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An amazing Riccardo relives his season as vice world champion, which began with three Williams braces, which he defines very different from those Mercedes 2019, less clear-cut and dry
Put one evening to dinner with Riccardo Patrese. But without libations, just bread, racing and adrenaline. In the foreground is the 1992 season, which has become overwhelmingly topical again because the three consecutive doubles of the Mercedes at the beginning of 2019 having that year as their most logical and illustrious precedent, backwards. Which then, that is to say, Adrian Newey’s Mansell-Williams Red Five-Renault 14B era with a Renault V10 3500 cc engine, architecture pushed and strongly desired by Bernard Dudot.
With Riccardo Patrese himself - it will be good to remember -, at first an exceptional developer, an indefatigable tester (of that engine then hyper-winning) and to date the last vice-champion of the Italian world in the history of F1, precisely in that 1992 very rich in events, epochal turning points, technical and human. Therefore, talking to Riccardo about that year and that cycle is to dissect a beautiful, fascinating part that is still to be known in its most tantalizing and least revealed parts. With the advantage of having the availability and attention of one of the protagonists of the time, ready and firmly willing to reveal inviolable backstories at the time.
Riccardo, from that 1992 there is the perception that your second place finish was little praised, recorded and appreciated.
I begin by saying that I am pleased with this feeling of yours, which is also a bit mine. On the other hand, in the world championship with Williams I also have two final third places, in 1989 and 1991, which have their good reasons. And what about the 19 second places in my career? I won 6 World Championship GPs, but I led races for over 3000 kilometers and in the end I finished second 19 times. I say 19 times, understand? That is an entire season today in which, despite the low reliability of the time, the leader has never stopped. In the end, certain things make a difference and you care.
So what is the synthesis of the reasoning?
That in some ways I was a champion of my time. But a Superchampion is another thing, he can count on different numbers, successes and destinies. In terms of speed I have not often disfigured in comparison with the Superchampions themselves, but on that of destiny sometimes I did. I'll give you a purely theoretical example. See Hamilton, in Bahrain 2019 and beyond. He won but it wasn't all his triumph, because it was largely originated from a little problem at Ferrari, otherwise the real winner of that race would obviously have been Leclerc. I mean I know the hint. It has happened to me so many times to put up with it. I risked winning in South Africa 1978 with the semi-debutante Arrows and the engine on the most beautiful, when I had put everyone in and was on the run, he left me on foot. At Monza '92 I had the victory in hand, with Senna behind me, when with four laps to go, a technical problem ruined the party and I finished fifth. Is it clear what I mean?
You mean that luck and bad luck exist, and how.
Let's not talk about luck and bad luck, but more simply about destiny. At some point you understand that it is written that things must go in a certain way and not in another. Then you go into it and do whatever you want, but that's it and you can't do anything about it.
Let's go to that 1992, then.
A complex, intense, beautiful year for F1 but still to be explained and understood. I'm off to a good start, with good news and bad news.
The Good news?
I can count on the Williams Fw14B-Renault, a beast of another breed, a car that gives its rivals two seconds per lap on the flying lap. Other than beautiful, it is wonderful news.
But the bad one?
The bad news is that the other Williams, the Red Five, is driven by Nigel Mansell. Very strong driver, I'm certainly not the one who has to explain it, and also a teammate with whom I honestly have a good relationship. However, in terms of direct confrontation, I soon realize that for me the situation will not be as positive as the previous year. First of all for, I would say, technical-structural reasons that only me and a few others at Williams can know.
Now you can reveal everything, I think.
Of course yes. And I do. I tell it from the beginning, to make those who read us understand everything, absolutely everything. I arrived at Williams in late 1987, for a very simple reason. Bernie Ecclestone is demobilizing Brabham and so in perspective I am almost on foot, in any case I seriously risk ending up off the radar of the top teams. Already another time, at the end of 1985, after the negative parenthesis with Alfa Romeo, when I had finished at zero points, I had been one step away from leaving F1 and at that moment the situation seemed alarmed red. It was Bernie himself who spoke well of me with Frank Williams, suggesting to him: “Why don't you test Riccardo? You'll see, you'll like it ". Frank takes him at his word and submits me to a private test in September 1987 in Imola, in which I lap a tenth below the pole of the San Marino GP of the previous spring. He likes it, he satisfies him and he takes me. It's done, I'm at Williams. But 1988 is the year in which Williams themselves lost the winner Honda turbo for political reasons and had to settle for the aspired Judds. At the first test I immediately understand that from the disarmed Brabham to the Williams-Judd I went from the frying pan to the fire, but it's racing. Okay, a season that goes like this, waiting for the Renault V10 engine.
Which French engine in your career comes blaring and welcome like the horn of the charge style "ours arrive".
Here I am proud to say that I was the first to test the engine in November 1988 at Paul Ricard and personally carry out all the roughing and development work on the unit on the track. Beautiful experience, which soon pays off.
In fact, the 1989 Brazilian GP is remembered for the burning victory at the debut of your former teammate Mansell with the Ferrari "Papera" managed at the wall by the newly arrived and legendary Cesare Fiorio, but it is also true that it could and should have been "your" Grand Prix, that.
Look, I start in the front row with Ayrton Senna, then I pass him and take the lead, until the engine fails.
1989 is a year of growth and many placings, which strengthen the Williams-Renault association and give you the 3rd place in the world championship. In 1990 you win in Imola, washing away the unjust offenses and the ugly ending of 1983, then we arrive at 1991 and what happens is incandescent and a very important material for our story. Go.
Well, I tell you that the Williams Fw14 that was born that year is the result of the genius of Adrian Newey, but, as much as a driver can say this, I feel it very, very much also my daughter. In the sense that I carry out much of the development work, in collaboration with the tester at the time who was the still immature Damon Hill.
And here you have to explain in detail, to make understood the technical implications and background.
So, the Fw14 still has passive suspension, can count on automatic transmission, has no traction control or power steering. It is a fantastic car, not yet completely reliable, but for me it represents - together with the Brabham Bt49B with which I won in Monte Carlo 1982 - the best car I have ever driven in my career. And, beware, the Williams Fw14 is my ideal F1, while the 14B is not at all. And in this difference all the secrets and the evolutions of F1 in a few months must be grasped. And with them the specific influences on the respective driving skills and potentials of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell.
Okay, now you have to make yourself understood...
In 1991 with the Fw14 without traction control in slow corners I am better than my new teammate, the returning Nigel, at managing my foot on the accelerator on slow corners, while on fast corners the data shows that we provide an overall performance. Equivalent. In 1992, however, with the Fw14B there is a complex revolution, because traction control comes first and in slow corners now you go, brake and from there on the electronics decide how to distribute power in an ideal way. Conversely, in the fast corners the car becomes hard, difficult, heavy to drive, a real truck, because there is so much extra load and it takes incredible muscle power to manage and correct, in the various driving phases. Yes, suddenly physical strength becomes and gives a great advantage. I mean that in the conditions of 1991 the Fw14 is the ideal single-seater for me, compared to Nigel, while in 1992 the Fw14B with active suspension and traction control, with so much more load and all these electronic devices, Mansell himself proves to be more efficient. . And the explanations are there, they derive from a precise analysis, known to very few at the time. And there's more: the 1991 Fw14 was much more sincere. When it reached its limit, it began to slip, it had a bit of sliding which warned you that the car was about to leave you. Instead the Fw14B with active suspension was inside without problems, it seemed hinged on an invisible track, but suddenly when it started, it started. And there was nothing more to do...
The Wiliams Fw14B is a monster of power, grip, competitiveness and reliability. Mansell wins the first 8 out of ten GPs, in which you and him scored six double wins. And the “Leone” was world champion already in Hungary, after 11 GPs out of 16 overall. An excessive power. Okay, but between you...
Yes, I know what you are about to ask me and I anticipate you by telling you an unknown fact, very, very important in my view. French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, eighth race of the world championship, therefore mid-season 1992. I know very well that I am the only one who can worry Nigel Mansell for the title and obviously I intend to do everything, absolutely everything to succeed, correctly. and competitive. So, in fact, in France I take the pole off, I start in the head and I try to leave, when it starts to rain and they give the red flag, so everyone stop.
In the vulgate, it is the day when Schumi touches Senna, who then preaches to him worldwide.
Exactly. I get ready to restart from the first position, when at a certain point Patrick Head comes to me on the starting grid, who, attention, has been, is and will always remain a dear friend and admirer of mine and, apparently without reason, to a few moments after the restart, he tells me something as surprising as it is thunderous: “Hey, Riccardo, but maybe you still haven't understood that this year the world championship has to be won by Nigel Mansell? It has been established that the next world champion will be him, by any chance you don't remember that?" So: bang! Dry and dazzling, like a bolt from the blue. There I am stunned. Shut up, collect and get ready for the restart procedure of the Grand Prix. Ready-to-go, I start again in the lead, I let the first lap pass and then, having arrived in front of the pits, I raise my hand and let my teammate Nigel Mansell pass. What do you want to do, when this type of team attitude is added to the technical reality analyzed above, you just have to take note of it and accept the reality. At Magny-Cours in the press room, after the GP, I hide behind a gunshot of “no comment”. But watch out, reality itself anyway, to be honest, with that car, I repeat, it saw Nigel morphologically and structurally more effective than me, driving. The best won the world championship, the best in those conditions, because he managed the Fw14B better than me, let's be clear. But that's exactly what happened behind the scenes.
You still won at Suzuka 1992, which is still a good ride.
If I have to tell you frankly, the 1992 Japanese GP is just a great victory, but the races that I would have liked and I think completely deserved to win, in that season, were others. That is, the Hungarian and Italian GPs, but a broken engine in Budapest and a technical problem when I was just adjusting Senna at Monza, took away these joys forever. Well, I would have preferred to win in Monza than in Suzuka, according to justice, because in Italy, living the race from the cockpit, I felt it was much more mine than in Japan.
And then, explains Japan 1992.
There is a premise. I arrive in Suzuka with the psychological aftermath of Estoril's terrible flight, caused by a sudden return to the pit lane, while we are at full speed, by Gerhard Berger. Very bad accident and fortunately without direct physical consequences, but in any case the source of a tension that continues to envelop me even as I leave for Japan. Moral, Nigel wins pole position at Suzuka without any problems and I take second place on the starting grid. Ready-off and Nigel goes in the lead, so I follow him. It seems a story already seen several times, the race seems to develop like this, but at a certain point he slows down, loses speed as if he had a problem. Dunno, I don't know what to think, Mansell continues not to proceed at all, on the contrary... So I overtake him thinking that he is in trouble. And from then on another strange thing happens, because he begins to push me like crazy, pressing me relentlessly. But how? - I ask myself: what is happening? Well, evidently his Williams has started to go perfectly again... The fact is that at the end his Red Five really breaks, so I stay calm in my head, hoping like a madman that nothing will break, and in this way I'm going to win the 1992 Japanese Grand Prix, which remains my last success in F1. But the beauty comes after the race and no one can know...
Let us stop this odious abstinence.
Nigel is looking for me, he finds me and says enthusiastically: “Hey, Riccardo, you don't know how happy I am for you, of this victory! And I, as you have seen, have also given you a nice hand!" I smile and say yes, but, damn it, oh my God, he didn't give me a nice hand! Or I didn't understand how it could have been, since it was me for at least fifteen laps with his nose planting in my Williams ass... Other than a gift, in that way it kept me under the maximum pressure, that victory made me really sweat! However, the Japanese GP for me is just the race that had the most beautiful and positive plot for me that year. But my favorites in terms of performance remain Hungary and Italy.
Right between the Hungarian and Italian GPs, at the end of the summer, your choice of leaving Williams and moving to Benetton matures. The worst decision of your life, in hindsight.
Look, there it all begins when Nigel Mansell argues with Frank Williams and the relationship breaks up. The problem is that Nigel didn't tell me anything. So as soon as I learn that Alain Prost will race at Williams next year, not knowing that Nigel was already out, I take precautions and sign up for Benetton. Which is happy to put myself at their service, as I am the one who can bring all the vast wealth of experience and knowledge on the management of active suspensions. But the point is another: if Nigel had informed me that he was leaving the team to emigrate to Indycar with Newman-Haas, I, damn it, would have stayed at Williams, where I was perfectly happy. And I would also have stayed running alongside Prost, no problem. Instead I go to Benetton and in my place comes Damon Hill, who, by dint of waiting for his turn, will become world champion in 1996.
In the meantime, precisely in that 1992 Ayrton Senna at the wheel of McLaren realizes that the Williams-Renault cycle has opened and if he wants to become world champion again he will have to get that car as well, perhaps waiting for the post 1993, that is the end of the career of the archetypal rival Prost.
The best driver tends to want the best car and vice versa. It is the law of racing and once again things follow exactly this logic. In this case with unfortunately tragic developments, which we all know.
After so many of yours, a confidence of mine. Years ago a historic personality of the Williams team confided to me that on the outside there has always been a wrong perception of Mansell and Patrese. Nigel has always been perceived as the talented generous and unfortunate Superchampion, nice, open and good-natured, while Patrese, vice versa, as a tough, introverted and touchy guy. The truth, however, – according to this revelation very internal to Williams – was contrary. Few in the team could stand Nigel and everyone loved Riccardo. What can you say, as you comment on this concept, now that you are free to open up and have your say?
I feel like smiling. And I state that I had and still have an excellent relationship with Nigel Mansell. As teammates, I assured him of fairness and cooperation, among other things. A good climate between us.
I wasn't talking about this but about something else, right?
If you want to enter into the internal atmosphere of Williams at the time, I can tell you that Mansell's code nickname was "The Whiner", because he evidently tended to emphasize things he didn't like and hardly, very hardly, he was happy, indeed, let's put it this way, he was always crying. So I understand perfectly what you are saying and I realize that it is an authentic, trustworthy confidence that makes sense. Yes, it stands up, even though I was fine with Nigel Mansell in the team.
On the other hand, you have been one of the Italian drivers historically most appreciated by the English teams. From the Anglo-American Shadow - first all US and then much more British -, to Arrows, via Brabham to reach Williams and finally to Benetton very GB, with Briatore who didn't love you.
This is also true. The facts speak for themselves. I think the British appreciated that I am one who looks to the point, with a very fair approach. Sorry, I want to add something about my character. Yes, okay, it is true that for a not short period of time I enjoyed the reputation of a driver and a circus character to the not-so-easy approach, but this also needs to be explained. I am someone who had a troubled and difficult history in F1 at just over twenty-four years of age. At the beginning of 1978 I was denied a victory by fate in a very cruel way, in the South African GP, so I go to trial for Peterson's accident in Monza, which leads me to be excluded from the 1978 US East GP in an arbitrary and unfair way, because in the end I will be found completely innocent on the Monza case. But in the meantime I have suffered the damage. So my move to Ferrari fades, because they take Didier Pironi in my place. In short, inside I was in labor, a nice catchphrase of mine and it's not that I really wanted to open up with full confidence to the press... Hence the appointment of a not very difficult and approachable character, closed in a hedgehog, suspicious, never ready to spread sympathy, which it could also have a grain of truth, here. But later, slowly, my personality matures and things change, so much so that I would say since 1986, when Bernie recovers me and I switch to Brabham, after the negative period in Alfa Romeo, I begin to have a more malleable character. Combined with a less angry and introverted attitude, more open, and, I think, pleasant.
Now in F1 we talk a lot about the 1992 season, because these three initial braces of the Mercedes 2019 bring back to your famous perfect year. What do you say, Riccardo, do you see credible parallels between the two eras?
No, I don't see any at all. In the sense that yes, three side-by-side are and three side-by-side were, but that's all. It's the classic case where math doesn't follow logic. Because the logic itself expresses very different concepts: the Williams Fw14B at the time was a single-seater that gave two seconds to the flying lap to all its rivals, while this Mercedes W10, depending on the track, beats the Ferrari SF90. So much so that in Bahrain it was the Reds and Leclerc who won second place, with the same Mercede beat on the field both in practice and in most of the race.. So I say very clearly: watch out, because in 1992 there was nothing that could have happened except a Williams who won ten times out of sixteen with six braces. While in 2019 I see a world championship that is still very open and with various possible developments, beyond the current arithmetic supremacy of Mercedes.
Ferrari will soon win again and will be fighting for the title. Vettel can make an impact and Leclerc continue to surprise. And also pay attention to Valtteri Bottas, because this year has nothing to do with the compliant and helpful driver of last season. This time the Finn no longer has the approach of resigned number two but, compared to the always very strong Hamilton, he boasts the attitude of a real number one-bis. It's a year where the alleged runners-up are as good as the captains, at least for now. Raikkonen himself I see revitalized, happy, capable of surprising. At Ferrari he seemed tired and so it did him good to leave to join a team, Alfa Romeo, in which he might have found a less competitive car than that of Maranello, but also a more ideal climate. Less pressed and more serene, which now allows him to give his best with that extra bit of enthusiasm. In conclusion, I want to say that I know the 1992 season really well and I think that maybe it is legitimate to expect more surprises and twists from this one. Although in my time, of course, I remain particularly fond and attached. And also to the Williams team, who means so much to me and to whom I extend an encouragement and a warm good luck.
© 2019 Autosprint. By Mario Donnini. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.