In a special series of features, autosport.com talks to the drivers of the GP Masters series - about the old days, the new series and their love of motor racing. This week: Riccardo Patrese and the aftermath of the 1978 Italian GP

by Tim Redmayne

Respect

  1. To feel or show deferential regard for; esteem.
  2. To avoid violation of or interference with: respect the speed limit. 
  3. To relate or refer to; concern.

In 2006, at least, Riccardo Patrese remains the most experienced Formula One driver ever. And that commands respect.

Michael Schumacher, should he not retire at the end of this year, could eclipse the Italian's current record of 256 Grand Prix starts in 2007, but for now at least, Patrese holds that mantel.

"I was in Formula One for 17 years," says the Italian. "The kind of work I did in Formula One was of a good quality. You cannot last for 17 years in Formula One if you are not of a good level."

The man is undoubtedly right. He was not only on the Formula One grid for 17 years, but he was at the front of it for most of it, too - there were more than eleven years between his maiden win at the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix and his sixth and final win at the 1992 Japanese GP.

Naturally, in that time, he became one of the most respected drivers on the grid. However, following the 1978 Italian Grand Prix his peers gave him anything but.

Since his debut in F1 a season earlier, Patrese had built up a reputation of being a fast yet erratic driver with Shadow and Arrows. At the start of that Monza race, he was involved in an accident with James Hunt and Ronnie Peterson, which 24 hours later, following rare medical complications, led to Peterson's death.

At the time, the accident caused outcry among Patrese's colleagues, and a group managed to get Watkins Glen officials to refuse his entry for the following US-East Grand Prix as a form of instant justice.

Following further evidence, most observers recognise now that the accident was not Patrese's fault, yet he still has to live with this misnomer.

"I was only 24," Patrese says. "I got better because my character is a fighting character, and at the end I got into a position that I kept for so many years.

"It was very tough and everybody was against me, especially the five world champions who were all there - [Mario] Andretti, Hunt, [Emerson] Fittipaldi, [Jody] Scheckter and [Niki] Lauda. You know, being a young guy who has just got into F1 and having all these people shouting is not easy.

"What they did was completely wrong because of the manner in which they did it - the federation [FISA] didn't have any problem with me. It was only the drivers that they were unhappy with my behaviour and said something.

"They said I was responsible for the accident, but in the end you could see that it was not my fault. Everything they did was very bad against a young driver who was just coming in. I think they did it too much."

Patrese remembers the struggle of those early days well. He is a strong believer in the theory that despite a greater number of cars and therefore more opportunities, it was actually harder to get into and stay in Formula One than today.

"I remember my first practice session when they were really coming by me fast," he recalls. "They were a little bit impolite, always waving, always putting pressure over me. Apart from that problem I had the problem of the Monza accident, it was not really easy to establish myself in Formula One."

It took him 72 races to notch up that first victory - which is nothing compared with Jenson Button's and Nick Heidfeld's current barren spells. But he reckons, at that point, the attitude of his fellow drivers started to change.

"It was maybe a bit better afterwards, when people got nicer. Just as Emerson Fittipaldi did. He took me to one side and spoke to me nicely and tried to explain to me things. It was easier to do it this way. He was just helping me to survive.

"The young drivers now - I don't think they have a particular pressure. The ambiance is much more friendly. There is not this problem where that if a new driver comes in the senior drivers are worried and they don't want to have newcomers.

"Looking at the past, you know the seniors wanted to have a possession of their ground. They didn't want to have anybody that could come in and take their place. Now they don't care much and this is the correct way to handle things."

He admits that the way he was treated in those early years forced him to take a different approach to newcomers when the roles later became reversed.

It is perhaps easy to offer that viewpoint. However Patrese is genuinely convincing, yet modest, in the belief that he should have somehow reverse the karma for the crimes committed against him.

"It did affect the way I behaved afterwards," he insists. "It was not only me but the young drivers of those days - Prost, Senna and myself - we all acted in a way not to be a problem for newcomers.

"My mentality was that I didn't have to do the same thing to them that they did to me. Why do you have to be trouble to newcomers coming in to a sport?

"GP Masters is another story - the atmosphere is nice because everyone has done what they had to do in their proper career."

After an impressive South African GP win in 1983, Patrese spent a few years in the relative doldrums with Alfa Romeo and a second spell at Brabham.

"I changed quite a lot when I went back to Brabham in '86 and '87. From that moment I was more mature and more relaxed in the world of Formula One.

"Until '86 I was really a bit angry because I couldn't make on the expectation I had from myself. I was always unsatisfied because the results were not the results I wanted.

"But then I went to Williams for the final part of my career, which was very satisfactory."

That five-year spell at Williams would lead to four more victories and a second-place in the drivers' championship to teammate Nigel Mansell in 1992. He feels his biggest career highlight was that season, despite being outclassed by the Briton.

"I won a race and I finished second in the championship. I cannot say it was a bad year. The car suited better the driving of Nigel than myself. Because of that he had better speed.

"But Williams is the thing that makes me very proud. The first laps of the ten-cylinder Renault engine were done by myself - so I started the programme that won many championships and gave me the chance to win races. With Williams I worked fantastically for five years. Williams respected me because I was a hard worker and I was a precise test driver and we could really progress all the time.

"I achieved everything of a driver apart from the world championship. But I am still here with good heath, and that is the most important thing."

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