Riccardo Patrese could, and arguably should, have been a title contender in 1982. But as he explains to Edd Straw exclusively for AUTOSPORT, that's not how it eventually played in one of F1's craziest seasons.
by Edd Straw AUTOSPORT F1 Editor
Could Riccardo Patrese have been the third man in the 1982 world championship shoot-out at Las Vegas? You could ask the same question of around half a dozen or more drivers, but you can make a compelling argument that had Brabham continued to field the Italian in the Cosworth-powered BT49D for the second half of the campaign, he'd at the very least have been in the hunt, along with Keke Rosberg and John Watson.
Patrese, who rated the BT49D, along with the Williams FW14, as his favourite car among the many he raced during his grand prix career, certainly believes that to be the case. But he doesn't look back on what happened with bitterness.
While he was ahead of eventual champion Rosberg and only 11 points off leader Watson when he switched full-time to the unreliable BMW-engined BT50 after finishing second in the Canadian Grand Prix, Patrese believes the decision was the right one at the time. And best for the long-term.
"Before I swapped to the BMW I was in the running for the championship," recalls Patrese. "I was running in front of Rosberg and in the end he won. He took the championship with only one win, and I already had my first win in May in Monte Carlo.
"My Brabham was very competitive against the Williams, so I probably would have been able to fight with him. But you get nowhere with ifs. The real story was that when we made the decision, there was no hope that a normally-aspirated car would win the championship. We didn't expect [Didier] Pironi to have his big accident at Hockenheim, so I have absolutely no regrets. It was the best decision that we could take at that time. We had to look forward because Ferrari was dominating with the turbo car. We were thinking of 1983 and maybe it would have hurt us then if we'd carried on with the Cosworth car."
You can read more about the troubled early days of the Brabham-BMW partnership in this week's special edition of AUTOSPORT magazine. But the bottom line is that Patrese scored just two more points, for fifth at Dijon, despite being an ever-present on the front three rows of the grid.
But while Patrese doesn't recall the post-Canada season fondly ("I don't have very good memories of when I switched to the turbo car because I just remember always breaking down"), 1982 was a watershed year for him.
He already had a bulky F1 CV under his belt, stretching back to his nine outings for the Shadow team in 1977. He joined the Shadow defectors at Arrows for the following season, and during his four years with the team showed some flashes of brilliance and a couple of times threatened to take his first win.
During that period, Patrese had to show tremendous strength of character following the grossly unfair treatment he received after he was vilified for his perceived part in the accident at Monza that lead to Ronnie Peterson's death. By 1982, right-thinking people had long since recognised that he was innocent, but he was still a long way from achieving the gentlemanly elder statesman status that came later in his F1 career.
But after four promising, if unfulfilling, years with Arrows, he finally agreed to join Brabham. Team owner Bernie Ecclestone had wanted him for some time, and 27-year-old Patrese found himself alongside world champion Nelson Piquet as the 1982 season got under way.
"I had already had some talks with Mr Ecclestone around the beginning of my F1 career in 1978, but we couldn't find an agreement," recalls Patrese. "This was mainly because I also had an offer from Mr Ferrari, who wanted me to go there for 1979. But this opportunity didn't come off. I waited and waited and waited for something with Ferrari, but nothing came alive.
"So for 1982, I again had talks with Bernie and got a contract. I was very happy to go to that team because in 1981 it was very competitive and had won the championship with Nelson Piquet. It was a big step forward and I started the season with a lot of enthusiasm."
And rightly so. Since Niki Lauda retired in 1979, Brabham had fielded either Ricardo Zunino or Hector Rebaque alongside Piquet. Both were no more than capable at best and contributed a grand total of 11 points, but while a strong second driver was not a priority during those years, Patrese was seen as anything but a makeweight.
"I wasn't a number two – Brabham was a two-car team," says Patrese. "Of course, it's normal that when a driver is in a team for more years and is a world champion, as Nelson was, then there is a lot of attention on him. But inside the team there was never the feeling that I was the second car. I have no complaints and had plenty of opportunities.
"I always had a good relationship with Nelson and there was a very good atmosphere in the team. We competed strongly against each other, but from a friendship point of view it was always very good."
With Piquet focusing on the BMW-engined BT50, save for two outings in the BT49D in South America, Patrese excelled in the Cosworth car in the first part of the season. The South African and Belgian Grands Prix, where he raced the BT50, resulted in non-finishes, but a third place at Long Beach driving the BT49C, after crashing his primary car in practice, set the ball rolling. Then came the crowning glory of his career, victory at Monaco.
The circumstances of those amazing final laps at Monaco are dissected in detail in the 1982 special of AUTOSPORT, but the bare facts of it are that Patrese spun away the lead on the penultimate lap, bump-started the car and then found himself back in the lead after Pironi and Andrea de Cesaris ran out of fuel.
"The first grand prix win is always a relief, especially if you have had other occasions that you missed out on because of bad luck," says Patrese. "To win the Monaco Grand Prix in the days when Princess Grace was still there, with the big gala in the evening, is something that is very much alive in my memory. I don't think that you would get the same feeling today, even though it's the most prestigious race to win. Unfortunately, 1982 was the last race that Princess Grace was at because she had her accident in the autumn."
Patrese followed Piquet home in Canada, and with another lap would likely have won the race as the lead Brabham ground to a halt, out of fuel, just after taking the flag. This thirstiness played a part in the decision in the second half of the year to introduce mid-race pitstops, although primarily it was motivated by pure performance. In Germany, Patrese lasted long enough to make a pitstop for fuel from the lead and re-emerge still in first place.
"When we had more than 200 litres at the start of the race, it was very difficult," says Patrese. "As we see in F1 today, you are much slower and the cars are difficult to drive. But today, all of the materials are so much better so the car is not so bad. In my day, you had to be very careful not to wear the brakes too much.
"Gordon [Murray] had the idea that we could start on half tanks and refuel in the middle of the race. So without anyone knowing about it, we tried it secretly in a test at Donington Park, and made a simulation of the race, which worked very well. When we arrived at a race with the system, everyone was surprised."
Patrese might have won in Austria using the refuelling trick, only for his BMW engine to grenade itself, coating his rear wheels in oil and sending him spinning off the track. That was pretty much par for the course in the final eight races of 1982. But despite what happened, both to his title chances and with the tragedies of the season, Patrese looks back on that year fondly.
"I always enjoyed it during my career, but 1982 was one of the best because I has my first grand prix win," he recalls. "Brabham was a fantastic team with people like Mr Ecclestone, Gordon Murray, and mechanics such as Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash, who are still in F1.
"There was a feeling of sadness, of course, because of the loss of Gilles [Villeneuve], Pironi's accident and everything else that that happened. But racing drivers don't think about these things much, they just get back in the car and drive. We were very concentrated on our business.
"If you want to drive a car quickly, you can't think about the bad things that can, and did, happen and that can still happen now in an F1 car."
Patrese ended that year with a tally of just 23 points, albeit only 26 behind Rosberg, and down in 10th place in the championship. But his success in 1982 laid the foundations for his long career. The following year, some bad luck early in the season and his infamous crash at Imola while leading, again meant that he couldn't gun for the title.
Ultimately, even though he finished second in the title race to Nigel Mansell a decade later, Patrese arguably never had a better chance of being champion than he did in 1982.
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission