Record holder for the most Grand Prix starts, Riccardo Patrese has no thoughts of quitting and, this year, aims to conquer Le Mans with Nissan

by Gary Watkins

Riccardo Patrese

As the most prolific starter of Grands Prix in history Riccardo Patrese can be forgiven for being a little hazy on the statistics of his record-breaking career. He can recite his Formula 1 record - 256 starts, six wins - no problem, but the Italian is a little unsure when it comes to his largely-forgotten second career in sports cars, which he is in the process of reviving after landing a plum drive for the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Nissan team run by sportscar specialist TWR.

"I think I did 36 races," says the 42-year old Patrese, who drove a variety of Lancias - Monte Carlo silhouette GT cars and LC1 and LC2 sports-prototypes - over seven straight seasons from 1979 on, "and I won 10." He can be forgiven for accidentally rounding up the true figure of eight world championship victories, but that doesn't alter the fact that, in his own words, he has a "better record in sportscars than F1."

Those eight wins include the famous sportscar races at Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, and the Nurburgring, but missing from his sportscar racing curriculum vitae is the big one - Le Mans.

"It is a race everyone wants to win," says Patrese, who failed to make it to the finish in either of his starts in the French endurance classic with Lancia in 1981 and '82. "It is a big attraction because all the world talks about the race. It is like the Indianapolis 500, completely different to any other event. It is a different kind of challenge."

Patrese certainly seems up for a challenge; his enthusiasm for racing appears undimmed by a final year in F1 with Benetton that he admits to not enjoying and then a desultory experience behind the wheel of an uncompetitive Ford Mondeo in the German Super Touring Cup in 1995.

Nissan

"I was missing something exciting to do and I had this opportunity from Nissan, so I thought a little bit about it. I told myself Nissan is doing this project to win, you want to drive an exciting car, so why not do it?"

This time, Patrese believes, he is heading for a much more rewarding experience than his year with Ford in Germany - where he was teamed up in the Schubel-run squad with his former Williams team-mate Thierry Boutsen.

"Here we are talking about something else," says the Italian, whose best result with the uncompetitive four-wheel-drive Mondeo was an 18th place. "When you come out of F1 and get in a touring car you don't have the power, downforce or brakes, and the car rolls a lot. A sportscar is something more challenging for the driver. From the point of view of speed, this car should give more pleasure to drive, which is what I really need. For a F1 driver, it is difficult to find something that gives you driving pleasure."

Patrese confirmed to himself that he still wanted to be a professional racing driver after a two-day test last Autumn with Williams, the team for which he notched up four of his six Grand Prix victories.

"The main reason I am back is because of my test with Williams last summer - I got the taste for driving back. Having such a good relationship with (team bosses) Frank (Williams) and Patrick (Head) I asked if I could do a test. It had been three years without driving F1 and I finished in a way I didn't like because of all the politics in my last season. So I wanted to come back in a Williams, the car I drove for five years, to see if I could put down some good lap times."

Williams test at Silverstone

Patrese may have been at the wheel of the car that won 12 Grands Prix last year, but his best time over two days around Silverstone would have put him fifth on the grid for the British Grand Prix.

"I was relaxed with the car and the times came. So I said, 'Well, if there was anyone who had any doubts, they must be gone now', because in only 400kms (250 miles) of testing I came down to a lap time that was quite decent. I think the times showed that I am not so rusty. "

Patrese never regarded himself as retired. "I stopped at the end on 1993 without a drive, but I had talks over the winter for F1 in 1994.

"After that I didn't think about racing, but then I had the opportunity to do touring cars in Germany. In F1 you have a lot of stress and pressure, so I thought I could go somewhere else, have more fun and lead a better life. Unfortunately it was a difficult year and I have to say touring car racing is not easier than F1 because you have to work bloody hard to be competitive. I cannot say I found the ambience easier because all the manufacturers wanted to win. They tried very hard, which meant you had to test as much as you do in F1."

Riccardo Patrese

A heavy test programme also lies ahead of Patrese this year as TWR and Nissan race against time to ready the new R390 in time for Le Mans pre-qualifying in early May and then for the 24 Hours itself in the middle of June. But he'll have to wait until mid-April before he gets behind the wheel of the twin-turbo GT1 challenger when TWR goes to Paul Ricard to continue its preparations. "I'm looking forward to driving," he says, "and feel I can be on the pace."

Patrese wont speculate on his future beyond Le Mans, but you get the impression that if the Nissan is as competitive as its first tests at Estoril two weeks ago suggest, sportscar fans might once again be seeing a lot more of him. "What happened to me in '95 was because the car was not competitive," he says. "But if the car is successful, the motivation comes. Let's see what happens in the first race and how the car goes, then anything can happen in the future."

© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission