AutoSprint #11 15/21 March 2005

by Mario Donnini


At Renault we have this year an experienced Italian driver named Giancarlo Fisichella and an enfant prodige called Fernando Alonso, both managed by Flavio Briatore. To understand and decrypt the future, even disregarding the present glory, we have visited Patrese himself, 256 GPs under his belt, from ’77 to ’93, 6 victories, 8 poles and 15 fastest laps. Riccardo was born in 1954, the year in which Italian drivers stopped winning F1 World Championships.

So, Riccardo, did you wake up early to watch the first GP of 2005 live?

No. I was busy with a skiing contest on the Masters circuit, so I slept. I watched the race afterwards.

Both you and Fisichella learned your trade in F1 with small British teams, you at Arrows, him at Jordan.

Giancarlo finally has a chance of competing at the highest level. He’s started in the best way and his persistence in past years has been rewarded, since he has become quite credible. In the past he has been at times underrated, for sure. But now things have changed. He has reached the level where you have pressure to win at every race. Many drivers are good at running for points, but few can handle the duty of climbing on the top podium step. So, he has started well. I was in a similar situation in ’83 with Brabham and in 91-92 with Williams. You know you can make no mistakes and if you are second it’s not good enough even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

Talking of the pressure in the Williams team, we’ve heard about Patrick Head’s legendary “bollocking” of the drivers.

Today’s Williams is not the same anymore. I’ve told this to Head as well: just look at the constant friction between Schumi Jr and Montoya, which ended up damaging the team. The truth is Head is concentrating more on his family, and the team management has suffered. In my time you wouldn’t hear any noise coming from the Williams pits, and when Patrick was having one of his moments it was serious. I positively confirm the “bollocking” stories, and let me add that, back then, you were not allowed to make mistakes. Recently I’ve seen many mistakes from their drivers: this was unthinkable in my days. Frank Williams and Patrick Head were not bad guys, but they would tell you straight what they were thinking, that’s all.

Let’s talk about Renault, which has Briatore as a team manager like in your Benetton year.

Brawn and Byrne are now with Ferrari, but, in truth, the key person is Briatore. Well, I do not like him because of his behaviour, because on the personal side and in the relationship with the drivers – see my case and the more recent Trulli case – he has a policy of terror. How? It’s very simple. In the moments when you need more support, he kicks you down instead of pulling you up. However the results along the years speak well of him. He has won titles with and thanks to Schumi, but his managerial skills, his talent in putting the right people in the right places, are certainly good. This guy arrived in F1 at the end of the 80ies, and he knew nothing but Benetton shops and t-shirts. This means that he’s done well at learning the managerial job.

Is there a chance that the experienced Italian driver, Fisichella in this case, may end up squashed in between Briatore and Alonso?

I don’t think that last year Alonso was superior to Trulli, but Jarno was crucified. Anything Alonso was doing was considered gold, Jarno’s achievements were regarded as worthless.

But Briatore’s 2004 campaign was salvaged by Trulli’s win at Montecarlo.

I agree. But just look at the present: immediately after the race in Australia , Briatore, in a TV interview, said: ‘Very well for Giancarlo, but look at what Alonso did…’ Well, what was so incredible in Alonso’s race? This makes you understand that the Spaniard is in a privileged position as much as last year. But Giancarlo has the strength to cope with this. And there is a difference, since with Trulli there were also some contractual issues.

The best year in your career?

1991 at the Williams-Renault. Fantastic car, apart from the reliability problems early in the season.

Did you feel like the team was leaning towards your teammate Mansell?

There was some chauvinism. If we were to win the World Championship it was preferable the champion was British rather than Italian. But, in truth, I had a great time at Williams.

You and Fisichella have one thing in common: the lack of a Ferrari deal.

In ’78 I signed a letter of agreement with Enzo Ferrari. He loved Villeneuve’s unique style, but, underneath, he was also tired of his excesses. Well, it was all sorted, I was ready to replace him for the 1979 season. But he won the Canadian GP, showed that he had matured, and changed the course of history. The doors were shut on my face, despite that I hoped for a call until the early 80ies. Afterwards, in ’92 Lombardi called me, but at that point I declined, I preferred to stay in a top team like Williams, and I have no regrets. As for Fisichella, it must be said that with Schumi and Rubens Ferrari has an optimum balance, so they are not changing anything. It is understandable. But the truth is, without Schumi, Barrichello finishes second. The Australian GP is a further indication.

What’s the main difference between a F1 car of your time and today’s cars?

In my time you had to tame the car, a job nowadays done by electronics. In truth, cars and circuits were more dangerous, but I can assure you it was a more satisfying experience, being able to stay on track. Pole position was pole position, unlike now…These guys have never even heard of curves like Interlagos where you’d go flat out in 6th gear at 270 kmh. They are happy with today’s F1. If I can make a comparison, it is like he who was born poor and is contented with what he has. They are poor in strong sensations, the real taste of things which has been erased. If I could choose, I’d stick to my days.

In 96, already retired, you have tested the Williams at Silverstone, and you went very fast…

This is related to what we just said. Head and Williams called me, and said: ‘please come and try our car, because we don’t understand nothing. We put a lot of youngsters in the car and they’re all fast’. I went and reached within a second of Damon Hill’s best time. In the end we agreed that the cars have become more manageable. With today’s F1 cars, most of the F3000 or F3 drivers would be able to race. In the 70ies and 80ies if you were not able you’d immediately break the engine, or crash, or get killed.

At the end of the 70ies practice was real drama: 24 drivers on the grid and 10-12 more staying out. Now if it rains on Fridays they stay in the pits, and same on Saturday, they just change the engine.

At Long Beach in ’78, early in the morning I pre-qualified the car, using basically wooden tyres, then off I went against 28 other rabid guys, and I made it no problem, then you had the race. Three real challenges in three days. Then you also had to develop the car. Now you have this funny qualifying, the test drivers, the Friday drivers…I wonder why, instead of lining up three cars on Friday they don’t line them up on Sundays? The cost would be the same, but it would be more fun.

You have worked with Newey in your Williams days. What do you think of him?

Adrian at Williams was a close friend of Patrick Head, and this helped, it kept his head level. Newey’s genius was rationalized by Head’s practical approach, it was a great mix. I think that at McLaren he is lacking the same kind of relationship. Newey has given his best at Williams.

At Benetton you have worked also with Byrne and Brawn, respectively “fathers” of the cars and the strategies that helped Schumi and Ferrari to mark an era.

Personally, I think the real genius is Newey. Byrne and Brawn are good guys, good professionals, but I was not as impressed. Benetton’s results were 99% due to Schumi’s talent, rather than the engineers. Only two drivers I know that could make the difference with an inferior car: Schumi and Senna. And do you want to learn a trick to evaluate the cars driven by Schumacher?

Go ahead.

The worse is the car, the best is Schumacher. With a less competitive car in his hands, the gap with his team mate becomes immense. Look at recent years: the better the Ferrari became, the thinner the gap with Barrichello. You will see, if the F2005 will be a perfect car, Michael’s and Rubens’ times will be similar, but in the opposite situation – say, if the car is a pig – the German would just overwhelm Barrichello, he’ll give him 2 seconds per lap. You see, Barrichello is tamed nowadays, he has given up. To exploit his reached maturity he should leave Ferrari.

You are still playing football with Schumi in the Nazionale Piloti team.

The person behind all this is my friend Mario Di Natale. Look: 8 games each year, and in the last years we have collected more than 15 million euros for charity. And my impression is Schumi’s real passion is for football: if he could, he’d play three games per day.

Your daughter Beatrice is doing very well in show jumping, she’s got a bronze medal at the european championship in Verona , and now she’s competing in the world cup. Is it easier for her, who can pick the best horse, or for a driver that instead needs to be chosen by the teams?

You see, someone may have a better horse than you, but you have to create the synergy. If the car is ok, you put it in the garage and the morning after it’s still perfect. This is not the case with the horse, if he hasn’t slept well, you lose a year’s work. Nothing is simple in life, at certain levels.

How’s you’re train collection doing? You’re still increasing it?

Of course, last year I found a Coccodrillo model from ’34, I’ve been looking for it forever, I drove to Germany to collect it. You don’t want to know what I paid for it.

Thanks to Carlo Fiorentini