Over the Hill... Not!

As he prepares to celebrate his record 250th GP start, Riccardo Patrese appears highly motivated, despite his shaky start to the ’93 season

The German Grand Prix at Hockenheim later this month is likely to see a landmark in Grand Prix history. Riccardo Patrese, Formula One’s most experienced driver, barring unforseen circumstances, should be taking part in his 250th Grand Prix. Indeed, it is even conceivable that the veteran Italian may win the race in his Camel Benetton Ford B193B.

Earlier this season, however, it seemed Patrese was on his way out of a sport which had brought him six victories and eight pole positions. Outclassed by rising star Michael Schumacher, demoralised by the move from Williams to Benetton and the change in technology which that brought about, he was not a happy man. However, he is back again and confident that he has now realised his true potential within the Benetton-Ford team.

"It was not an easy start for myself with Benetton, the Italian confirmed. I think the fact that we had some new problems to face, with active suspension, automatic gearbox, traction control, and ABS, also made everything very complicated. I think I suffered further because of not much testing during the winter.

We went testing but because of the technical problems I could not do much mileage, and I have only come back to a decent standard much later than the start of the season. Now i am getting better, although I am not completely set up.

I think the car is getting better and better and the results, especially those Michael put down, show that now we are definitely behind the Williams and in front of the others. There is still some work to do though. And whilst the car is getting better it makes me better as well. I am quite sensitive and if something is not right it affects my performance more than it does Michael’s.

Michael is very determined and quick. He knows how to go very fast in a racing car and on top of that he is very mature for his age. He has surprised me this year. This is not because of his speed, because I could see that last year, but because of the way he has acted for his age. I thought a guy of 24 would be a little bit less mature, but he appears to be very much in control of himself. But you cannot really compare us yet. I haven’t been on the pace.

I am also more experienced and mature than Michael. At the beginning of my career I was more like Michael. I was not as sensitive and I was pushing hard in all conditions and looking for maximum speed all the time. Sometimes now I give away this feeling of pushing very hard, when I am testing or practicing for qualifying, because I now try to get the car right.

The second qualifying in Barcelona was the first time I could say to myself: ‘Right, now you have the car, now you can feel the car, now you can try to beat Michael and try to be in front of Senna.’ That was the first time since I started driving for Benetton that I had that feeling. The car was performing well and I said: ‘Right, now I will go for it!’

Before that moment I always had the feeling that I was in a car with which I was not confident. Saturday in Spain was good for me because I got back that old feeling. It is the same feeling I have had for the last four years.

I came to Benetton from a very competitive car at Williams. I had something so good that when I had to step back a little it caused a little trouble. Going backwards is not easy. i think the difference is that Michael is moving forwards and he knows the car well. For me it was the opposite.

Riccardo Patrese, the driver, is the same. I think it is a question of putting the problems right. I don’t think it was easy to start all the new technology as well as a relationship with the team. Our performances in the last races are better and better, and Michael has had better results because he finished second in Canada and I didn’t finish. I hope from now to be there as I should be there. I am the same driver, but it is just that things were not in the right spot.

I know that if I put the car right I can go even quicker and when there is a slight problem in qualifying I can forget about it. To go really super, super quick you must be quick but your car also has to be quick. My aim is always to make the quickest car possible and now if I feel problems maybe I will stop the vehicle because I want to solve them rather than drive around them".

The media was greatly critical of Patrese after the first few races of the season and Patrese is animated when asked if this affected his driving:

"The papers in Italy did not say much about me, it was more the English and French who were giving me a hard time, he responded. It was not affecting me but it surprised me a little bit because I think in the last four years with Williams I put down some quite good results and I did not expect that just because three or four races went wrong that all this criticism came over me.

It surprised me that the respect was gone completely, he continued, raising his voice. I thought that for what I did in 16 years of Formula One I could have a little bit more respect and there was not, so I was surprised. I had worked hard, I had put down good results and I thought I would have had a little bit more respect from the media".

Patrese is understandably quite annoyed at the way that the media set about him:

"There is no respect in Formula One any longer. Look what happened to Alain Prost after Donington. It’s crazy. You cannot judge people on one race. You cannot judge them over three months. You have to remember what has happened in the past. I don’t think I was finished after a couple of months racing in 1993. I knew the problems I had and I knew I could come back. I think that the Formula One world should be more objective and have more respect for people".

Benetton were not going to drop a man of Patrese’s experience and skill, and likewise, Patrese was not about to turn his back on Grand Prix racing. Formula One is his lifeblood, and he is more liable to turn his back on the sport he loves than he was this time last year:

"Whilst I have the motivation and the enjoyment I go on. I love Formula One, but I also love to be competitive. If I had a sad face it was not because the criticisms in the media, it was because I wasn’t confident myself. I felt I could not express myself in the way I know I can and have done in the past.

In this job you cannot be sure when you will reach the limit. I have done 249 races and we will see what happens next. My mind is still very occupied with Formula One, so until I don’t have that I am not even going to think about leaving. Anyway, the number of victories is more important than the number of races".

Patrese’s long career has been littered with many good and bad times. There was the tragedy of Monza in 1978 when he was accused of causing the accident which led to the death of Ronnie Peterson. Exiled from the next race at Watkins Glen, the Italian the suffered four years of torment as the Italian courts deliberated on his guilt or innocence.

There was the jubilation of his first victory at the end of the chaos that was the Monaco grand prix of 1982. Prost was leading with three laps to go when he crashed, meaning Patrese inherited the lead until he spun on the penultimate lap. Didier Pironi then led until he suffered electrical problems in the tunnel, de Cesaris who was then second ran out of fuel and then Derek Daly would have won had he not smashed his gearbox on the barriers. A Lotus 1-2 seemed on the cards, but Patrese had got his car running again and took the flag for a memorable debut victory.

Perhaps Patrese’s most emotional victory was at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1990. It was there that he ended his seven-year drought of wins by beating Austrian Gerhard Berger to the flag. Patrese acknowledged that he was in tears all around the last lap and there were more to be shed on the podium.

In 1991 Patrese drove a storming race in Mexico to beat 1992 World Champion and then team-mate Nigel Mansell to the flag. Having taken the lead on lap 15, Patrese raced brilliantly in the closing laps when Mansell was closing by over a second a lap and finished just over one second ahead of the Englishman.

And last year at Estoril, the Italian was lucky to escape with his life after a 180mph crash which saw his car launch over the back of Berger’s Mc Laren, take off and miss a bridge by just feet before smashing back onto the track. He climbed out of the car and walked unsteadily away.

But for Patrese, what have been his best and wrong moments?

"I never have an absolute thing, he pointed out. You can ask me what my best race was, but I always like to make somethings in life. I have good races and I have had bad races and that is it. You tend to forget most of the bad things, so I don’t express my favourite".

When time finally catches up with the charismatic Italian from Padua, Formula One may lose one of the most honest men it has seen. He is not going to give up easily, and he always sees his greatest challenge as being the next:

"Benetton is going to be very, very strong and we are going to be very, very strong. The problem is always Williams and this year they are very hard to beat. It is not enough for me to be near to them though, I want to be ahead and winning"…

By Tim Collings for Checkered Flag Magazine (1993), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.