July 9, 1990
BRITISH GRAND PRIX
"The best anniversary present I could wish for? A win at Silverstone!"
The 200 is up for Riccardo Patrese! The Williams-Renault driver who already holds the record for F1 starts will pass the 200 Grands Prix mark at Silverstone on Sunday. As an anniversary present, Patrese would love to take the fourth victory of his F1 career at Silverstone.
First and foremost, Riccardo, happy anniversary!
"Thanks a lot, but I'd rather you waited till Sunday evening. Not out of superstition, but I just know so many things can happen in our line of work. Besides, I shall go about this 200th Grand Prix of my career just like work. I'm pretty sure my team will have set something up to celebrate the occasion, but when the British Grand Prix gets under way I won't be thinking about beating records. I'll only be thinking about going after a win."
You seem to attach a great deal of importance to the record?
"You're wrong there - either that or I haven't made myself clear. I am very keenly aware of being the first driver in F1 history to reach the 200 Grands Prix mark. If I were not, it would be tantamount to insulting all the great Grand Prix drivers like Fangio, Clark, Hill, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Lauda and so many others who didn't have the good fortune and the privilege of taking part in 200 Grands Prix. This season is my 14th in F1. That means that for 14 years people have had faith in me, and continue to have faith in me. But the record wouldn't mean the same to me if I were driving for a team in the middle or at the back of the grid. After 14 seasons in F1, I am driving for Williams-Renault, one of the three best teams in the World Championship. To my mind, that's the most important thing. If I were in a midfield team I'd probably think more about the record number of Grand Prix starts. But with a Williams-Renault I know I could win on Sunday, so I shall savour that record only after the race - especially if I've won the British Grand Prix that would be the best anniversary present of all."
At the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix you beat the record for Grand Prix starts shared by Graham Hill and Jacques Laffite. Do you remember that as a special day?
"Yes, but not because of the record. It was the first Grand Prix of the Williams-Renault partnership, the start for Renault's atmospheric engine, and I led the race! I hadn't been in the lead since I won in South Africa in 1983. Six years without leading a Grand Prix is a long time - a very long time. So the pleasure I felt at beating Graham Hill's and Jacques Laffite's record was nothing compared to the pleasure I took in starting from the front row in my Williams-Renault and leading the race for 17 laps."
Is it possible that Riccardo Patrese will make it 250 Grands Prix?
"Of course it is. All it needs is for me to keep racing until 1993. I've just had my 36th birthday, and as a driver I've never felt better in myself. In physical and mental terms I feel none of the fatigue that can affect people who have won a lot of races. I waited six years from 1983 to 1989 for the chance to drive a car that would put me in the running for another win. I never lost heart in all that time. So, now that Williams and Renault are giving me a car that can win, I'm not about to start feeling tired of F1...I waited too long for this good fortune not to appreciate it. When I started in F1 at 22 it was my ambition to be World Champion, win races by the dozen - not to get to 200 or even 500 Grands Prix. I haven't changed. For me, the 250 Grands Prix mark is not an end in itself. What I want is to win."
The 1989 season saw Riccardo Patrese's comeback: one pole position, one fastest lap, third in the Driver's Championship. But you didn't record a win despite leading three Grands Prix. In retrospect, did the season seem somehow incomplete?
"Yes, a bit. Although there was some satisfaction to be gained from the mere fact of being in with a chance of winning. In 1988 all people could talk about was how old I was. Nobody mentions it to me now. To everybody, I'm a potential racewinner again. So at the end of last year I was happy with the way my season had gone. But to my way of thinking the year 1989 was only one stage. During the winter I said to myself that if I had to go through 1990 the way I did 1989, being on the podium but without a win, I would see that as failure. Thankfully, Imola came along..."
Emerson Fittipaldi claimed his Indianapolis win last year was more satisfying than the two World Championships he won in F1 in the 70's, because at 44 he is better able to savour victory than he was at 27. Do you feel the same way?
"I don't think age has changed anything. Like me, Emerson Fittipaldi went a long time without winning. Seven years went by between my last two F1 wins. It's those seven years that add all the piquancy to my Imola victory. For Imola was the happiest moment of my entire career, not because I was 36, but because that win came after a long wait, because I had won in my home country, Italy, and most of all because that day I was the best."
How is the Riccardo Patrese of today different from the Riccardo Patrese who made his Grand Prix debut in 1977 at 22?
"That's easy. At 22, I was still a child. At 36, I'm a man. I still have the same skills as a driver, but nowadays I know how to be easy on my car in a race, I know how to stave off the pressure that can afflict a Grand Prix driver. That's what you call experience. This year all the drivers at the head of the World Championship - Senna, Berger, Prost, Mansell, Boutsen and myself - are 30 or older, and that's no coincidence."
There has been one traumatic incident in your career: the fatal accident to Ronnie Peterson in a multiple pile-up at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. For a while you were singled out as having caused the accident before your innocence was acknowledged. Did that accident influence your career?
"Maybe - it's hard to say. Without naming names, some of the senior drivers of the day did point the finger at me, probably because I was the youngest. I knew I had nothing to reproach myself for. So I just turned in on myself. A traumatic experience like that is bound to change a man, and I made the mistake of cutting myself off from the other drivers. I was shy, I became a loner. It took me some years to realise that wasn't the answer. But it may have been that ordeal, however painful, that gave me the strength to keep believing in myself through all those years when I was scratching round in the middle of the pack with no hope of winning. I never doubted I'd make it back to the top one day."
You are now the most experienced driver in F1. People respect and listen to you. How would you react if a young driver were going through what you had to endure 12 years ago?
"I'd go and offer him my hand in friendship, help him come through it. But I feel sure what I went through in 1978 couldn't happen in 1991. At the time there was a huge gulf between the younger drivers and the big names. Today established drivers welcome the young ones, we exchange views. Times have changed - and a good thing too."
Sunday sees your last race on the Silverstone circuit before it undergoes modifications. Are you sorry to see the quickest tracks in the Championship, like Silverstone and Zeltweg, gradually disappearing?
"Yes, I'll miss them. Lapping Silverstone at over 250 km/h as we did in the turbo days was quite an experience. But it wasn't really very sensible. Last year I went off at Silverstone at 200 km/h. My Williams-Renault went right over the sand trap and hit the barrier. Grand Prix cars get faster every year, and driver safety means changes to the quicker circuits like Silverstone just have to come."