Nigel Roebuck

REFLECTIONS

  • Optimism replaces oppression at Silverstone
  • More bad feeling in the Red Bull wing…
  • Patrick Depailler – F1’s automotive SAS man
  • There was something strange about Silverstone this year, and it was not simply to do with changes to the circuit, major though these were. It was oddly unsettling to find the familiar bridge before Copse gone – for how many years had one tramped over it en route from the car park to the paddock? – and indeed one noted change wherever one went.

    There was more to it than that, though, and at the BRDC barbecue on Friday evening it finally dawned on me. The strangeness, the newness, came not from unfamiliar buildings, underpasses and the like, but from something in the air. For the first time in many years, Silverstone – the British Grand Prix weekend – was alive not with dissension but with optimism. Two years ago, after all, we believed Silverstone probably lost as a Formula 1 venue; last year it seemed that the British GP was probably dead as a round of the World Championship. As I joined the endless queue on the A43 that Sunday evening, the thought occurred that perhaps it was for the last time.

    Now here we were, back at Silverstone, in July 2010, and wherever you looked there was harmony. Bernie Ecclestone declared himself happy with the changes so far carried out at the circuit – and when Bernie was last happy with anything at Silverstone people thought there was a future for the BRM V16. Long time ago.

    It was over the 2008 Grand Prix weekend that the FIA announced, with gratuitous vindictiveness (and barely contained relish), that, as of 2010, the British round of the World Championship would be run not at Silverstone but rather at Donington.

    Those familiar with Donington, while knowing it to be a good little circuit, rather doubted that it had the infrastructure and so on to cope with putting on a World Championship Grand Prix. Could the necessary work conceivably be done to stage a race in two years’ time? “Don’t ask me,” Ecclestone shrugged. “I’m not a civil engineer.”

    Whatever else, Bernie stressed, it was Donington or nowhere: F1 wasn’t ever coming back to Silverstone after the 2009 race had been run. “If Donington doesn’t come through,” he said, “there won’t be a race in Britain, simple as that – I’ll sign a contract with another country…”

    It must be said that the Donington announcement was greeted with profound cynicism in the press room, this in no way assuaged by a few minutes in the company of Simon Gillett, one of the joint CEOs of the project (and soon to be the only one). Gillett had a good line of patter, but motor racing has always been packed with people like that, and I was one of many who came away wholly unconvinced. No, Gillett had conceded, he didn’t have any major backers lined up; the monies required for bringing the track up to Formula 1 spec – and for the little matter of persuading Bernard Charles to show up with 20-odd Grand Prix cars – would be raised by debentures. Debentures? And how big a part would Father Christmas play?

    Later that afternoon I chatted with a member of Bernie’s inner circle, and said I somewhat doubted that the British Grand Prix would ever go to Donington. In the subtlest way, he smilingly conveyed that he somewhat doubted it, too.

    We were both somewhat right, as it turned out, and this is not a matter of 20:20 hindsight. Over time the Donington project went through crisis after crisis (usually of a fiscal nature) until finally it was conceded that, no, there wouldn’t be a British Grand Prix there, after all. I don’t think any of us took any great pleasure in being proved right – it was all too depressingly bleedin’ obvious for that – but one was bound to wonder just what the hell it had all been about. The future of the British GP remained uncertain, just as before, the only difference being that now picturesque Donington Park looked as if it had been bombed.

    By the time of the 2009 British Grand Prix it had become obvious that Donington, for all Gillett’s protestations to the contrary, was going nowhere, and Ecclestone had rethought his assertion that ‘F1 would never come back to Silverstone’. Indeed, he said that should Donington fail to come through, the British GP – should it be on the calendar, of course – would indeed be at Silverstone. No real surprise there: where else could it be run?

    Actually, Bernie had more on his mind than the British Grand Prix that weekend, for it was at Silverstone last year that F1 came closer to genuine civil war than at any time in its history. On the Thursday evening before the race, a FOTA meeting concluded that to continue dealing with a governing body headed by Max Mosley was no longer tenable. Essentially the plan was to go it alone, to run a FOTA championship (at venues pleasing to the sponsors, for a change), and to tell the FIA to get stuffed.

    That was the polite version, anyway, and it’s fair to say that the atmosphere in many motorhomes on the Friday was something close to euphoric: the big decision had been taken, the air cleared. In the paddock that weekend Mosley frothed and blathered and backtracked, while Ecclestone grimly said he had not worked this hard for this long to see F1 go down the pan, and intended to do everything he could to save it.

    Against that backdrop, the future of the British Grand Prix was not uppermost in the minds of the powers-that-be. But for the fans, for the BRDC, for all to whom Silverstone and F1 were sacrosanct, it was quite a different matter. They got to see Grand Prix cars in action precisely once a year, and they didn’t care to think of losing it. The French can tell you about that.

    In the last year or so, though, all manner of good things have come to this sport. Twelve months ago the gentlemen of CVC, effectively the owners of F1 (in the sense that they hold the commercial rights), were in a state of panic, fearing that suddenly they owned the commercial rights to three-fifths of damn all. A meeting with FOTA president Luca di Montezemolo was sought, and – to the regret of some FOTA members – granted. Within a couple of days all the warring parties had reached some kind of truce, ending all talk of a breakaway, and confirming that F1 would remain united – the proviso being that M Mosley would indeed leave office in the autumn, when his 43rd term ended.

    Peace in our time, then, and more was to come. After countless years of uncertainty about the future of the British Grand Prix, it was announced that a deal had been struck between CVC and the BRDC to run the race at the hitherto reviled Silverstone for the next 17 years, no less. With the race guaranteed, outside investors finally saw good reason to put money into Silverstone, and the first shoots were apparent the other week.

    It’s not easy to figure out quite how Ecclestone was persuaded at last to look kindly on Silverstone. At the time I was told by someone who should know that CVC’s Donald McKenzie, perhaps mindful of the damage to the image of F1 if the British Grand Prix were allowed to disappear, was instrumental in making it happen – and, for that matter, that Bernie was not too thrilled about it. Certainly it seemed curious that, at the announcement of the new contract at a press conference at Grosvenor House, Ecclestone was not present.

    “When I heard about the deal,” said Martin Brundle, “I sent him a little text saying, ‘Thanks for getting the Grand Prix sorted, Bernie’. No response…”

    There were suggestions at the time that Jean Todt, the incoming president of the FIA, had also been involved in the brokering of the deal. If such were the case, we never heard it officially confirmed, but then that wouldn’t necessarily surprise me.

    Brundle again, at the end of last year: “If I’d got the job Todt’s got, the first thing I’d have done was shut my mouth, and go and find out what was going on – and had gone on – and then, a few months later, come out with something. And, thinking about it, that’s exactly what he’s done.

    “We haven’t heard a word from him about all sorts of things, have we? What did our new FIA president think about Toyota’s withdrawal, or whatever? Not a word. Same with Bridgestone’s forthcoming withdrawal. Let’s see what he comes out with in the fullness of time – and see if he’s got an answer for all of that. I’m told that he’s been micro-managing things – looking into every single detail of what’s going on…”

    Such seems to be the case. Jean Todt may indeed have a powerful ego, but it is far less overt than that of his predecessor. He moves around quietly, seeing – and remembering – everything, but he feels no compulsion to make public his views on this, that and the other, which Max Mosley was increasingly wont to do, almost on a daily basis, it seemed.

    “I think,” Brundle said, “we should support Todt in whatever ways we need him in the sport. As for Mosley… you know the way we can best repay him? Not talk about him.”

    Paris, traditional home of the FIA, has inevitably always been a cauldron of rumour and gossip in the politics of motor racing, and word reaches me that Mosley, having blatantly championed the cause of Todt as his successor, is increasingly dismayed by the way Jean is going about the job.

    So over the top was Max’s support for his candidature that we concluded that a private agreement was in place, that Todt, once in office, would simply continue The Lord’s Work. In point of fact, though, Jean is far too much his own man to do anything of the kind, and as soon as he got his feet under the table he quietly set about reformations of his own – not the least of which was the removal of certain key figures from the Mosley administration. In 2010 the stewards at each Grand Prix have been advised not by Alan Donnelly, Max’s right-hand man, but by a racing driver – at Montréal, for example, it was Emerson Fittipaldi, at Silverstone Nigel Mansell – who might be able to bring knowledge and experience to bear in this controversy or that.

    I’ll admit that I was among those who feared that, in light of Mosley’s overbearing patronage, a Todt presidency might just mean ‘more of the same’, and it causes me no distress at all to concede that – thus far, at least – I was wrong. Over time Max lost the plot to a point that he ‘became the story’, whereas Jean seems content to stay unobtrusively in the background, emerging only when necessary.

    When Mosley would arrive at Silverstone, or wherever, it was as if a major political figure were among us. But although Todt indeed attended the British Grand Prix, it was completely without fanfare of any kind. I’ll warrant, however, that he didn’t miss anything.

    The contrast with the British Grand Prix of 2009 was overwhelming in so many ways. Then we had had an FIA president in the death throes of office, plainly floundering as Formula 1 disintegrated around him; now we had the beginnings of a new Silverstone, its blue-riband race guaranteed for a good long time, and a man at the top of the sport who quietly gets things done. No surprise, all in all, that optimism was thick in the air.

    Not all, of course, was sweetness and light during the weekend of the British Grand Prix - F1 would not be F1 without dissension somewhere, although I will admit that I was surprised at the source of it. Wherever you looked or listened – TV, radio, newspapers, websites - the concentration was on Red Bull Racing and the feuding within.

    While it is a fact that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are not twin souls, and never have been, still I was astonished to see evidence of fresh discord at Red Bull, given that such effort had been made, following their coming-together in the Turkish Grand Prix, to persuade the world that all was fundamentally well between Seb and Mark.

    As I wrote last month in a piece about team-mates, both were extremely angry after a race which should have resulted in a Red Bull one-two, but team principal Christian Horner worked manfully to paper over the cracks, avoiding the apportioning of blame, and stressing it was time for everyone to put the whole thing behind them. To ‘move on’, as politicians have it.

    Although Webber ultimately finished third in Istanbul, while Vettel retired on the spot, plainly Mark was aggrieved, not only by the loss of a lead he had held from the start, but by Helmut Marko’s suggestion – absurd to most onlookers – that the accident had been his fault. As far as Webber was concerned, this constituted further evidence of his long-held conviction that Vettel was the favoured one in the team, that he – as David Coulthard has said of his time at McLaren with Mika Häkkinen - was thought of as ‘the other driver’.

    I should hasten to say, at this point, that the relationship between Webber and Horner has always been excellent, that Mark’s perceptions of his standing within the team come from elsewhere. At the same time, though, Christian’s position – necessarily trying to keep all parties happy - is not to be envied.

    Contemporary F1, as we know, is a matter of constant updates and ‘steps’, the teams endlessly designing and building new bits and pieces for the cars in their efforts to be ahead of the game – without, of course, the facility these days to test them on track between the races.

    There is no dispute that in 2010, as last year, Adrian Newey and his team have produced the quickest car. But nothing in F1 stands still, and over a season it is no more than inevitable that a performance advantage, perhaps huge in the early races, will be shaved. It’s the nature of the game, but Red Bull – if sometimes a little shaky on reliability – has thus far retained a fundamental superiority. Only once in 10 races has another car – Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren at Montréal – taken pole position in 2010.

    For Silverstone, Red Bull brought forth a new front wing, and there was time to manufacture only two of them, one for Webber, one for Vettel. Clearly it was superior to the previous design, for the drivers, after trying both types on Friday, chose to stick with it. But in Saturday morning practice Vettel trundled slowly into the pits, his front wing dragging on the ground, having snapped out of its correct position on the Hangar Straight. ‘Finger trouble’, apparently, and no fault of the driver.

    One of the two new wings was therefore out of commission for the balance of the weekend, and one’s immediate thought was that Sebastian was unlucky, but, well, that’s the way it is in motor racing.

    Or not. When they came out to qualify in the afternoon, it was Vettel who had the only new wing, and Webber who was seething. Seb duly took pole, with Mark second on the grid.

    At the press conference it was as if Webber were wearing some sort of mask from Madame Tussaud’s. Throughout the proceedings his face was taut, expressionless, and his answers to questions were

    The following day, a few minutes before the start, I chatted with Mark’s father. Alan Webber, mercifully, is not one of those obsessive ‘racing fathers’, but simply a good bloke who is his son’s most devoted fan. Remarkably calm, too. At one point he touched on Mark’s terrifying accident at Valencia, only a fortnight before, referring to it as, “The airborne thing in Spain…”

    Webber Sr doesn’t get easily ruffled, therefore, but it was evident that he felt a certain apprehensiveness about the race to come, not least the first lap. Silverstone – even in its latest incarnation – is not the easiest place for overtaking, and the likelihood was that whichever Red Bull driver had the lead into Copse would win the race. In Malaysia, lest we forget, Webber had been on pole – but Vettel snicked by into the first turn, and there he stayed for the duration.

    This time it was the other way round. Webber exploded away from his second slot on the grid, immediately had momentum on Vettel, and simply ignored the predictable attempt to chop him over to the pitwall. Into Copse Vettel’s right-rear tyre lost a momentary fight with Hamilton’s left-front wing endplate, but by then it was all over anyway. Webber had checked out.

    An hour and 25 minutes later, after taking the chequered flag, he responded cryptically to the somewhat muted message of congratulation over the radio: “Not bad for a number two driver…” There was of course elation at having won the British Grand Prix, and the circumstances made it especially sweet – but still the thing unmistakably simmered on. Red Bull Gives You Wings – but not necessarily the one you want.

    Webber is immensely popular in the paddock, a straightforward and friendly man, utterly without pretension. He works mighty hard at everything he does, be it his driving, his fitness, his personal appearances for Red Bull, whatever. In one way, though, he is something of an anachronism – and, as such, inevitably a concern for PR people – in that he will stick to this ridiculous notion that if you are asked a question you should answer it – and truthfully. ‘Spin’, for Mark Webber, is something that happens to you if you make a mistake in a racing car.

    Thus, when he was maddened by events at Silverstone, it was beyond him to be able to hide it – and even had he been able to, he would have chosen not to, for that is his way. Know where you stand, mate. Clearly, members of his team were made uncomfortable by the overtness of some of his remarks – but then they know he tells it like it is, and they should have expected nothing else.

    Come to that, they should have known it was coming from the very moment they concluded that Vettel should have the surviving new front wing. The decision was taken, they said, because at the time he was ahead of Webber in the championship – and should a similar situation arise in the future, the man with the most points, be it Seb or Mark, would get the nod. Had that policy been known to the world before it was put into practice, perhaps there might have been less of a brouhaha, but it wasn’t.

    Whatever, to those outside the team, it seemed a trifle extreme. Yes, going into Silverstone, Vettel was indeed ahead of Webber on points – 115 to 103 – but it was hardly as if one driver were flying high and the other nowhere. As well as that, this was midway through the season – race 10 of 19 - so it was not as if the World Championship had reached a crucial stage and only one of the drivers had a chance of winning it.

    Had this been the Ferrari team in the Schumacher/Todt era, when Michael’s team-mate – whoever he was – knew in advance of signing his contract that he was there only to serve the great one, or the Renault team through the Briatore years, when Flavio’s stated policy was always to employ firm number one and two drivers, we would not have been surprised by what happened at Silverstone. But it was not: it was Red Bull, which had only recently – post-Istanbul – reaffirmed its equal commitment to Vettel and Webber.

    That being so, I was surprised – to put it mildly – that the team again risked its reputation for even-handedness by taking the action it did, assuredly knowing in advance that Webber would be incensed, and that all the suggestions of favouritism towards Vettel would burst to the surface once more. There were claims that actually there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the front wings, old and new, but if such were the case then why was it so important that Vettel should have the new one?

    And that was really the whole point at issue here: the surviving new front wing was taken off Mark’s car and transferred to Seb’s, which – symbolically, if nothing else - served to foster the belief that Red Bull, in racing to help flog its product, would prefer to see its 23-year-old German as World Champion than its 34-year-old Australian.

    Over at McLaren, meantime, they’re rubbing their hands.

    There is nothing very remarkable about the Heston services area on the M4 – in fact, nothing remarkable at all, now I think about it. Whenever I stop there, though, or drive by, or even see the word ‘Heston’, I think at once of Patrick Depailler. It was 30 years ago, on my way back from a visit to the old Williams factory in Didcot, that I pulled into the slip road at Heston, thinking to get a cup of coffee, and heard on the one o’clock news that Depailler had been killed at Hockenheim an hour or so earlier.

    That morning I had been doing an interview with Frank Williams, and we had spoken of Depailler. Williams, being a great admirer of Patrick’s combative mentality, had been immensely impressed by the way he had returned to racing after suffering dreadful leg injuries in a hang-gliding accident the previous year. Depailler, he said, reminded him of Clay Regazzoni and Jacques Laffite – drivers not in the superstar class, but capable of occasional greatness, and essential to the bedrock of Formula 1, men who loved racing more than themselves.

    Earlier that year, 1980, Regazzoni had been crippled in an accident at Long Beach, and now faced the rest of his life in a wheelchair. “Clay did a great job for Williams when he was here last year,” FW said. “Won us our first Grand Prix, after all. He was a team player in a way that F1 drivers rarely are – a totally adorable character. It’s going to be bloody hard for him, coping with the situation he’s in now – but he’ll do it. He’s made of strong stuff, Clay…”

    True enough, and of course that moment came back to me six years later, when I met American Editor Gordon Kirby for lunch in New York, and he gave me the news that Williams had been terribly injured in a road accident in France and was paralysed. For strong stuff, look no further than Frank.

    There is no human quality that he admires more than resilience, an unwillingness – no, inability – to give up, to be ground down by misfortune. “When Patrick smashed his legs last year,” he said that morning, “it was a long time before he knew he would even walk again – but all he could think about was getting back in a racing car. Sort of bloke you’d have wanted with you in the trenches…”

    He was. “Patrick was almost like a professional soldier – a combat soldier,” said Nick Brittan, his longtime manager. “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 that one day you’re not going to pack your kit bag…”

    Undeniably Depailler’s preferred way was to live life ‘at the edge’. A few weeks before his death I interviewed him at Brands Hatch, during the pre-Grand Prix tests, and he talked about his predilection for big, overpowered motorcycles on which he would thrash around in the hills above his native Clermont-Ferrand. Someone had told me that sometimes he would do this wearing only a pair of shorts, but surely that couldn’t be true. Patrick looked a little shame-faced: “Well… mmm , yes , sometimes, on a hot day…

    “It’s like, you know, how you feel after a quick lap at the Nürburgring – probably you’ve been a bit stupid, but the feeling of pleasure is fantastic…”

    The news of Depailler’s death affected me pragmatically as well as personally. It occurred on a Friday morning, and the following week’s issue of Autosport was due to carry my Brands interview with Patrick, complete with front cover. I went straight to the office, broke the news to everyone, then set to the disheartening task of re-writing an interview as a tribute, while the layout guys made appropriate changes to the cover.

    It was all very raw, for though I had interviewed Depailler four or five weeks earlier, I had transcribed the tape very recently, and the sound of Patrick’s voice – soft, deep, the odd smoker’s cough - was fresh in my mind. Now he was gone.

    Most of Depailler’s Grand Prix career had been spent at Tyrrell, and if at different times Ken employed drivers greater than Patrick, there were very few he so much liked. A few weeks after the accident I lunched with him in a local pub, and his voice cracked when he spoke of him.

    “The thing about Patrick,” Tyrrell said, “was that although sometimes he would do things that drove you mad, it was into his contract that he had to keep away from dangerous toys…”

    Depailler – like François Cevert, like Jean Alesi – thrived on the ‘family’ atmosphere that Ken and Norah inimitably managed to maintain in their team, and undoubtedly Patrick was indulged more than most.

    At dinner with the team in Austria one year, I was amazed to see him drinking red wine – this was the night before the race, after all, and if the customs of F1 had not reached (or even approached) the ascetic levels of today, still it was a surprise to see Depailler with a glass in his hand. “Oh, he’s French,” Tyrrell said, with a wave of his hand. “It’s different with them, isn’t it? What can you do…?”

    And, of course, come the end of the meal, Patrick lit the latest of many non-tipped Gauloises consumed each day. This was a very French Frenchman. “Some people say if I am a sportsman I should not smoke,” he said to me that day at Brands. “Pah! I am driving a racing car, not running 10,000 metres! I tell you something,” he went on, trying to sound serious now, “if I gave up, I might think about cigarettes during a race, and lose concentration and maybe go off. So you see,” he concluded, “it’s good for my driving that I smoke…”

    And then the look, the hint of a twinkle in the eye that came so often to Patrick’s face: did I mean what I said - or not?

    Even 30 years ago the great majority of F1 drivers were highly organised individuals, each day of their life mapped out with precise timings, flight numbers, and the like. Depailler was not like that. Another remembered snatch of conversation with Tyrrell, again at the Österreichring, which began with Ken asking Patrick where he was going after the race.

    “Not sure,” said Patrick, declining to look his boss in the eye.

    “What d’you mean, you’re not sure?”

    “Well, I drove from Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon to fly here, and my car is at the airport…”

    “So what’s the problem?”

    “Er, well, there’s no seat on the flight back to Lyon, so I think I have to go to Paris, and then back to Clermont somehow. And then I have to find someone to take me to Lyon to pick up my car…”

    Tyrrell rolled his eyes. Depailler had simply made his travel arrangements too late, the kind of mistake you or I might make, but not what one would expect of a Grand Prix driver – well, save Chris Amon, perhaps. Maybe that was a reason why I liked both so much.

    When I think of Depailler now, I remember him first in the Tyrrell P34 – the six-wheeler. It was a car I always loathed, frankly, for although its novelty intrigued me, one of my fundamental requirements of a racing car is that it be easy on the eye, and the P34 I thought unsightly to a sinful degree.

    Depailler, though, loved it. In the course of its two seasons, 1976 and ’77, it was driven also by Jody Scheckter and Ronnie Peterson, but the car’s designer, Derek Gardner, told me that Patrick was the driver by far the most committed to the project.

    “He seemed to take to the car like a duck to water. Jody… well, you know, you’d see his head go down – he would drive it, but I knew it wasn’t with total commitment. What I loved about Patrick – apart from the fact that he was such a nice bloke – was that he was an absolutely committed racer. He loved racing cars – to be a racing driver was the only thing he had ever wanted to do. He liked everything about the P34. It was a great pity that he didn’t have that last little indefinable bit that gives you the chequered flag – he was so near on so many occasions. He was very good to work with. Occasionally, he’d be a bit mercurial – but he was a French racing driver, after all! He just loved racing…”

    That he did, and particularly so at what he considered ‘proper’ circuits. Think of the Nordschleife in 1975, when he clung on to Lauda’s season-dominating Ferrari for 10 of the 14 laps until a front suspension rocker buckled, or Mosport the following year, when he finished second to James Hunt’s McLaren, then stopped as soon as he had taken the flag and stumbled from the car, semi-conscious.

    For the last 20 laps, it transpired, a leak from the fuel pressure gauge had allowed petrol to spray straight into his face. “I became quite drunk, you know – and also my left eye closed. Fortunately, the burning pain in my back, from the fuel in the seat, was enough to keep me awake…”

    Depailler won only two Grands Prix, for Tyrrell at Monaco in 1978 and for Ligier at Jarama the year after. It broke his heart, he told me, to leave Ken’s team for Guy’s, but he believed – correctly, as it turned out – that the Ligier would be a more competitive proposition for ’79. At the time of the hang-gliding accident, at the end of May, he was lying equal third – with Gilles Villeneuve – in the World Championship.

    Unlike Tyrrell, Ligier had inserted no clause in Patrick’s contract precluding his playing with ‘dangerous toys’, and this was surely ill-advised, for Patrick was no tennis player and loved only what he called, “Le sport dur!

    “It was not a dangerous day for hang-gliding,” he told me, “but… I was flying too close to the mountain. There was a bit of turbulence there, and… well, it just threw me against the mountainside. It was my lack of experience that caused it – if I’d had more, I could maybe have done something to prevent it, but…”

    But. Ligier was emphatically not amused, and I must say I found the team’s attitude chillingly hard-nosed to a man who for some time stared at the prospect of life in a wheelchair. “For a long time,” Patrick said, “there was the chance of amputation, and I was very frightened. Not for five months was I sure to drive again.”

    At the time I was struck by the fact that Depailler said ‘drive’, not ‘walk’ – almost as if that were a secondary consideration. It said everything about the man.

    Gradually his shattered legs recovered (although he was left with a severe limp), but when Ligier discussed with him the question of returning to the team for 1980, it was on the basis that he would be a firm number two to Jacques Laffite. Completely unthinkable to Patrick, that: instead, he signed for Alfa Romeo, and soon proved to one and all that he had lost none of his pace and fight.

    James Hunt liked Depailler, and admired his warrior mentality, but was privately convinced that he had a death wish. Nick Brittan totally disagreed: “No, no, not at all. Patrick loved life more than most people – but what he did, he accepted the inevitability of death. He knew he floated right out to the fine edge – he was powerful quick, after all, and I think he knew it was going to happen one day. There was never any question of retirement in his mind. I remember a dinner with him at Zandvoort, when I was trying to talk to him about getting his chaotic finances into shape. ‘Patrick,’ I said, ‘we really ought to think about the future.’ And I remember he smiled at that. ‘No, no, Nick,’ he said. ‘The future is for other people…’

    In the course of conversation that day at Brands, I mentioned to Depailler that my childhood hero had been Jean Behra, in so many ways his counterpart a couple of decades earlier, and it came as no surprise that Patrick’s face lit up, that he too had idolised ‘Jeannot’, who had been killed at AVUS on August 1, 1959.

    At another German circuit, Hockenheim, on August 1, 1980, the front suspension of Patrick Depailler’s Alfa failed at the entry to the flat-out Ostkurve, leaving him no chance of survival. I remember him with great fondness.

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