As fate would have it

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Patrick Tambay seemed to have little control over the direction of his rollercoaster — and successful — career. He talks to Marcus Simmons

He moved through motorsport like the hero in a Voltaire novel, his career seemingly shaped by destiny, a series of chance happenings and the recurrent reappearances of several figures who would disappear out of his story only to be reprised years later just when he least expected them to. The racing life of Patrick Tambay was inextricably linked with those of René Arnoux, Carl Haas, Didier Pironi, Gilles Villeneuve, Theodore Racing, Elf/Renault, Teddy Mayer and Alain Prost. It’s an amazing — and fanciful — story.

During his 1972-89 career, Tambay was a suave, articulate, charming twenty/thirty-something racing driver. Now he’s a suave, articulate, charming 56-year-old deputy mayor of Le Cannet (a little town near Cannes), grand prix commentator and karting dad.

In other words, he’s the polar opposite to the spontaneous, quirky Arnoux, the man with whom his career was most intertwined. An odd couple they looked at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, where both were present as ambassadors for Renault. And an odd couple they must have looked back in 1973, when they fought a duel for the European Formula Renault title that Arnoux won by virtue of his greater win tally (they were equal on points).

“René was the same then as he is today!” laughs Tambay. “He lived in a little caravan and went from track to track in it. He was a very, very strong rival — and 1973 was just the beginning of it. I missed a race at the end of the season because of an accident but it was such a strong battle — seven wins and six second places for him, six wins and seven second places for me!”

Tambay was in his second season in FRenault, which he’d got into by accident. In fact, his teenage years suggested his future was on the ski slopes rather than the racetracks. He was a French junior downhill champion and, on the back of his skiing form, won a scholarship to the University of Colorado: “My education as a sportsman was based around skiing. That’s where I learned the physical and mental attitudes of sport. I did competitive skiing with the French national team until I went to university. And then I discovered the Renault Elf school at the Paul Ricard track…”

He was already a fan, of sorts, of motor racing, through magazine articles and work as a cameraman at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, “but I never dreamt of being capable of driving a racing car or being a competitor, never mind a Formula One driver. It was a world very far away from any expectations I had.”

That wasn’t the opinion, though, of Ken Tyrrell or François Cevert, who were among the judges of the first ever Pilote Elf contest (with its prize of a free season in FRenault) at the Paul Ricard circuit in late 1971: “There were two sessions of 10 laps and I won the two series on the stopwatch. That was the major deciding factor. But on top of it I was coming from two years at Colorado University — I spoke American English, and for a Frenchman that was a bit unusual. Of all the drivers lined up in the final I was the only one capable of having any conversation with Ken Tyrrell! And you know very well that you don’t succeed in sport— then or today— without being capable of speaking perfect English. Paris found that out (with the failed Olympic bid)!  That’s what I’m trying to teach my son (14-year-old Adrien, who competes at European karting level). I was the only driver with no racing background, but my skiing background was probably very similar in terms of approach, and physically I was in top shape because I was training with the US ski team and the Colorado University ski team for the coming winter season.” 

After his narrow defeat at the hands of Arnoux, Tambay spent three years as an Elf-backed driver in the European Formula Two Championship. And in the third of these, 1976, he was paired at the Martini-Renault team with his old foe: Arnoux was pipped to the crown by Jean-Pierre Jabouille, while Tambay was third. “I had the offer to do another season in F2 with René at Martini in ’77,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that — I wanted to go to F1. I said (to Elf), ‘What can you do for me?’ They said, ‘If you go to F2 it’s no problem for full sponsorship; if you want to go to F1 we have this envelope for you but we don’t have any ways of guaranteeing anything.’ I went to the United States GP at Watkins Glen in ’76 to meet the grand prix teams and in the winter I sent telexes to all the teams. Finally I made a deal with Teddy Yip and Sid Taylor from Theodore to try to run the second Ensign from the French Grand Prix on.”

Patrick’s unwillingness to carry on full-time in F2 gave Pironi his break at Martini and his launchpad to international racing. Meanwhile, Tambay’s trip to Watkins Glen resulted in a surprise invite from Theodore to race its Formula 5000 Lola at Riverside: “When you are young you do things one day at a time. I never saw a long-term objective — I just went on and on and tried to do the best I could every time out. It just happened. This thing in America just went click-click-click and there was exposure to different opportunities that I grabbed.”

And how better to illustrate that than with Tambay’s amazing summer of ’77? First of all, his projected F1 debut at Dijon never happened: Patrick turned up, the Ensign didn’t. But Larry Perkins was struggling in his Surtees, and Patrick was drafted in on the second day of qualifying to try and get the car into the race. He failed: “It was a bit of a silly thing, to try and jump into an F1 car you have never driven before and try to do your stuff, but that’s the way things were done then.”

Straight after that, Tambay flew back to Watkins Glen to race Haas’s Can-Am Lola. Brian Redman had been badly injured in the opening round, and this relatively unknown Frenchman would be drafted in to replace him. Patrick won first time out and took a further five victories from the remaining six races to claim the title. “Carl Haas remembered me as the French guy who spoke American,” he chuckles. “That gave me some bonus points! From then on I was racing Can-Am and F1, back and forth every other weekend. It was a bit of a physical shock.”

The other shock came the weekend after, back across the Atlantic at Silverstone for his debut in the Theodore Ensign. Two new-to-F1 drivers starred at that British GP: one was Tambay; the other was Villeneuve, who Tambay had first met in September ’76 when he contested the Formula Atlantic race in the French-Canadian city of Trois-Rivières (although Gilles had competed against Patrick in a one-off F2 race at Pau three months earlier). Villeneuve, the established Atlantic star, had thrashed all the imported heroes, including James Hunt. Hence Hunt’s quest to bring Villeneuve to McLaren, and Gilles’s F1 debut at Silverstone.

“Gilles was running in the Can-Am championship in ’77 as well (in a Wolf-Dallara)” says Tambay, “so we were spending quite a bit of time in Canada when I was going back. That’s how our relationship started. It consolidated a little bit later…”

Villeneuve’s McLaren outing at Silverstone remained a one-off, but Tambay and his Theodore Ensign were ever-present for the rest of the F1 season. And he was clearly being eyed by the big teams for ’78… “At the German Grand Prix Teddy Yip and Sid Taylor were putting pressure on me to sign a long-term contract. I was talking with Marlboro at the time, and Teddy and Sid said if I didn’t sign the contract I could not drive. I said, ‘OK, I don’t drive.’ In the end I did drive and finished sixth. Then in the Austrian Grand Prix I was racing the Ferraris of Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann on a damp track. I was in contact with Ferrari through (engineering chief) Mauro Forghieri. They wanted me to come down to Fiorano to meet with the Commendatore who was probably impressed and wanted to sign a young guy.

“After that I talked to Marlboro and they called me up while I was in London on my way back to North America. We talked about the Ferrari prospect and John Hogan (Marlboro’s motorsport chief) said, ‘Well, if you want to drive for McLaren this is a firm offer and here is the contract. You’ll be teamed up with James Hunt in ’78. It’ll be a very nice line-up, you’ll have a World Champion driver with you to learn a lot from. If you go to Ferrari it’ll be with Reutemann as your team-mate, they’re switching to Michelin, it’ll be very difficult technically, so…’  I didn’t know if Ferrari would happen or not and I didn’t have an agent, so I said, ‘OK, I’d better go for that’ and right on the spot I signed the contract.” And flew back across the Atlantic for another Can-Am race.

