This article appeared in Autosport on 17th March 1994
by Nigel Roebuck
On the eve of last year’s Australian Grand Prix, as our shuttle bus prepared to move off from the paddock to the car park, the door was flung open, and Riccardo Patrese gratefully climbed aboard.
As usual, his expression was good-natured, but there was a poignancy about his presence now. For days all the talk had been of Alain Prost’s forthcoming retirement, and too little thought was given to others, whose final Grand Prix this might also be. Prost, at least, was going voluntarily; for others, it would be the last time around because no work was on offer. Two years earlier, it had happened that way to Nelson Piquet.
If it was inevitable, given his unequalled record, that Prost should be the focus of attention, so it was also sad that other Grand Prix careers, particularly Patrese’s, were ending without fanfare of any kind. Very well, Alain had 51 victories from 199 races, where Riccardo had but half a dozen from 256; statistics, like bikinis, show a lot, but not everything.
No record book will ever provide a clue as to the personality of Patrese, or any of his colleagues. You will not tell, from any column of figures, who was a civilised human being, and who was not. There have never been points for dignity or humour or grace.
That evening in Adelaide someone hesitantly broached the subject of Riccardo’s future. “It’s simple,” he said, very firmly, “if I get a top team, I drive. If not, I stay at home.”
As he spoke, it was as if he didn’t really mind one way or the other. But that was Riccardo, and his innate sense of dignity. He did mind. He minded terribly.
Of all the racing drivers I have known, he, next to Mario Andretti, never spoke of retirement, nor appeared even to consider it. “I love the life of a Grand Prix driver,” he would say, in a manner reminiscent of Clay Regazzoni. “I absolutely love it. There is nothing else I want to do.”
To an extent, a racing driver’s ability may be judged by his results; you can, in any case, come to see over time if he is any good or not simply by standing at the trackside. Assessing his worth as a man, however, is a different matter. You have your own opinions, of course, but for the unvarnished truth you speak to his mechanics.
Most of the time, during his five years at Williams, Patrese was the man in the background, the number two, but Riccardo’s own mechanics would never have any of that, thank you very much. If they accepted that, day for day, he was not in the very highest echelon as a driver, it was with grudging reluctance.
Steve Nichols, who worked at McLaren with both Senna and Prost, once described how gratifying it was to improve a car, perhaps minutely, and to see that improvement reflected instantly in its laps times. “That was the great thing about those two guys,” he said. “You got an immediate reward for your efforts, and it did wonders for your motivation.”
If Patrese did not have that once-and-for-all ability, still there were days of undeniable greatness. Let us remember, for example, that throughout the first half of the 1991 season, he outqualified team-mate Mansell on every occasion, and generally had the beating of him in the races. And his pole position at Estoril that year, set with the T-car in the dying seconds of the final session, stands as one of the finest I have ever seen. The following day he won the race, to Patrick Head’s very obvious delight.
What Patrick most appreciated in Riccardo was his willingness to work as a team man. “You call him up, ask him to test at a moment’s notice, and he says fine, no problem, I’ll be there. He’s not a selfish man that’s the thing, which is quite rare in a racing driver. His ego’s under control too. Which is also quite rare…”
Patrese gives the lie to the proposition that people never change. In his early days in F1, I thought him surly, precocious, something of a brat. He was very prone to Latin outbursts for a long time, probably because he spent too many years in uncompetitive cars, and felt that his career was ebbing away to nowhere. A two-season spell with Alfa Romeo, in the mid-‘80’s, brought him close to breaking point.
“By 1985,” he said, “it was beginning to affect my private life, and so I said to myself, hey, Riccardo, you have to do something. I mean, I was not smiling at all! So I changed, and I still don’t know how I made myself do it. I changed my approach, my mentality, everything. And life became easier.”
Patrese had his best racing days with Williams, and loved everything about the team. Through the summer of 1992 though, the drivers for the following season looked like being Mansell and Prost, and it was suggested to Riccardo he should look elsewhere. By the time Mansell made up his mind to quit, it was too late for Patrese who had by then committed himself to Benetton. Last season was not his happiest; long before the end of it he knew his contract would not be renewed.
Formula 1 is not a business founded on sentiment, and it never surprises me to hear folk suggest that so-and-so should get out and make way for a younger charger. Often, on a pragmatic level, I find myself in agreement, for I don’t like to see a driver become an embarrassment to his own name, any more than I care to see youthful ability thwarted. But I hate to see a genuinely fine man like Riccardo Patrese disappear from the sport – particularly when some of those with drives this year would seem to lay only tenuous claim to a Superlicence.
Riccardo, I imagine, will not much enjoy the weekend of the Brazilian Grand Prix, wherever he is. But he is not an F1 moron, not an obsessive, and he will cope. “You know,” he said to me a year or so ago, “you have to try to stay philosophical in F1 or you can go out of it completely broken. I don’t intend to do that.” In Sao Paulo I’ll raise a glass to him.
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission