From Villain to Hero

After 12 largely undistinguished and sometimes controversial years in grand prix racing, Riccardo Patrese finally came good in 1989, finishing third in the world championship. Mike Doodson and Shaun Campbell review the career of Formula 1’s most experienced driver.

IT COMES AS SOMETHING OF A SHOCK to go through the Formula 1 results achieved over the last 13 years and 192 races by Riccardo Patrese because, until this year, they literally didn’t add up to much. Two wins, both fortuitous and the last of which was in 1983, plus a best result in the world championship of ninth hardly marked out the 35-year-old Italian as a man to watch in 1989.

It’s no secret that neither Frank Williams nor Renault were initially keen to have him aboard this year. It was Williams’ designer Patrick Head who defended Patrese’s place on the grounds that the loss of Nigel Mansell and the switch to Renault engines made a strong argument for preserving some continuity within the team.

Patrese rewarded Head’s faith and changed the opinions of Frank Williams and Renault with by far his most impressive season. Four second places, two thirds, two fourths and a fifth took him to third place in the championship and it wasn’t just consistency that earned those points. He led three races, was desperately unlucky not to win two and clocked up a pole position and fastest lap.

Patrese came into single-seater motor racing in 1975 having already established himself in karting and as a member of the Italian national skiing squad. He finished second (to Bruno Giacomelli) in the Formula Italia championship before graduating to F3 in 1976 where he was a consistent winner, stepping up to F2 the following year. This rapid rise became positively meteoric when he was drafted into the Shadow F1 team in 1977.

In 1978 he joined the Arrows breakaway movement from Shadow and found himself suddenly elevated to number one status when Gunnar Nilsson was unable to take up the drive due to the cancer which tragically ended his life shortly afterwards. In retrospect that promotion was perhaps premature. At 24 years of age Patrese lacked the maturity to go with his unquestioned speed. And 1978 was a difficult year for Arrows, with Shadow contesting the legality of the team’s chassis in the courts. Ultimately Shadow won and Arrows was forced to scrap the car and build a new one. Patrese had already been criticised for undue aggression in his driving, notably when he weaved on the straights at Sweden to prevent Ronnie Peterson from taking his second place, and by the time of the Italian Grand Prix the F1 establishment was close to taking action.

What happened that day at Monza is still the subject of much debate but Ronnie Peterson died after a pile-up just after the start and Patrese was made the scapegoat.

Although he was eventually cleared, the incident made a lasting impression on him, especially when the other drivers clubbed together to prevent him from racing in the US Grand Prix.

Labelled as a villain the edge went off Patrese’s driving and a series of uncompetitive Arrows designs relegated him to also-ran status for the next season. There were brief flashes of speed in 1981 when FISA rule changes briefly banned “ground-effects” but once Brabham’s Gordon Murray had found a loophole in the regulations, the Arrows drifted off the pace.

In 1982 Patrese joined Brabham, establishing a friendly relationship with Bernie Ecclestone that survives to this day. It was the first year for BMW as the supplier of the turbo engines for Brabham but after the first race it was obvious that the German four cylinder needed much more development. Patrese refused to race the BMW-engined car and stuck to the Cosworth V8. it was policy that enabled him to notch up his first GP win.

It came at Monaco, a race famous for Murray Walker’s hysterical last lap commentary as the rain fell and cars spun while the lead changed three times on the last lap with Didier Pironi’s Ferrari and Andrea de Cesaris’ Alfa Romeo both running out of fuel on then last lap. Patrese had been leading on the penultimate lap when he spun on the greasy surface at the Loews hairpin and stalled the engine. His car was pushed out of harm’s way, fortunately downhill, and he managed to start the engine again, furious with himself for the mistake. he never saw Pironi’s car parked by the tunnel and couldn’t believe the chequered flag was being waved at him.

Two races in 1983 summed up Patrese’s Jekyll-and-Hyde, up and down career. This was the year when Brabham introduced the pit-stop midway through the race to change tyres and fill up with fuel. Patrese had set the pace at Imola and, after making his stop, found himself in second place right behind Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari. He caught and passed the red car only to drift wide at the next corner and slide into the catch-fencing. it was a spetacular mistake which served to confirm his propensity for “brain-fade” at the critical moments.

But in the final race of the season, with team-mate Nelson Piquet on the brink of winning the world championship Patrese was entrusted with the task of protecting the Brazilian against any attacks from his only championship rival, Alain Prost. He played his part to perfection and when Prost retired and Piquet backed off to make sure of winning the necessary title points, came through to win.

At the end of 1983 Patrese accepted a lucrative offer to drive for Alfa Romeo. It was a bad decision; the car was hopelessly uncompetitive and his driving, still aggressive, which might have been excusable at the front end of the field, was less forgivable when mixing with the tail-enders. Those two years with Alfa came close to ending his F1 career. That they didn’t, Patrese owes to his close friendship with Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone has made few genuine friendships in F1 but readily admits Patrese to be one of the chosen few. At the end of 1985 Patrese once again signed for Brabham. And it was Ecclestone again that prompted Patrese’s move to Williams two years later when Brabham suspended its F1 operation.

Patrese’s position at Williams was justified not just by his growing reputation as a steady and consistent number two but by his fierce sense of loyalty to his teams. Unlike almost every other F1 driver he is a discreet man who never openly criticises the mistakes his employers make from time to time.

These qualities wich team managers appreciate so much are also shared by his mechanics. Patrese shows his gratitude to them in ways they enjoy, like organising a gourmet dinner at a five-star restaurant near Imola. Although he doesn’t have the same madcap sense of humour as Nelson Piquet for example, he makes his mechanics feel like his personal friends. This relationship is more than a courtesy; it can make a big difference whe there’s a full night’s work to be done on the car.

Likewise, his relationship with team-mates has usually been good although he clashed with Andrea de Cesaris when the latter was signed up by Brabham for the 1987. Derek Warwick, who drove with Patrese at Brabham in 1986 describes him as not just pleasant company but also the fastest team-mate he’s ever had.

The achievement which gave Patrese justifiable satisfaction this year was his pole position in Hungary, where he found a clear lap on a day when Senna was unable to overcome minor problems and the heavy traffic. Even so, he denies that he takes risks.

“It’s not a question of risk,” he says, “I think it’s a question of playing the tatics of the race a little better then when I was starting. That comes from experience. I can attack or defend with a much better chance of finishing the race and getting a good result at the end. It’s because I am more relaxed inside the car and I can think a little more than when I was young.”

He avoids cultivating friendships with the press, to such an extent that he has gained a reputation for aloofness. “Maybe people criticise me because I am not friendly. But I am not a person who talks a lot unless I am friendly with the one I am talking to.”

He genuinely admires most of the drivers with whom he has worked, and gives an interesting professional assessment of their abilities. “I have to say that Nigel Mansell last year impressed me a lot for the speed that he has in his hands, in the way he drives, and the way he is able to find the very quick lap. He can find his limit in maybe only five laps, then in testing sometimes he goes on for two days and he is not able to improve except by only a little.”

The excellent new relationship which Patrese has established with Williams could help him to win more races at an age when most drivers are winding down their careers. Though he is too polite to mention it himself, he is very happy that Thierry Boutsen has not been able to move into the team as its dominating number one. The record shows that he regularly outqualified Boutsen in 1989.

There are stories of some drivers earning $6 million dollars a year. Has Patrese become rich in F1? “I don’t know how much other drivers earn,” he says. “No, I am not jealous about them either. I know how much I earn myself, and I am happy with that. To get that kind of money, you must have results. I think I am paid for my results.”

If all goes to schedule, then Patrese, already F1’s most experienced driver, will start his 200th Grand Prix next year at Silverstone. But being the most experienced driver is not something he considers important.

More relevant is his continued enjoyment of F1 and his family. He and his wife Suzie share their time between Monte Carlo, his home town of Padua and another house in the Italian skiing village of Cortina d’Ampezzo, where Patrese skis almost endlessly during the winter. A happy family man, he and Suzie have a 12-year-old son and twin five-year-old daughters. The boy, Simone, is already a fine skier. “Everytime I look at him I am reminded of how long I have been in F1,” he says, “because he was born at almost the same time that I had my first race with Shadow.”

By Mike Doodson and Shaun Campbell for Autocar & Motor (1989), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.