Tambay headed to Mosport, an event McLaren boss Mayer was also attending. Patrick knew Villeneuve would be devastated that his hopes of a McLaren drive for ’78 were about to be dashed, and it seems he may have broken the news to Gilles before Mayer did: “I knew that Gilles had a McLaren option for the next season. When I got there I told him I’d just signed the contract with McLaren, but that also Ferrari were looking for a young number two driver. He spoke with them, came to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix and finalised the deal with them for the ’78 season!”

If only Elf and Renault could have foreseen all that. Twelve months on from the oil company’s lack of conviction in Tambay’s future, he had courted Ferrari, signed for McLaren and won a Can-Am title (not to mention possibly helping to start the Villeneuve/Ferrari legend, although it is reported that Ferrari actually called Villeneuve just after Mosport)…

But the next two years would be far from satisfying. In his first full season Tambay showed flashes of promise, but in 1979 he and John Watson (who had replaced Hunt) had a nightmare as McLaren struggled with the new ground-effect technology. It is well documented that Tambay had an edgy relationship with Mayer, though significantly he now plays that down for, typically in this story, he would work with Patrick again in 1986 at the Haas Lola F1 team.

At this point Prost, the 1979 European F3 champion, enters the tale. “I had an option with McLaren going into 1980,” says Tambay, “and Teddy wanted to have a test between Prost and myself to decide who would be the driver alongside Watson. I said, ‘It doesn’t interest me — I’m not going to a driver contest with Prost for the McLaren M29.’ So they signed up Prost and I went back to the States to do Can-Am with Carl Haas again.”

Another six wins brought Tambay a second Can-Am title: “Those cars were a lot of fun. Racing in the States was also very different — I loved the American ambience, though I didn’t always like the American tracks! They didn’t really care too much — but we knew the dangers were there and got on with it.”

He was back in F1 again with Theodore in 1981, before he was called up at mid-season to replace the injured Jabouille as team-mate to Jacques Laffite in the Ligier-Matra squad. “At the second race, at Silverstone, things were beginning to look quite good. I was working with (Ligier designer) Gérard Ducarouge and I had a very good relationship with him. Laffite was run by (Jean-Claude) Guenard and Jabouille. They suddenly saw problems coming up because Ducarouge was technically running the team and was my racing engineer. Straight from Silverstone things were looking a bit troublesome and they fired Ducarouge the following week. I ended up bedding in the car, bedding in the brakes, being their waterbottle carrier. Everything centred with Jabouille and Guenard around Laffite, and I had all the leftovers.”

It was time to get out of F1, seemingly for good. Tambay signed for VDS for a third season of Can-Am in 1982, the plan being to graduate to Indycars for ’83. And his downer on F1 was reinforced when he stood in for the injured Marc Surer at Arrows for the South African Grand Prix, the first race of ’82. It was, of course, the weekend of the infamous driver strike. “That was fun!” he recalls. “I flew from Honolulu to London, London to Johannesburg and arrived on the Wednesday night for qualifying on Thursday. But on Thursday afternoon we went to a bus and we all drove to a hotel, and we had a hell of a time discussing through Pironi (the drivers’ representative) with FOCA, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean-Marie Balestre. Big havoc! We got out the next morning because we thought we had an agreement, and straight away I discovered we didn’t  have an agreement, that we were going to be fined and to have our licences we had to pay $5000. I said to Jackie Oliver (the Arrows boss), ‘To hell with F1 — I’m not driving. Find yourself another guy for this afternoon if you can.’ I went back to the States, and I said the only reason to come back to F1 would be to drive for Ferrari or Renault…”

Three months later his good friend Villeneuve was killed at Zolder, and now Ferrari needed a driver to back up Pironi’s title bid. Tambay sighs in reflection: “It’s difficult to find words… First of all the drama, then the call came from Didier Pironi in the name of Ferrari. OK, we were a little bit used to those types of things in those days — it was part of the game unfortunately. But it was a very tough moment and I was on the other side of the world, based near San Diego. I did a few calls to find out if it was the right thing to do. I was going to a team where Gilles was the son of the house and very much loved and appreciated. They knew we were friends and they were missing him a lot, but no-one ever made me feel…” He pauses. “It felt like they had agreed on the fact that it would be me, and I never felt that I was just doing…”

A stand-in job? They made you feel part of the team? “Exactly. They knew the relationship I had with Gilles and my sadness, and they made me welcome with their gestures and attitude. And there was a lot of support from the Italian fans. They had a very special relationship with Gilles and they kind of felt that I was carrying on for him.”

This point was rammed home at the 1983 San Marino Grand Prix: “I came up to take my place for the grid and the marks on the track read, ‘Patrick — vince per Gilles‘. For half an hour before the start of the race I stayed in the car crying, and with a lot of emotion that was so strong I thought I would not be able to recover to start the race. The mechanics were all aware what was happening — they were five metres behind me, all lined up, and no one was talking to me. It was just very overwhelming and so strong.”

Tambay famously did ‘vince per Gilles‘, his second success for Ferrari. His first had come the previous summer in Germany, where Pironi had crashed seriously in practice in an accident which ended his career: “I remember journalists saying to me at Hockenheim, ‘Now you are on your own. You are not racing for anyone else, you are racing for yourself.’ I was always maybe too much in the shadow of my team-mates, too much respect for them. I was never really worried about beating them.”

You weren’t ruthless enough? “Maybe. The meaning of doing things was not the same as for some of the others. I was doing it for pleasure and the satisfaction of doing something well. I was maybe not hungry or aggressive enough.”

Ten years after their first battle, Arnoux and Tambay were teamed at Ferrari for ’83. And, with Arnoux scoring wins as the late-season form man, Tambay was on the move again for 1984. Replaced by Michele Alboreto at Ferrari, he moved back to the Renault fold, ironically to replace the sacked Prost. But Prost had the last laugh in his second stint at McLaren… “For ’84 we had restrictions on fuel,” says Tambay, “and we had no electronic device to know the fuel flow. McLaren had a much more efficient fuel management system than we did. I should have won the French Grand Prix but had brake problems. At Monza I led the race until the throttle cable broke five laps from the end.”

After a disastrous ’85, Tambay went back to Haas in ’86 as the American entered F1 with Lola chassis: “A dream team!  We had Adrian Newey, Ross Brawn, Neil Oatley, Tyler Alexander, Teddy Mayer… And that chassis was fabulous. We were on for a three-year contract, but the sponsors pulled out and Carl had to decide if he was doing it for financial reasons or for his passion. He had to stop.”

And so Tambay was out of F1 again. He returned to racing in 1989 to drive a TWR Jaguar in the World Sportscar Championship (after twice finishing third on the Paris-Dakar Rally), but that was the end of his serious career, although he has competed occasionally since then: “When I got to the end of ’86 in F1  I said, ‘OK, I’ll stop until the atmospheric engines come back’. With the turbos there was too much technology and so much difference between the teams. I thought I would come back in ’89 because it would be more interesting, but by then I was not young anymore.”

He bowed out with dignity, in fitting with his personality, from a sport he kind of stumbled into in the first place. Maybe that’s why Tambay carried himself so well, because everything was a bonus from what he’d expected. Good times? “Just the opportunity to be a racing driver, when initially I didn’t think I’d be able to do it.” That, though, is what fate intended for him. Voltaire could have told you all about that.

***

Tambay for Champion!

One of Patrick Tambay’s favourite statistics is that, from shortly after joining Ferrari in mid-1982 to the same point in 1983, he scored more points than any other driver.  In late ’83 there was a series mechanical problems that pushed him out of the reckoning for that year’s title.  Here’s how it stacks up:

British GP 1982 – Canadian GP 1983

Patrick Tambay                                  52

Keke Rosberg                                     48

Alain Prost                                          46

René Arnoux                                       41

Nelson Piquet                                     30

John Watson                                      25

Niki Lauda                                           25

Michele Alboreto                                24