by Nigel Roebuck
You are Riccardo Patrese, and after 15 years you have become an overnight star. Everyone says how quick you have suddenly become, and it amuses you. You were in the Monaco GP, back in 1977, when Ayrton Senna was a big name in karting, Alain Prost into his first year of Formula 3.
Nigel Mansell recently said he took your pace this year as a great compliment to him: he was the only driver who could motivate you. Had you been of a cheap mentality, you might have railed at that, suggested that in that case perhaps he had motivated you a little too well: you have, after all, outqualified him in each of the first four races this year.
Instead, you say no, it's the car. There is no denying that two quick drivers within one team can have a beneficial effect, for inevitably you push to be quicker than your team mate. But Thierry Boutsen was no slouch either, you point out. He won three races for Williams. An underrated man you feel.
In the end, though, nothing motivates a driver like the feeling he can win, that he has the car to do the job. And this car, the latest Williams-Renault, is the best car you have known. Through the winter you sensed an even greater commitment from the team, a spirit of real optimism, and you determined to put yourself in the right frame of mind.
Initially you were a little concerned about the semi-automatic gearbox. Perhaps, you said to Patrick Head, it would be a problem for 'an old driver to adapt to this new infernal machine'. But you took to it immediately. Within 10 laps of Estoril you were accustomed to this new way of driving, of keeping both hands on the wheel at all times, and you liked it. Now you understand why Gerhard Berger so much missed it when he moved from Ferrari to McLaren. You hope never to go back to a conventional gearbox again.
You like the FW14 primarily because it's quick, on the pace, the first requirement of every racing driver. More than that, though, it is also a lovely car to drive, which is not always the case. Over the last couple of seasons you had a car sometimes very competitive, sometimes not, and this was frustrating. But now you set off to every race in the expectation of being right there.
This is where the motivation comes from, you say. You might think you habitually drive at 100%, and have done so throughout your career - you believe it. But as soon as you see the possibility to win, something happens within you. It's not a conscious thing, but its effect is that suddenly you are driving at 105%. And you reflect that perhaps, when times were not so good, maybe you were not giving everything. Yes, you did the job professionally, but maybe at only 95%. And you suspect that it affects all racing drivers in the same way. All you know 'for sure' is that everything comes easier when you have the right car.
Your normal expression these days is a smile, and this sets you apart from many of your fellows, some of whom are hard pressed to grin even in victory. Perhaps they are blasé about it, you think, take a competitive car for granted. It hasn't been that way through most of your career - you think back with a shudder of those horror days with Euroracing in the mid-eighties.
A good atmosphere within a team is vital to you, and you think one of your strong points an ability to foster it. You feel a great deal of warmth towards you at Williams, the impression that they car about you when you go out, and suffer with you when something goes wrong. And you enjoy their pleasure when the team has had a good day.
You were not too upset when they told you Mansell was coming back to Williams. There was 'a big noise', of course, because first he was leaving Ferrari, then retiring, then rejoining Williams. He had won a lot of races, and it was logical Frank and the others should regard him as the number one. In his contract he insisted on the use of the T-car at every race, but that didn't bother you, either. Williams promised you parity of equipment, and that was good enough for you. Personally, you preferred to concentrate on working with a single car.
There have never been any problems between you and Nigel - indeed, a condition of his return to Williams was that you should be his team mate. Should it be necessary, would you assist his quest for the World Championship? Yes, you say - so long as you never had to give up a victory.
You are amused at the amount of attention coming your way this year. When you beat Prost's Ferrari to steal pole position temporarily at Imola, there were cheers from the grandstands, and that would never have happened at one time. The Italians are 'starting to love me', you chuckle, adding cynically that in Italy 'you become very nice when you have very nice results...' But you don't mind that - it's better than being told to apply for your pension book, as a few papers were advising a few years ago.
At Imola you led Senna in the wet opening laps, but later there were problems, and you retired. Afterwards people were quick to sympathise with your bad luck, but you shrugged it off: 'Look', you said, 'I'm still here. I still have the chance to win some more races. We can talk about luck when I've retired'. In any case, you look at your life, and think it happy in every respect - how could you claim to be unlucky? You love driving racing cars, and away from racing everything else is good. 'I'm a lucky person', you smile. 'A bloody lucky person...'
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission