for a 256 GP career to end.
“I partnered Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, and I gave them big trouble, but not to Michael. In my best form, maybe I could have pushed him hard too. I don’t know though; no one has proved yet that they can be as quick.”
So does Riccardo believe he was a number one or number two driver?
“Well, the way things turned out, I was number two to Nelson in Brabham and Nigel at Williams. But I believe in the right moment in the right car, probably I could win the championship.”
Gordon Murray concurs. “Riccardo needed the right sort of team, like a family around him — a bit like Carlos Reutemann, though nowhere near to the same extent. He needed a bit more belief in himself, and that’s something he might have achieved sooner if Nelson hadn’t been in Brabham. Certainly he had the ability to be a champion.”
“At the end of my career, I was not regretting anything,” says Riccardo. “I won grands prix, and though lam missing a championship, you know, human value was always very important to me too. And I think this has paid me back because I still have a very good relationship with F1 people I worked with and people I didn’t.”
No surprise really, is it? A perfect gentleman and a damn fine driver. One of a very rare breed.