Grand Prix International

PATRESE : THE STORY OF THE MAN

by Pino Allievi

Grand Prix International

He doesn’t like big family dinners, large parties, or crowded holiday places. That’s why since years ago he spends time in winter and summer in the heart of the Dolomiti, at Cortina d’Ampezzo, away from the city noises and away, in particular, from F1. Here he finds his old friends, the tranquillity that he can’t find on the tracks, the pleasure of spending time with his loved ones. In the summer you find in Cortina a lot of the jet set society, which Riccardo Patrese avoids cunningly. Unlike most of his F1 colleagues, who in the same time do a dangerous and very popular sport and live an intense hi-society life, Patrese prefers being the “eremite”, rather than adapting to a lifestyle and a mentality that would not be his own. 

At 25 it’s hard not to be tempted by the many advantages that celebrity brings along, especially in Italy , a country where fans, rather than being passionate about sports, tend to become worshipers of personas, or superstars. Today Patrese is unanimously considered the best Italian driver. Everybody knows his name, every motor racing fan knows his face, with that nervous grin engraved on an ancient roman profile. Still, he seems disturbed by this obvious popularity, built through hard work in lower series, grown through sometimes painful events, such that they would have destroyed the morale and the nerves of a less mentally balanced or simply weaker athlete.

The larger non-specialized public, knows him mainly for 2 things: The South African Grand Prix of 1978, when, still an unknown, he led the race leaving behind guys like Andretti, Scheckter, Reutemann, Lauda, and the Monza tragedy, when Ronnie Peterson died. Many, in fact, counted him responsible for it due to an allegedly hazardous manoeuvre he would have done at the start. And the self-appointed “Drivers’ safety committee” went with it, and disqualified Patrese for the United States GP, despite in the “sentence” the Monza facts were not even mentioned.

ETERNAL SCAR 

That terrible 10 September 1978 is cut in Riccardo Patrese’s skin like a scar that will never go away.  In a few days he went from being the culprit to innocent and then again responsible for one of the blackest episodes in recent years. The criminal investigation, which involves an international panel of experts and technicians, to remove any suspect of bias, is still open. However it looks like decisive evidence in favour of Patrese has surfaced:

“I never felt guilty about Peterson’s death, simply because I believe I had no responsibility in it. And I hope there will not be a trial proper, which would only serve the scope of fuelling more arguments, more doubts. I remember everything of that day. Some of my colleagues have forgotten. I have been judged by the most famous of them, at Watkins Glen. They pretended they were giving me advice, they had to educate the kid. Well you don’t educate a kid with violence. You talk to him calmly and in a serene state of mind. We young ones we can be very critical of the elder ones, we expect them to be perfectly ok, if they want to give advice to us. 

Then again, we can accept critics, but me, instead, I’ve been judged by a guy like James Hunt, who’s had a load of accidents and, humanly, he’s nothing. Same as Lauda, who wrongly accused me too. He thinks he can say what he wants because he is Lauda. But, who are you? A good driver, that’s all. As a person...forget it. However in that occasion I have appreciated Andretti, Fittipaldi, Scheckter. Different guys. I only have one regret: that the  “Drivers’ safety committee” has never met this year, to discuss about other serious episodes, in which fortunately I had no involvement. Imagine the type of story they would have pulled out if the so called “duel of the century” in Dijon between Villeneuve and Arnoux had been a duel between Villeneuve and Patrese or Patrese and Arnoux? I had a very frank and sportive duel on track with Villeneuve at Zolder, and the usual Patrese-Killer story has come out again...”

THE FORMULA 1 WORLD

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Patrese gets excited only when thinking of the Monza facts. Otherwise his nature appears that of a calm person. An apparent calm though, because Riccardo’s character is quite introverted:

“I don’t like big parties, but this does not mean I don’t like to have fun. On the papers I have seen myself defined as “long-faced” or “with a chip on my shoulder”, even “bad-mannered”! The press. Sometimes they judge you out of a simple impression. When I’m on track, I’m doing my job. Not everyone understands this. Some would like me to be always smiling. In fact, I am often angry, because something is going wrong and I don’t wish to chat about it.”

Patrese has no real friends in the Formula 1 world: “You can’t have real friends in that environment, he says. Apart from the racing weekends I don’t see any of my colleagues. Maybe it’s better like that. The Monza episode helped me to learn quickly the Formula 1 world. I found solidarity only amongst the people that have always been beside me. Amongst the pilots, not one has supported me. In F1, the only true human contact is between the driver and his mechanics. Even with the team management relations rarely go beyond the formal ones. Me, to make an example, I have always received full technical support from Arrows. But frankly I expected more psychological support and, why not, practical, when I had to undergo the Watkins Glen “trial”. I understand that Arrows was after being admitted in the FOCA, but the behaviour of the team has been justifiable only to a point.  McLaren, to take another example, had a very different stance when Watson was implicated in the big crash at the Argentina GP.” 

A this point, however, one would ask why Patrese keeps living in an environment that he is criticizing on its fundamental aspects: “I stay in the circus because it’s my job, because races are my life. For a driver being in F1 is the maximum objective. 

You just make no compromise and go your way, following your conscience. Even money, to a point, is not the main thing. In F1 you see money in mind numbing amounts. But if I was racing only for money it would mean I have no more passion for it. And I would quit immediately.” 

His opinion on Bernie Ecclestone, the man who brought F1 to its present high status, attracting sponsorships and reforming the management system of the races, is dry and precise: Bernie is a very cunning person, and he stands chin-up in the situations where others choose to hide.” 

PASSION FOR ALL SPORTS

A Formula 1 driver usually is not really multitalented. An exception is Jackie Stewart, who was reserve player for the British shooting team at the Rome Olympic games, and James Hunt, who claims in his past he has played squash at a competitive level. Patrese, instead, is truly an athlete in other sports. He is a former national junior swimming champion and also skied competing at national level, winning several slalom and giant slalom races. 

“Had I not decided to concentrate on motor racing I would have been a skier. The downhill skiers are the ones I admire the most. In the end, they share F1 driver’s mentality. And sometimes they have the same problems: the set up, the grip, aerodynamics, playing with tenths of seconds...”

During the winter Patrese is still skiing, but he takes it easy. In between races he runs and plays tennis. “Since I started racing in F1 I can no more afford regular holidays. There’s no gap left anymore between one season and the next. You must always have your luggage ready with helmet and overalls for some winter testing.” 

THE OTHER ITALIANS

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Patrese’s relations with the other Italian drivers are somewhat cold: the French – Riccardo says – are quite united because they all come from the same school. The common sponsor Elf has made a group of them. We Italians, instead, we come from different experiences and we are also separated by age. Brambilla and Merzario, for example, are from a different generation.  

"With De Angelis I cannot say we’re actually friends, but we have a chat together once in a while. I only shared significant experience with Giacomelli, we raced together for a few years.”

Of the foreign drivers Patrese admires one above all: “It’s Alan Jones, who I believe has obtained little so far considering his capability, his class. He’s a true professional, a man of detail, who, like me, does not like too much the glamour side of races.” 

For a while it seemed that Ferrari could have been in Riccardo Patrese’s future. In fact, the dream has now vanished: “I did not have a proper option with the Commendatore, just a promise that we would have talked at the end of the season, about a possible deal for 1980. He was the one taking the final decision of course. Which he did, confirming both Scheckter and Villeneuve. Well, we’ll see in a few more years, in case they are still interested.” 

However Patrese has no envy towards Scheckter and Villeneuve, quite simply, he respects them: “They are both good drivers, I think Scheckter is one step ahead for the World title. I think that I could have been right at the top too with a car like the Ferrari T4. I cannot say, however, if I would have been able to obtain their results.” 

As for Arrows, Patrese has no bad feelings, despite 1979 has been so far a dismal season. On the contrary: “Arrows is a small team who have made miracles to survive to the many difficulties which we had to face. Tony Southgate was forced to create 3 cars within a year. And these cars were built and brought on track. Other teams would not have made it, Arrows did. Frankly I expected much more from the A2. I hoped, with this car, to win at least one race this year. The season’s not finished, Southgate has clear ideas. We can still become competitive.” However hopes are now concentrated on the 1980 season: 

“I believe that a driver reaches maturity after three years in Formula 1. Raw speed, in fact, is never a problem for a rookie. It’s just a question of having the car and the guts. The important thing is having a clear mind inside the cockpit. I feel I’m getting better every race. Next year should be my avenging season.”