Patrese Hits Back

Riccardo Patrese has been criticised for his poor results in the early races of 1993. But Formula 1’s most experienced driver is not ready to be written off.

Riccardo Patrese needed a good result in the Spanish Grand Prix. The paddock jackals were gathering and rumours were rife that he was about to be replaced because of poor showings in the early races of the year. The pressure was on. He finished fourth in Barcelona and the Italian is happy with the outcome of his 245th Grand Prix.

“The car was good, but I had a vibration problem all weekend which we couldn’t cure,” he says.

“The car was vibrating al lot at the end of the straight and I had a problem in the race with my left front tyre. But I am satisfied. It is a good result for the team – and a good result for me!” “There is no respect in Formula 1 any longer. Look what happened to Alain Prost after Donington. It’s crap. 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 am finished after a couple of months racing in 1993, I think that the F1 world should be more objective and have more respect for people.”

Riccardo seems annoyed, but he has always been animated when he speaks; he is, after all, an Italian.

“No, it doesn’t annoy me,” he says. “I know what the problem has been and I cannot deny that the performances have been down. I have been looking for a way to get back on top. But remember,” he adds, “how many races have there been since I won a Grand Prix? Where did I finish in last year’s World Championship? I don’t think I have forgotten everything in the last four months.”

There is no denying it. Riccardo won the Japanese Grand Prix last October and finished second in the World Championship – his best World Championship result. So why has he been off the pace with the Benetton? What have been the problems?

“The car did not suit my driving style,” explains Riccardo. “I was a little bit stuck learning the car, because during the winter we had problems with the development of the active suspension. The fact is that Michael (Schumacher) has done a better job than me so far. I think that for him the car was better than last year. For me it was a little bit worse. That was difficult to accept. The other thing is that perhaps an unpredictable car doesn’t hurt him as much as it does me. It is more of a problem for me when a car does something I cannot feel very well.” “It was my problem and I have to get it together. We have been racing for three months. We are not at the end of the season yet and before judging people it is better to wait a little bit. Sometimes, as I said before, respect is missing.”

Michael is very quick isn’t he?

“He is quick. No doubt about it,” says Riccardo, “but you cannot really compare us yet. I haven’t been on the pace. I was way off. 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.”

So was it a change in the car, not in the person?

“We found some things in the Imola testing and they helped me quite a lot to discover why the car was a bit difficult to drive. Maybe that helped me more than Michael. It didn’t make much difference to Michael, but it made a big difference for me. I felt much better immediately and in Barcelona I think I proved that I can still get that feeling I was talking about before. I knew I could fight Michael and Ayrton. OK, forget about Williams. That is another story.”

So it was not a question of motivation?

“If I wasn’t motivated I would go home. Motivation is the most important thing. If I am not motivated and not concentrated on the job I am finished.”

Was it a crisis of confidence?

“Confidence is important, but for me confidence comes when the car is good. The better the car is the more confidence you have. I came to Benetton from a very competitive car at Williams. Maybe I was spoiled but 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 forward and he knows the car well. For me it was the opposite. I had to adapt to that.” “On top of that, active suspension is very complicated. Sometimes when you are developing it you get lost. Normal springs and shocks are easier to work with, but when the active is working well you have a much more efficient car. You have to find that balance. We are getting close, but we are not satisfied. We still have to work. Our target at the moment is the McLaren and we still have to work a lot to beat it.”

Riccardo talks with passion and from the glint in his eye – missing a little earlier this year – you know he still loves F1.

“Yes, I love F1, but I also love to be competitive. If I had a sad face before Barcelona it was not because of the criticisms, 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. I could feel that I couldn’t drive the car. I could feel I was slow and the sadness didn’t come because of what was around me – because I don’t like to read a lot – but it was because I felt I was not going as fast as I know I can.” “We were surprised by the McLaren this year. In a very short time they did a good car. But they have many things on the new car which had been tested a lot and from that point of view I think they had an advantage. We suffered because we did a huge programme in just three or four months. There was just not enough time to do everything and you need time when things are as complicated as some of the electronic systems. Now we are getting better and better. There is no doubt that Senna is in front of us and we cannot be happy with this because we have the official Ford engines and we should be in front of McLaren.” “The potential is very high and when I joined I had a remote hope that we could compete with Williams this year. I knew what Williams was planning and how much improvement there was just in the new design. Last year the Williams was a compromise car, but they started with the new car in October.”

Riccardo’s signing for Benetton came right in the middle of the upheavals at Williams, when Alain Prost had signed and Nigel Mansell looked likely to stay. Almost as soon as Riccardo signed for Benetton, Mansell announced he was quitting. Does Riccardo feel he was cheated out of the drive which ultimately went to Damon Hill?

“That’s life, isn’t it?” he smiles, “but that is another assumption that is made in F1. Everybody thinks I can leave Benetton at any moment and someone can replace me. I have to say that I have a contract with Benetton for two years. For me contracts mean something. Yes, two weeks after I signed with Benetton there was a chance for me to go back to Williams. I said: ‘No, Riccardo you have signed a contract with Benetton, you are committed to Benetton.” “If there is something signed, or even if you give your word, it is done. I do not like to go back on my word. Benetton took me because they thought I could be good for their programme and I could help them. I thought they had potential so I decided to go and I will stick with that. I could have made a lot of noise and said, ‘I want to go back to Williams’, but I didn’t.” “So for the same reason when everyone says Patrese is going to be dumped by Benetton I say I have a contract. Even if the performance was not brilliant I have given something to the team to improve the car. A racing driver must be quick and I think in the past I have proved that I am quick. It is also important for a driver to try to pull the programme up.” “I worked five years with Williams – even when we were really down in 1988 – and it took five years to be as successful as we were last year. I am prepared to do the same with Benetton. Right now we cannot think of beating Williams, but maybe in the future we can have the chance.”

By Joe Saward for Autosport (1993), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.