For journalists like ourselves, who live shoulder to shoulder during the days of the Grand Prix, it’s become nearly impossible, or a least a very rare occurrence, to exchange a few words with the drivers, aside from the most superficial of pleasantries. Hardest of all is to manage to turn an interview into an intimate “tetê-a-tête”. But that’s precisely what happened between myself and racing veteran Riccardo Patrese and it was no coincidence.
Where should we begin? Let me tell you from the start that my aim is to explore certain aspects of Formula One, above all the less obvious ones related to its protagonists. So I’m going to try to get you involved in a discussion, confident that you will be able to virtually lead me by the hand. Let’s make believe that I’m Dante and you’re Virgil (with my apologies to their spirits – I’ve already asked pardon for you). I know that this analogy is something less than reverent, but up to a point it is true that in Formula One there are monsters, geniuses (or genies), scientists, joy, pain, victory, defeat, and therefore a scenario of passions and contrasts to stimulate the most jaded storyteller. And your thirteen years of experience justify the fact that I’ve chosen you to lead me by the hand, as I said. I also think that the idea of Bernie Ecclestone as Charon, who gives you a pass before you can cross the river Styx, or rather enter the boxes, is rather funny. By the way, when and where did you study the Divine Comedy, or what kind of schooling did you have?
High school, science major. Then political science at the university level, where I was enrolled for four or five years, but I never finished. To tell you the truth, I never got very excited about studying the Divine Comedy; when exams came around, I crammed the condensed version, to save time.
How did you start your climb to Formula One? In the early years, who helped you out and who was an obstacle?
I got into Formula One without really believing I’d done so I stopped racing karts in 1974, winning the world championship. This early exploit of mine led to a lot of offers to move up to automobiles. I drove for one year in Formula Italia, making a good showing, which I followed with a season in Formula 3 for Trivellato in the European championship, which I won. The next year I drove for Trivellato in Formula 2, but after three or four races they called me up to race in Formula One. It was all an adventure, without a plan, I mean it all happened very naturally. Just two years after leaving the karts I was driving in Formula One.
Who were your heroes?
I didn’t have any heroes. I’ve always believed that racing car drivers are among the most normal of men, and I proved to myself and to my imagination that I could make it without relying on any belief in myths, but simply with constant, unrelenting work. However, perhaps it is true that I have some innate aptitude for competition.
Before becoming a professional, did you follow racing as a spectator? I mean, when you were a kid, did you frequent any racetracks or read racing publications?
I can remember reading “Auto Italiana”, which depicted the drivers as superheroes, an image I didn’t agree with, so much so that when I became a driver it was like I was taking on the whole world, trying to redefine the role. In the end, I’ve been able to do so. Yes, it was really like a wager against the sporting press, which described drivers as if they were men from Mars. The reality of our profession is made up of consistency, work and determination, just like many others.
What do you recall today about the first time you sat in the cockpit of a Formula One car? How many years ago was it?
My first Formula One cockpit wasn’t such a big shock, in the sense that I got in, I drove, I competed well in my first Grand Prix, without any serious problems. The first time I sat in a Formula 2 racer was in Truckstown for the first race of the season. Obviously, I didn’t have any experience with that type of car, and I found myself in the midst of real professionals, who were passing me left and right. I was also unfamiliar with the track and the first half-hour was a real tragedy, I even began to think to myself that I wasn’t cut out for this job and I’d have been wiser to turn around and go home. But then, little by little, I got used to the circuit and I even managed to take the lead. Neverthless I assure you that even today that’s a traumatic memory for me.
Over the years you’ve driven some cars that were competitive, and others that were less so. Which car gave you the most satisfaction to drive?
The BT Brabham 49 was without a doubt one of the best. But the FW12C, which I’ve been driving of late, is also a fine car.
With which team manager have you had the best relationship?
I’ve been on very good terms with pratically all of them. I think that the length of my career in Formula One is due to the fact that all of the people I’ve worked with have always had respect and admiration for my contribution to the team, in both the good times and bad. I can even say that I’ve never had a fight with anyone with whom I’ve worked. I think that, generally, all of them remember me fondly, as I remember them.
A driver needs to have confidence in his team, in the technicians and mechanics, and must be convinced that the situation is free of favouritism. In your long career, have you felt more often like the victim or the favourite?
I haven’t felt like either the victim or the favourite. It is true that in a team there can be circumstances which favour one driver over another. But these situations are created, I would say, more by personal rivalry or simply because, in that moment, one driver is having a particularly positive period. Personally, I must say that I’ve always raced in a situation of equality, except for last year, when I was Mansell’s second driver, but that was a case of priorities which I had accepted, in the spirit of discipline.
As a driver and colleague, what is your reaction to the exasperated feud between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost?
The Senna/Prost case has provoked a sense of discomfort in all of us drivers. The two found themselves in a battle for the title, which for Alain would be his third. To further complicate matters, Balestre got involved, disqualifying Mansell at Estoril and Senna at Suzuka, setting off a witch-hunt whose value was very debatable. Thus the rivalry between Alain and Ayrton was decided around a table instead of on the track, or, more accurately, wasn’t resolved at all, there’s still bad blood between the two protagonists. But this is an exasperated case, as you noted, because in the end it envolved the team manager, the team itself, the entire system. Now it’s time to turn the page and look to the future. If mistakes have been made, well, let’s try to correct the situation and give each other a hand, especially on the track.
You’ve never been able to win the World championship. Why not?
Because to win a world championship you need an organization that can make it possible.
In private, have you ever tried to evaluate yourself? To tell yourself that you’re second to none?
