This article appeared in Autosport on 28th November 1996
by Nigel Roebuck
Had I had the time, a few weeks ago, I would have gone up to Silverstone to see Riccardo Patrese in the Williams-Renault FW18, but unfortunately the test was scheduled for the day before we were to fly to the Japanese Grand Prix, and there was too much last-minute stuff requiring attention. It was a pity, though, not least because Riccardo gave a remarkably good account of himself, getting round in 1m 28s, which would have qualified him fifth for this year's British Grand Prix. Not too dusty, I thought, for a man of 42, who last drove a Formula 1 car three years ago. I would not, though, have gone there in the expectation of fast times, or anything of the like, but simply for the pleasure of meeting up again with as pleasant a man as I have known in racing. Invariably we run into each other at Imola or Monza, but there is rarely time for more than a brief chat, and it would have been good to talk to him at greater length.
Patrese, a well-rounded individual, with an awareness of life beyond F1, is dealing with retirement rather more readily than some of his colleagues. "At Williams we won't hear a word said against Riccardo", Frank Williams has remarked. "The guy's an absolute gentleman, and he's welcome here any time." It was at Monza in September that Patrese wistfully murmured that he would love a run in a contemporary Williams and, lo, it was done, which says everything about the affection in which the team holds him. There were plenty of opportunities for him to be political Frank said, but he never was. Not once.
It is actually quite rare for a driver to be remembered so fondly by a team. Oh, they might recall Joe Soap's speed with awe, but quite often they will balance that with memories of what a pillock he was out of the car. You can tell a lot about a driver's real self from what his mechanics have to say about him, and the Williams boys adored Riccardo.
Over five seasons with the team, he tested endlessly, with enthusiasm and never made waves. While his natural ability may not have been at the level of a Senna or Prost, he had periods of pure inspiration; let us not forget that in the first half of 1991 he outqualified team mate Nigel Mansell at every single race, and on occasion - as in Mexico - squarely beat him. At Estoril, he jumped into the spare Williams-Renault at the very end of qualifying, took one warm-up lap, and put the car on pole. Won the race, too.
Neither was Riccardo avaricious, a quality much appreciated by F WiIliams. "I know some other drivers make a lot more than I do," he said, "but, you know, I can have a very good life on what I earn, and look at the fun I have earning it! I think Frank is very fair with me; what he pays me is appropriate for a driver of my record."
Can't say fairer than that. In general, Grand Prix drivers have a reputation for being, er, careful with a dollar, but at the end of each season Patrese would take the entire team - Williams and Renault personnel - out to dinner in Adelaide. On one occasion someone suggested that his team mate, a man earning many times more, should split the bill it fell on deaf ears. No wonder the mechanics remember Riccardo well.
Over at Benetton, there is similar regard for Alessandro Nannini, who this week has been testing an F1 car at Estoril. As with Patrese, this was simply for old times sake, A matter of 150% emotion according to Flavio Briatore. "I always said we'd give Sandro a run in a car any time he wanted it, and that¹s what we're doing."
Everyone remembers that in 1989 Prost and Senna had their first Suzuka Two-Step, but perhaps rather fewer will recall that it was Nannini who ultimately took the top step on the podium that day, for the first and only time in his short F1 career.
He nearly did it twice more, the following season. At Hockenheim he rather shook McLaren-Honda by holding off Senna for much of the race with his Ford V8 powered car, and at the Hungaroring I always felt he would have won, had he not been literally turfed off the road by Ayrton with a dozen laps to go. At Monza that year, the big story was that Nannini was being bought of his Benetton contract, and would be Prost's team mate at Ferrari in 1991. The following week he duly presented himself in Lugano to meet with Ferrari's Swiss lawyer, and was there told, sorry it's not you, after all but Jean Alesi. The usual tortured and convoluted Italian polemics were at work but he shrugged off his disappointment and announced he would be staying with Benetton, after all.
In fact, Sandro's F1 career was about to end. Three weeks later, days after he finished third at Jerez, behind Prost and Mansell, his right hand was severed in a helicopter accident, and although it was miraculously sewn back on, the prognosis was that he would never have full strength or movement in it again.
Such, sadly has proved to be the case, but this has not kept Nannini from resuming his racing career, very successfully, in Alfa Romeo's DTM and ITC teams. "Even with one hand," my colleague Pino Allievi grinned this summer, "I think he is still the best Italian driver..."
A year ago, at the Magny-Cours ITC race, I met him in the paddock, and was reminded of just how much of a character had been lost to F1. Sandro was, and is, everyone's idea of the archetypal Italian racing driver, but not perhaps from the contemporary era, for his are not the habits of the politically correct 90s.
When you saw him at the Benetton motorhome, invariably he had an espresso in one hand, and a cigarette in the other, and both of these delicious and addictive evils he consumed in profusion. In the last few months of his F1 career, there were signs that he was beginning to take the profession a little more seriously, for he had succeeded in rejecting the pleasures of both nicotine ad caffeine at the same time. Heroic it seemed to me. At Magny-Cours, though, both were in evidence once more. "You went back to them?" I said "Yeah, sure," he smiled. "Well, this...is different from F1, no? This is more...hobby!"
Nannini was a man who absolutely loved the life of a Grand Prix driver, and there is little doubt that he misses it to this day. One of the last of the carefree, old-fashioned racers, in the mould of Clay Regazzoni, he has charm and humour to throw away, and it is no surprise to me that Flavio Briatore and other Benetton team members retain a soft spot for him.
"I always put racing drivers into two categories," a F1 luminary said to me a while ago. "Those I'd be happy to sit next to on a flight to Australia, and those I wouldn't. As a rule of thumb, the second category is the guys you'd hire to win the World Championship for you." "And the first?" "Oh, they're the ones who wouldn't quite get there- but would have fun on the way." A thought we may reserve for Riccardo and Sandro.
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission