Bjorn Borg became Wimbledon champion by the second year running; at Wembley, Manchester United won the FA Cup; people went nuts in the States when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President; Elvis Presley died, as did Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin; and the first “Rocky” movie launched Sly Stallone upon an unsuspecting world. The year, in case you hadn’t guessed, was 1977, and apart from all those exciting developments, a young Italian called Riccardo Patrese took part in his first Grand Prix.
By the time you read this, and barring unforeseen circumstances, Patrese will have become the first man in history to contest 200 Grands Prix – an astonishing achievement at the summit of motor racing, and a career that represents almost exactly 40% of all the races in the history of a World Championship that reaches the 500 mark in Adelaide later this year.
Patrese’s has been no easy path, and the terrain covered has had more troughs than peaks, including the opprobrium of the then seniors drivers who condemned him at the time of Ronnie Peterson’s death in 1978. Patrese survived that early nightmare to record wins for Brabham in 1982 and 1983 before going through six years of middle-of-the-grid anonymity. He had a reputation for… What should we call it? Arrogance? Self-centredness, to say the least? Whatever the right word may be, Patrese was not the most sought-out man in the F1 paddock.
And yet, when he took the chequered flag at Imola earlier this year for his first victory in almost 100 races, Riccardo Patrese’s was the most popular win in years, welcomed from all sides of the Formula One fraternity (now there’s a word that’s been singularly out of place in recent times). For the last two seasons, the Italian has seemed reborn: combative but not obstructive, competitive at the heart of a top-flight team – yet approachable, almost benign out of the car.
Asked recently about the difficult beginnings of his own career, Patrese felt sure the same thing could not happen to a young driver today – and if it did, he would be the first to extend the hand of friendship. “Maybe it was the ordeal”, he added, “that gave me the strength to believe in myself through all those lean years when I was scrapping away in the middle of the pack, with no hope of winning. I never doubted that I’d make it back to the top one day”. In other words, it’s all down to character, which is precisely what makes sport such a telling reflection of life itself.
At Imola, Riccardo Patrese made it back to the top. “It was”, he admitted, “the happiest moment of my F1 career, but not because I’m 36 and have driven nearly 200 Grands Prix. But because the victory came after such a long wait, because I had won in my own country, Italy, and especially because, on that day, I was the best”.
The finest steel, they say, is tempered in the hottest flame: Riccardo Patrese is entitled to warm himself in the applause surrounding his Silverstone appearance, and we are delighted to acknowledge the contribution he is making to his sport in troubled times.
By Prix Editions Magazine (1990), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.