One is second to none only in the year in which one wins the title. I take the year-end rankings as an objective piece of data. To establish who is the best, who gains the most for his team, always depends on circumstances. If you’re lucky enough to be on the right team at the right time, you can give your best performance, as I think I demonstrated this year in a way that commands respect.
Is this motivation that brings a driver to risk life and limb?
I’m not willing to risk my life; I am willing to do my job in a very professional way within the limits of safety, aware of the risks I am taking. No world championship is worth as much as my life. In the last few years, the drivers and FISA, have done much to improve safety in Formula One, and the results, as far as the drivers’ physical integrity is concerned, have been evident in many cases.
A wise man, undoubtedly an Epicurean, once said that the only way to resolve the problem of birth and death is to enjoy the period in between. What do you think about this? Is Formula One a source of enjoyment for you, or Just a profession? And where is the dividing line between pleasure and professional duty?
Sure, you’ve got to enjoy life, but you’ve always got to use your head, remaining aware of what you are doing. The more rationally you can live your life the better.
Sometimes you bring your son along to a Grand Prix. In what spirit do you bring him close to the race, and to the world of racing? And how does he react to the experience of having a father who’s a driver? When you’re at home, how often do you talk about Formula One and racing?
Formula One occupies a space of about three percent in my conversation at home, in other words pratically nil. I don’t spend much time with my children, but I try, within the limits of my presence, to be a father, to live their problems together with them, to share the fun times and let them know that I’m always close to them, at least in my thoughts. Simone comes along to the races because he likes to see what that world is like, even if it isn’t his favourite sport. He prefers tennis and skiing.
It’s a well-known fact that you are very close to your wife, and that she is a very charming person. What has Susy given you over the years, as far as your professional life is concerned? Is she a stimulus or a restraint?
I believe that she’s been able to keep me in equilibrium because she’s always been very moderate in expressing herself, both when things were going well and when they were going badly. She’s always tried to help me see things objectively and has always been by my side. A wife is a person who should be present, but with discretion, and Susy has this quality.
Was the passion for cars and racing, when it made itself felt in your personality, stronger and more intense than what you felt for a woman? Would you abandon racing for Susy?
When I was a kid I didn’t get enthused about cars, but since at home both my father and my brother were great racing fans, they transmitted to me the desire to try it out for myself. I’ve always been a very competitive person, I always liked contests and when I saw that I was getting good results in this sport, I became a Formula One driver. If I had gotten such good results in another sport, I probably would have followed that path and become a professional. I can’t tell you if I would have stopped racing for Susy’s sake, as fortunately there has never been any obstructionism on her part, nor on the part of my parents.
After so many years and so many laps around the same tracks, don’t you ever feel a sense of nausea provoked by the world of racing? Not even after an accident?
Accidents always leave a bad taste in your mouth, especially when they have a tragic outcome. But at the same time, my passion for the sport helps to overcome the difficult moments. I can also tell you that I’ve never felt a sense of nausea due to monotony or habit, which would be understandable considering how long I’ve been in this profession, but I have felt it in certain moments when, from a personal standpoint, in one ambient or another it hasn’t been possible to find the kind of harmony that makes racing enjoyable for me.
What do you do to take care of your image with respect to the press?
Lately I’ve been doing quite a lot. At the start of my career I’ll admit that I was a little bit short with the journalists. I didn’t think it was very important, but as time went on I began to understand that reporters also have a job to do, and they need topics and stories with which to do it, and I came to the conclusion that it is more professional to cooperate with them. Let’s say that today I have a more mature approach to the problem.
Your career has been marked by several tough duels. Can you recall something about them for us, including their denouements?
There have been quite a few duels. One of the many that I remember well is that between myself and Villeneuve at Zolder in 1979 (?) where I held on to my position and was later criticized by the press because I didn’t let him pass. Some said that I should have done so, as by coincidence I also was working for Fiat, since I was driving a Lancia. That just made me laugh. Since then there have been many other duels, and I’m notoriously a hard nut to crack, as I believe that I needn’t give presents to anyone, and if somebody wants a position, he’d better win it the hard way.
Are you the type to hold a grudge?
I’d say not. I’m the type that confronts a problem right away, with a lot of energy, and generally doesn’t hold a grudge.
What have been your greatest gratifications in Formula One? Or disappointments?
The greatest gratifications have to be winning the Grands Prix in Monaco in 1982 and in South Africa in 1983, but another source of satisfaction has been the reevaluation of my image. Once I got beyond a very difficult 1985, I went back to Brabham and little by little I’ve been able to reconstruct Patrese the driver and the person, and the satisfactions of this past year made all the sacrifices worthwhile.
Do you regret never having raced in a Ferrari?
No, that’s not a reason to have particular regrets for me. To wind up driving for Ferrari would certainly be gratifying, but at the same time I’m very happy to be working with Williams, as I have a great relationship with Frank, and with Dudot from Renault. After all, I was the first to drive the Renault, so I feel like a part of the program and I believe our team has great potential with which to aim for the top of the rankings. I believe in this motor, and I’m willing to bet on it. This year we’ve already won two Grands Prix with Thierry, with enough placements to wind up in second place in the builders’ rankings and, for myself, third place in the drivers’ rankings. Next year we’ll do even better.
What would you give to win a world title before retiring from Formula One?
All the commitment I can, as always. And if the Williams-Renault is competitive, I can guaranty you’ll be seeing a lot of me on the podium. But I’m forgetting, I’ll also be needing that little bit of luck, without which no-one can win a world championship.
By Claudio Casaroli for Ruote in Pista International (1989), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.