Gianluca Gasparini - April, 12th 1997

From F1 circuits to the skies: Riccardo has flown with the Frecce Tricolori. Chronicle of a special emotion-a packed day, even for someone who is already familiar with speed.

He had already tested a take-off. With his Williams car, over the wheels of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren, who cut in front of him to reach his pits (without signaling) halfway through the Portugal GP in 1992. But he quickly landed, the sole result of his flight being a big scare. This time Riccardo Patrese, 43 years old on 17th April, has done things properly. On February 27th he climbed on a Aermacchi mb-339 pan with the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian national acrobatic flying squad, based at Rivolto in the Friuli region. Together with Lieutenant Pier Luigi Fiore, 36, commander of the squad since December, he was flown across the Veneto skies, during an operative training mission in the company of those who can be defined the artists of the sky. And he got excited like a child.

Strange, you may say, for one who’s spent 17 years in F1, a most intense and risky environment. He started a record 256 GPs. And to do it he must have flown a scary number of times, all over the world. He should have seen it all. Still, when he’s put on a military jet, to see from above the colours and the shapes of his familiar places, he remains breathless. Like he won a race starting from the last row.

Riccardo Patrese abandoned F1 at the end of the ’93 season. He has not raced since. He tried a Williams-Renault, last August, for the sheer pleasure of doing it. But he’s not given up racing altogether. He will be on track with a TWR-run Nissan at the Le Mans 24hrs, on June 14th and 15th. In the meanwhile he takes care of his family (his wife Susy, Simone, his 20 years-old son, and the twins Beatrice and Maddalena, 12) and, in wintertime, he goes skiing. “We are on the snow every Sunday, and with Simone, who is attending university in Milan, we race on the FISI circuit. There is a points system, you start from 500 and, as you get better, the points go down. Champions like Tomba are at zero, as for me, next year i will start from 122, which is not bad. Our girls are also competing, Maddalena this year has qualified for the Pinocchio Trophy (on March 18th at the Abetone) after a long selection”.

And in between downhill races, to have some good time, Patrese treated himself to an acrobatic uphill climb, in the sky. How come you decided to try a flight, and on a military jet as well. “The idea came out during a charity football event in Jesolo, last year, with the Frecce Tricolori pilots” – he says – “I was used to be in an extreme sport and, talking to them, I let them understand that I would have liked, one day, to try a similar experience. But it took some time to organize the whole operation. Various permits, bureaucratic issues and, at the end, a complete medical check, which I sustained in the army base at Piazza Novelli in Milan”. Then finally, the flight. Riccardo struggles to hide his emotions as he describes it. “It was fantastic. We took off at 14:10, flying together a second plane (piloted by major Umberto Rossi and marshall Aloisi, official photographer of the Frecce), and we landed at 15:20, after more than one hour of what they call operative training, which is divided in three phases.

We started pointing at the valleys around Cortina, flying over Sappada, S.Candido and Dobbiaco, before flying over Bassano Del Grappa. Then we simulated an attack to the TV repeater antenna on Mt Venda. In the end, maintaining formation, we returned to Rivolto, where we repeated some of the classic figures which have made the squad famous”. A complete service, then, since, as the former F1 driver explains, “in fact they are all different situations. Only with these aircrafts and these pilots you can go through the valleys like that, it takes extreme precision, there were not more than 50 metres between us and the mountain side. It was the most difficult part of the flight: sudden turns, lots of turbulence, and, like on a car, if you’re sitting in the back it’s worse. After the simulated attack we started flying in a tight formation, the other aircraft was in front of us. It was so close I could have extended an arm to touch it. These guys must have an incredible sensitivity in piloting, especially when they are all close together because, to maintain position, they have to go at different relative speeds”. The last section was pure show. “To start with” Patrese goes on, “as we approached Rivolto I flew the plane for a while, and I also did some turns. Then, above the base, we did some looping, tonneau and other similar maneuvers. As a last number we did a “scampanata”. We climbed vertically, stopped, and started falling backwards: it was incredible, at some point all possible alarms were going off. Then the pilot pointed the plane towards the ground, accelerated, and working with the flaps re-set the plane straight. Great”. Riccardo also talks about the welcome he received from the pilots. “Besides their kind availability, they were professional and precise. We had a detailed briefing before take off, mainly going through the emergency procedures, with the ejecting seat and all the rest. They were also quite funny. Before take off I was issued a vomit sack and, after landing, they were quick to come and verify if I had used it, which I didn’t, to their scorn”.

Beyond the obvious, what are the main differences between flying and driving a F1? “The main thing” Riccardo explains “is that with the plane there is more space for your imagination. Us, on a circuit, we go through the same curves lap after lap. They are more privileged. They train every day and they can change program every time. However, on the physical side, I had no big problems. For years I had to handle high G forces so I know what to do in cases like this. Plus they had me don the compulsory anti-G overall: the trousers have a hose connected to the plane which, in case you are going above a certain number of Gs, inflate, helping to sustain the severe acceleration.” Also the sensations in the cockpit have reminded him of Formula 1: “I heard communication between jets and I had radio between me and Lt Fiore. He would inform me and explain me what was going on, something similar to having somebody on the back of my Williams car during a fast lap.”

We wonder at this point if he ever felt fear: “No, never” he says, “you just have to read the CV of any pilot in the Frecce, in particular that of my pilot, to feel absolutely safe. However I did not expect to have such an intense experience. And unique. I would advice everyone who is interested to try and become a jet fighter pilot.” So the most difficult part must have been getting out of the plane...”If I could fly every other day I would do it” Patrese confesses “When we were through I was almost begging: do you want me to come back tomorrow? Do you need a human body to ballast the plane? I can be here in no time.” And you have to believe it knowing his passions. During his F1 career train models were his main hobby. However, unlike many colleagues, he never got a flight license for planes or helicopters. Maybe he’s changed his mind now...”It’s two different passions” he concludes “the one for trains, still going on, comes from my youth and from the pleasure of having a beautiful collection. And it served to relax and bleed off the stress of my main activity, car racing. Working on the models, when I have time, gave me and still gives me a great tranquility. I could have tried with the pleasure of flight. But between my 20 and 40 years I was very busy with F1, the activity totally adsorbed me. What we did in Rivolto has been an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. The Frecce Tricolori is a formidable squad, one of the best institutions we have in Italy. We should cherish it.

Translation by Gionata Ferroni