Riccardo Patrese has been a different man since the start of this year’s Grand Prix season. He’s more open, more relaxed and seemingly more happy with his life. That’s perhaps because he feels a weight has been taken off his shoulders. Forgotten are his frequently fruitless drives in the middle of the field, the fact he was driving for a second-rate team, and his controversial reputation. Riccardo has left all that behind. After four years of waiting, he now has a competitive car with which he can pick up top three positions. But it’s not really that Riccardo himself has changed, it’s his life that is different.
You appear to be a happier man this year, more relaxed. Why is that?
The main reason is that Riccardo Patrese is finally driving for a team that provides him with a competitive car. So, not surprisingly, that affects me, my moods and morale. I feel a lot happier, I feel that I’m actually smiling more. But I’m just as pleased to have been surprised like this. I was rather depressed at the start of the season. During the off-season I tried to find a drive with another team but failed and rather unwillingly had to resign for Arrows. Frankly, I didn’t expect things to have changed. It was more than I could hope for. For three years Arrows have been trying – in vain – to build a competitive car and for various reasons they’ve failed. But I knew that the potential was there, and suddenly this year we’re competitive. When you’re expecting things to go badly, or just a rather average performance, and then everything goes really well, it’s such a surprise that of course one tends to feel great. I’ve been very happy with my races so far this season. I’ve felt that I’ve proved something, particularly to those people who’d written me off.
You didn’t really want to stay with Arrows, did you, you wanted a change? But did you really have any other opportunity but to stay with them?
I talked with a lot of teams, but for one reason or another I never managed to come to an agreement with any of them. In fact it was the same with Arrows, because the team had lost sponsorship and was having trouble finding finance. I was told they might not be able to keep me in the team. For a while it looked as though I might no get a drive anywhere, let alone with a number one team. Fortunately the Ragno tile company offered me support which at least guaranteed me finding a drive. Finally we decided on Arrows again, and it’s turned out really well, especially considering the alternatives at the time.
Has the atmosphere within the team changed now that the car is competitive?
Yes, it’s completely different. Last year we just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Everyone was working hard yet we couldn’t do any better. We felt powerless to improve the situation. By the end of the season we were all rather low. When things aren’t going well everyone, including the engineers, mechanics and even drivers tend to let things go. Of course you simply can’t do well when people feel like that. We started this year with a new sponsor, Ragno, and the atmosphere was immediately different. Everyone worked harder, not simply because the car turned out to be competitive, which in itself was encouraging, but because Ragno almost brought pressure to bear on the team. They pushed us and encouraged us to do better. I must admit that Dave Wass has done a very good job. Everything that he’s done to the Arrows A3 has been in the right direction. He hasn’t taken a wrong turning, the car’s made nothing but progress. We hadn’t done a lot of testing prior to Long Beach, yet the car was immediately quick which is a credit to Dave.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that when Dave Wass and Tony Southgate worked together at Arrows, their cars weren’t very competitive? Yet at the start of this season, when they were working for separate teams, their individual cars worked well. Why do you think this was?
It’s hard to explain. I rated Tony highly, I thought he was good. We worked well together and I felt close to him, I knew just how good he was. But you’re right, both the Arrows and the Theodore were competitive at the start of the season. Our main problem last year was that our skirts never worked properly. Well that’s not a problem this year, and without skirts, it means that we have other areas in which to spend money. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve made progress. As people, there’s one particular difference between Tony and Dave. Tony is resolute in his ideas, he believes in them one hundred per cent and it’s hard to change his mind. That’s not such a bad thing in some ways because you have to believe in what you’re doing in this life. Dave, on the other hand, knows what he wants to do, but he tends to be slightly more broadminded about things. He looks around at what other people are doing and he’s able to admit that perharps his ideas aren’t exactly right. He takes a little bit from other people’s cars and can adapt that to his own ideas.
You and Tony Southgate were good friends. Are you sorry he is gone?
Yes, but I’m still great friends with him. I worked for three years with him, and I tend to be slightly sentimental about things like that. We worked well together and I was sad that he left.
Have you found that now you are a front runner that you are popular again?
Yes, but then it’s always like that. Everyone wants to talk to you and ask questions. That’s life. When you’re a success people want to be associated with you, people want to be associated with success. But when you’re down, no-one wants to know you.
Does the change in your life make any difference to the way you drive? Do you think you drive better when you are more determined?
Maybe, but it’s not a conscious feeling. I think that over the past few years I’ve always driven my best. I’ve never felt less determined because the car hasn’t been competitive. But when you’re driving a competitive car it seems to draw out that little bit extra, and one drives that much better without really realising it. It makes no difference whether it’s intentional or it just happens, if you’re feeling good you drive better even though you may not realise it. You can’t put your finger on it, and it isn’t simply a matter of speed. It’s easier to drive a competitive car. Last year, at Brands hatch for instance, I had to try incredibly hard just to qualify. It was a lot easier getting pole position at Long Beach. Those are two totally different situations, and the driver has very little influence on the outcome, everything depends on the organisation behind him.
Now that you are driving a competitive car, you must be looking for your first Grand Prix win…
Yes, absolutely. I’ve finished in every position between second and tenth, all I need now is a first to complete the set. I’m doing everything I can to win, but I’m not driving for Williams, Brabham, Renault or Ferrari. They have the finance to improve their cars and it’s not as easy to remain as competitive. We have a limited budget and we can’t spend more than that. I could have won at Long Beach and I was really disappointed not to have done so, because I’m not sure that the opportunity is going to present itself again in the near future. I’m driving for Arrows, not Williams. Their future is safe, mine isn’t.
But if Arrows keep going the way they have since the beginning of the season, then surely they must be considered among the best cars, and the team too?
I think we should be in a position to win a Grand Prix this year. I’m always up towards the front, I always start from the front rows of the grid. Sometimes it’s better than others. I hope I’ll have another crack at it before the end of the season. I feel that my Grand Prix career hasn’t been a lucky one, so that it’s about time that luck turned my way. I should have won three Grands Prix. But because I’ve been unlucky I haven’t won a single race. First of all there was the South African Grand Prix in 1978, then the Swedish race the same year: I finished second behind Lauda’s Brabham fan car which was subsequently banned. So that should have been my first or second win. And then there was this year’s Long Beach race. So it’s time I struck lucky.
How did you feel when you retired at Long Beach this year? Did you feel better or worse than in South Africa in 1978 for example?
I was less disappointed, a lot less disappointed. I was actually very happy after I retired at Long Beach, because after all the problems I’d been through trying to get a drive, I realised that the car was very good. I’d set pole position time for the first time in my Formula One career, I’d led for 30 laps and I’d proved to everyone that I was still competitive. I was even more happy because I didn’t expect to be so competitive. I was still young when I led in South Africa in 1978. I’d only been in Formula 1 for a short while and I still believed that life was easy in Formula 1 and I didn’t realise how difficult it was to win a Grand Prix. That came later, and I went through a difficult period, driving uncompetitive cars. That’s why I was happy at Long Beach, why I derived some happiness from that race, in spite of retiring. I was less disappointed than at Kyalami three years earlier. At that time, I look things at face value and didn’t appreciate the underlying plus and minus points which I do now.
Does this upturn in your career mean that you’ve forgotten all the problems you’ve had in Formula 1, your bad reputation for instance?
All my Formula 1 problems stem from the accident at Monza in 1978. My bad reputation was born there. There was an enormous campaign against me and it just seemed that I must be the guilty one who caused that accident. I was simply the one to blame for all subsequent incidents. I was the man that other drivers blamed, and they all ganged up on me and banned me from taking part in the next race at Watkins Glen. Since then most of them and various other drivers have apologised to me because now they realise that I wasn’t to blame. Their attitude in America was inexcusable, the whole affair should never have happened. So it’s hard to forget, it’s too big to forget. And there’s still a court case to take place over that Monza accident. The story isn’t over yet, so I can’t forget it.
But as time passed, surely it means less to you?
I’ve always had a clear conscience about the accident. It’s never affected my morale. I may be a hard driver in a race, but that’s not such a bad thing. Most other drivers are the same. It’s not that I’m the villain and the others are all angels. Everyone is hard during races. I may have been a little too hard at first, but I think I’ve found the right level.
Now that you’ve found the right compromise and you have enough experience, do you think that you are capable of winning the World Championship?
The most important factor in winning the World Championship is the organisation behind the driver. If you have the best car run by the best team at the right moment then you can become World Champion. I’ve now done more than 50 Grands Prix and I reckon that I would recognise the right moment if I was in the right position. I feel that I’m competitive enough to take advantage of those conditions.
You got on very well with your former team mate Jochen Mass last year. Do you miss having him in the team?
Of course, yes. I’m very disappointed he’s not in our team this year, or at least in Grand Prix racing. As a person, Jochen is the greatest guy I’ve met in Formula 1. I hope he’ll be back soon. I would have liked him to stay in the team but it simply wasn’t possible.
Eddie Cheever has said that it’s impossible to be really friendly with another Grand Prix driver, but your friendship with Jochen seems to contradict that statement…
One can strike up a decent friendship with people like Jochen. But what Eddie was saying is true. It’s hard to make friends with people in Formula 1 because they’re rivals. We know one another but none of us are very close. When a driver leaves a circuit he goes home. We don’t mix a lot.
These days you are probably the leader of a new wave of younger Italian drivers. What do you think os the fact that there are so many of your fellow countrymen in Formula 1?
We’re in a good position at the moment. A number of quick new Italian drivers have emerged in the last few years. Two years ago, everyone was talking about the “French Team”, but now there’s an Italian team as well and the contest between them is going to be very interesting. I don’t think that the Italians are going to be any worse off than the French, we’re both going to be just as good.
It must be important for you to prove that you are the best of the Italians…
Everyone wants to be the first, in whatever situation. But there are two points that I’d like to make. The first is that I want to be the best in the world, that’s what competition is all about. And if I can’t be the best in the world, then I certainly want to be the best of the Italians. That’s no big deal in itself, but the press are always making comparisons and saying who is the best and who is the worse. That’s fine for the public, but not for the drivers. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a special worry for me to be in front of de Angelis because he’s Italian, but because of articles published the next day, it becomes important.
What do you think of your new team mate, Siegfried Stohr?
As a person, I like him a lot. We get on very well together. But you must realise that as a driver, he arrived in Grand Prix racing having scarcely tested at all during the winter. He hadn’t had the time to get used to the car before the first race. Formula 1 is very hard work, it takes time to get used to it. I’m very sorry that Siegfried has twice failed to qualify, because I think he is perfectly capable of qualifying. Furthermore, he seems to have a fine understanding as to how the car works. Even so, he needs more experience. You can’t simply apply the sames rules learnt in Formula 2 and 3 to Formula 1. Sometimes you have to forget all that and try something which could appear stupid at first in order to improve the car. It’s hard to understand, even puzzling to start off with, but it comes with experience.
You always seem to spend a long time talking to your team after practice. Is that because you are interested in the technical aspects of Formula 1?
It’s the best part of Formula 1. After all, it’s the most technical and sophisticated class of motor racing. I think most of the drivers appreciate that. It’s much easier if you concentrate hard on the development of Formula 1 and the behaviour of the car. If all that is in your head when you’re driving, then you can be more analytical. You can pinpoint what’s going on immediately and quickly diagnose and work out a remedy. That’s also experience, it comes progressively.
Do you feel that you are currently in the most exciting stage of your career?
I really enjoyed the first part of the 1978 season, up to the German Grand Prix. By the end, because of our problems with Shadow, we had to change the car and wait until the start of the next season to have a reasonably competitive chassis. I feel now as I did in 1978, when I first drove in Formula 1. I’m enjoying Grand Prix racing. I’m getting on better with the other drivers and journalists. I feel much happier generally speaking.
By Eric Bhat of Grand Prix International Magazine (1981), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.