Alan Rees worked with Riccardo Patrese at Shadow and Arrows as Team Manager
Interview by Michael Day - 17th January 1992
When and where did you first hear of Riccardo Patrese?
It was in 1976 in F3. He was getting good results, he looked to be really quick and consistent.
How did it come about that he was chosen to replace Renzo Zorzi?
Alan Jones took over after Tom Pryce's death and Zorzi dropped out at the same time, that's why we got Riccardo.
The Ambrosio's were sponsoring the team at the time, did they have a say?
No, not really, except that they were Italian and obviously they were interested. I think they wanted to replace Zorzi and Patrese was the one I was interested in.
Were there others you had your eye on?
No, just Patrese.
Did he go into the Monaco GP "cold" or had he tested before?
He drove at Ricard a couple of days before, the first time he had ever driven the car. I think ours was the first car he drove, just one day at Ricard and then he came straight in at Monaco.
Quite a place to make a debut.
He probably knew the circuit. He'd raced there in F3 I think.
There was one race where Merzario replaced Patrese. Can you remember the reasons for that?
There might have been a dispute between the team and Ambrosio. He hadn't paid or something so we said Patrese can't drive; we required some money for that race. That's when Merzario came in.
How far were the moves advanced to create Arrows at this time?
Quite well advanced in the summer of 1977, late summer.
Was Patrese in your mind to move with you?
He interested me in particular, yes. He looked to have more potential than Jones at the time, that was the whole thing, but Jones came very good after that.
Alan Jones won one Grand Prix for Shadow.
That's right. 1977. He never seemed very good at qualifying, he always seemed to start too far down the grid and won the race from 14th. Quite unusual. When he got to Williams and they had a very good car he really was very good.
Did Patrese interest other teams, Ferrari is always mentioned?
There is some reason, which I've never found out, that he will never drive for Ferrari. I understood right from the early days that there is never any chance of him ever driving for Ferrari. I don't know why though. I don't think many people do know why.
There was talk of him replacing Prost...
Exactly, but I just thought back to those early days and thought there was no way...unless something changed.
Ferrari hadn't had an Italian driver for a long time before Alboreto.
No. I think it might be Marlboro, because Marlboro would never have him there. I don't know why though. It's just a guess that it's Marlboro.
At the end of 1977 was he your first choice for Arrows?
He had more potential than Jones at the time. Jones just went from strength to strength afterwards.
What was the situation with Gunnar Nilsson?
It was going to be him and Patrese.
The team only had one car in Brazil.
We had just managed to finish one car. Gunnar was ill then, but we only had one car anyway. We had two cars for the next race.
Do you think it was quite a risk going with Patrese effectively being the number one?
I think if you pick the right person they get there very quickly. Look at Schumacher last year. If you get the person who has got the skill and ability to get to the top then they get there quickly. So...he led the South African Grand Prix. He would have won it for sure, he had a lead of about 14 seconds. Inside a year he was capable of winning a Grand Prix.
I remember him quoted as saying it seemed easy.
He came second in Sweden that year as well so he was right there. In his first full season he looked good enough, or almost good enough.
That must have been quite a boost with Arrows being a new team having someone like that?
How soon did you have an inclination that there were going to be problems with the Shadow situation?
We didn't really think about it until it happened.
The dispute was about the design of the car?
That's right. The designer came as well and it was inevitable he would design the same car as he had designed for them. That was the problem.
What sort of impact did it have? Did having to design and build a new car set the team back a long way?
Not a very long way. We just had to build another car which we did.
Was it a case of making subtle changes to the FA1?
No, it was a completely new car. You can update these things but it wasn't quite as good as the first one. It wasn't bad but it wasn't quite as good.
Patrese has said maybe he over-drove, after being competitive with the first car. His driving came in for quite a lot of criticism.
Yes. What you see now in Patrese...he's always been very professional, but in his early days perhaps he took it too far. That year particularly, in 1978, he took it too far. He had ideas on what he should do and how he should drive, but they weren't very subtle.
There's a fine line between racing someone and blocking them. Was he on the side of blocking them?
Well they're all...Yes...But the more experience you get the less it shows. Senna does it quite deliberately, but you can do it in a subtle sort of way. You can take the line you want to take and it just happens to be the line the other guy wants to take. Riccardo was always very professional like that but perhaps not very subtle about it in those days. He's a lot more subtle now.
The incident at Monza has been crucial in his career. What was your view of it? Do you think what followed was justified?
He was banned for the one race.
He had a bit of a reputation by then and then this incident happened and they ganged up on him really.
Had drivers banned another driver before?
No, but at that time there were certain drivers in F1 who were very strong politically, and they ganged up on him because he was the new boy and a bit rough in his tactics, a bit unsubtle.
Sweden had highlighted that when he defended 2nd place from Ronnie Peterson.
That's right. Monza was one of those unfortunate things. Very often accidents don't just happen because one thing goes wrong, generally it's a chain of things and I think that's what happened. I think there were two or three cars that were maneuvering for position, because one started it another had to take avoiding action and maybe a third, and it left Ronnie nowhere to go. I think that's what really happened. But they've taken to blaming it on Riccardo.
Part of it was he crossed a white line and cut back in.
The problem was he was going quicker and he knew he could overtake, that's why he went over the white line, but he had to get back in because the line ends and it all narrows down so part of the trouble was the circuit. But all those things came together and caused the accident. I don't think anybody was particularly at fault, it was just the way the circumstances were.
How do you think it affected Riccardo? He has said all along that his conscience is clear because he knows he was not to blame.
I think he's right. I don't think anybody was really responsible. Hunt was the one who hit Ronnie I think because he had nowhere to go either. Riccardo went out to overtake him, had to come back in, Hunt had nowhere to go. There was another car as well that stopped them moving to where they wanted to. In the end it was just one of those things. Ronnie had nowhere to go in the end and the accident occurred, but the circuit played a part, and also the car Ronnie was driving played a part in it all, so there were lots of parts to it. It all focused on Riccardo, but the car wasn't good enough in those sort of situations, the circuit wasn't good enough...I think least of all it was Hunt's fault I would think, the least of anybody because he had nowhere to go. It might have been him who caused the actual accident but I don't think you can put any blame at his door. You can put a little bit at Riccardo's for going over the white line, a little bit at the circuit, a little bit at the car Ronnie was driving, and maybe a little bit at those at the front. It wasn't their fault but they happened to be there and it caused a situation where there was going to be an accident.
Would it have been automatic for it to go to court because Riccardo had been the one picked out as having caused the accident?
No, I don't think that was the reason. They have these things in Italy. They did the same with Clark and Chapman many years before, in 1961, when von Tripps was killed. They always seem to hold a legal enquiry when someone is killed.
It got to the stage of a manslaughter charge.
That's right. It did with Clark and Chapman.
How did Monza affect the team? Arrows being new and the split with Shadow losing you FOCA expenses?
We lost a year of FOCA benefits. I never saw any lack of performance from Patrese as a result. I think he was pretty confident. It was a motor racing accident to a large extent so I don't think it ever affected his performance. I never saw any evidence of that. I don't think it affected the team either.
Was the ban by the GPDA a heat of the moment decision?
I think they thought they were doing the right thing, ban him for a race and try to teach him a lesson, because they put the blame on him for Monza and a couple of other incidents. There was no question of banning him after that. Lauda was very strong in it all.
Getting him banned?
Lauda was the leader of the drivers at the time.
I read that Andretti stuck up for Patrese.
Mario was a real racer, he wasn't affected by things like that. He was as tough as they come and he was in lots of shunts. He was a racer, he understood what Patrese was doing. Of course Lauda was very friendly with Peterson, and Hunt was friendly with Lauda and Lauda was the leader, very much the leader of all the drivers. I think his motives were genuine, I think he felt Patrese needed to be taught a lesson. He put the blame on him, probably with Hunt's encouragement, because Hunt wasn't very happy about...he was the one that actually hit Peterson.
James Hunt's comments on TV are often critical of Patrese.
All that comes from that incident for sure, but he's a bit like that anyway. Hunt's a very opinionated person. If he thinks it he says it. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't think he's saying something he doesn't believe but he's very strong with his opinions, and I think he's obviously never forgotten that incident. Perhaps Riccardo and Thierry Boutsen, the other one he criticises, have never quite got to the top and are not as good as Senna or Prost so he criticises them. He doesn't compromise his opinions.
Which is what you need on TV.
In a way, yes. Senna and Prost can do little wrong in his opinion, whereas Patrese and Boutsen have never quite got to the top, although they are very good drivers.
Thierry Boutsen is someone who has promised a lot but...
I think he's very similar to Riccardo in many ways, very, very similar.
It was surprising he left Williams.
Yes. They wanted to get rid of someone because they wanted Mansell. But Riccardo, over the years, has changed in everyone's mind. I mean he's become everyone's favourite. Amazing really...He's very popular now. He's always been very quiet, he's quite un-Italian. He's got all the Italian fire, but as a person he hasn't got the typical Italian temperament.
Riccardo has been quoted as saying that when he was banned by the GPDA the teams' handling of the affair was justifiable only to a certain degree. That infers that he felt he didn't get full support from Arrows. Is that fair?
We backed down in the end, we just thought there was no point because we had the whole thing set up. He was going to drive, they couldn't stop him driving. We had the lawyers there, injunctions, all that, and they weren't going to drive, the drivers weren't going to drive. We could have just sat there and said "well that's up to you, don't drive if you don't want to", but there didn't seem to be any point in that I thought. I felt it was better...we made our point that they couldn't stop him, we thought they were wrong to do it. The drivers were determined not to drive apparently. I felt there was no point, all that was going to lose was the race and the sport so we said we've made our point, let's back down for one race.
Was it the organisers who didn't accept his entry or was it the drivers refusing to race if he took part?
The drivers convinced the organisers not to accept his entry, and we showed that they couldn't do that, we got the injunction that showed they couldn't do that, but when there was no compromise we backed down. It was more important to Riccardo.
Being seen to be accused of this, and then being banned as well is like being told you are guilty.
That's right. He was a very uncompromising person and probably wouldn't have wanted to compromise, so we withdrew his entry.
Was there a suggestion that the team might withdraw?
No, not the team. We withdrew Riccardo to save the situation, to save the race.
What was the situation at the end of the year? Did what happened raise doubts about him staying with Arrows?
No. We definitely wanted to keep him. I can't remember if he was under contract or not, but we certainly wanted to keep him no question about that.
How important was Jochen Mass, did he calm Patrese down?
No, I wouldn't say so. We just got Mass because the sponsor was German and Stommelen hadn't really done the job. Mass was quite a good driver in those days, quite good, and he was German so it suited the sponsor.
Presumably they made a good team?
Fantastic guy Mass, super guy, one of the nicest drivers I've ever known without a doubt. He actually got on with everybody. I don't think there was...funnily enough the only one he didn't get on with was James Hunt, but everybody else...he was very popular, very likeable.
How did the team persuade him to stay at the end of 1980?
It was a question of who in the end was most persuasive. He was very much undecided between us and March. He was persuaded that we were the better bet.
Was Siegfried Stohr forced on you by sponsors?
No, he brought sponsors. Ragno were very interested in Patrese. When he signed they came along too and then Stohr brought along his own sponsorship. He was a good driver but very inconsistent, no real natural ability.
What happened to the car at Long Beach? Having got pole Riccardo retired from the lead...
It was our fault, bad preparation. Something in the fuel tank. Purely a preparation fault.
Do you think it was inevitable he would leave at the end of 1981?
Yes. We weren't good enough and he was pretty good, he was still improving, on the way up.
Presumably you wanted to keep him?
Yes we did. We want to hold onto any good driver because in our position all the drivers we get we get from nowhere, from F3 like Boutsen. That's the only way we could get good drivers by bringing them on, and that's why we want to keep them. We weren't getting good enough results to attract a better driver. Once you've got them up there you want to keep them.
James Hunt has said "if Patrese was so good in 1991 why has he been asleep for so long?" Is that fair comment?
He has spent so much time trying to make cars better, setting it up better, that maybe he lost out quite a lot, maybe he wasn't as quick as he could have been. When he got a really good car like the Williams then he doesn't have to spend so much time sorting it out.
It's only since he joined Williams that he has been able to show his potential.
He had some good races with Brabham.
He was always in Piquet's shadow.
Piquet then was driving at the top of his form, he was a really top driver so he couldn't match Piquet.
It was Piquet's team.
Very much so. He had some good years with Brabham. He's never got the most out of the cars he's driven before, whereas with a really good car at Williams it's there already.
Maurice Hamilton wrote of Patrese: "he's liable to leave the rails at any moment."
I don't think that's right. He's got no great history of crashing, he's had a couple. The San Marino GP once he crashed , but there's not been many of those. He's not a wild driver, never has been. The press can be so inaccurate.
Why did he join Alfa Romeo?
No other options I think.
How did he manage to get back from those two poor years?
He had a good reputation despite that and he always got on well with Bernie Ecclestone, like he gets on well with Williams. The teams he drives for...he seems to get on very well with them. I mean he got on very well with us. He's very honest, very straight. If he spins off, he'll tell you. If it's his fault he'll say it's his fault. He's got a good reputation from that point of view, the teams appreciate that. I always found him a very nice person anyway, he was a bit quiet but very nice when you got to know him and I think everybody has had the same experience.
How do you rate him as a driver?
You've always got one, two or three drivers at the top. I rate him immediately under them. Riccardo will never be World Champion. He's never fired the imagination of the crowd. All his effect is with the team.
Interview © Michael J Day