from Autocar & Motor 31 July 1991
Now in his 15th season of Formula 1, Riccardo Patrese is driving better than ever and taking the limelight with a seemingly permanent smile on his face. Shaun Campbell tries to find out what lies behind the Williams driver's astonishing form and why he finds life so amusing.
There is something rather endearing about a grand prix driver who can describe a year in which he finished only four races, not once in the points, as "a technical situation not very brilliant". It's surely the kindest thing anyone has ever said about the Euroracing Alfa Romeo team of 1985.
But I'd been warned what to expect. Like the chap in the AA adverts, Riccardo Patrese is a nice man, a very nice man. Everybody in Formula 1 likes him because he smiles a lot, never, but never, slags off his team or his car, works hard in testing and drives hard in racing. The closest Patrese comes to a hysterical outburst is a great, expansive, Jewish shrug of the shoulders that says more clearly than his heavily accented F1-speak English that the world will keep on turning if his gearbox is playing up or his British Grand Prix lasts the length of the pit straight.
It brings out the worst in a journalist looking for a good quote. Surely there must be something you can ask him that will cut through this modesty, good manners and unswervable loyalty to reach the enfant terrible of F1 circa 1978. How about: Gerhard Berger said you were an idiot for holding up Prost at Magny-Cours when he and Mansell were battling for the lead and came up to lap you. What do you think?
A slight frown of bewilderment ("did he say that?") and then the shrug. At this moment, Frank Williams, sitting nearby, calls across: "He was driving under instructions from the pits." But Patrese has his own version: "There is not much to say. When I was lapping people, I sometimes lost eight seconds in two laps; that's a characteristic of the circuit. Nigel came up to me first, he passed me, and Prost passed me at the same place on the following lap. I don't think I held up Prost. In a way, I don't make it easy for Nigel either. But you saw what happened, you must have your own opinion."
But I want your opinion, I say; to which Patrese replies with a grin: "I am a Williams-Renault driver."
Would Mansell have done the same for you? This time it's the shrug rather than the smile. "I don't know" and a glint in the green-brown eyes that says I should ask Mansell for the answer to that question.
Failing to raise the temperature with that line of questioning, I try another. You've started from pole position three times and each time failed to make it to the first corner in the lead. Do you have a problem with starts?
"I can find an excuse for all three. In Montreal I was taking care of my physical condition [a huge practice shunt that left him so sore and bruised he wasn't expected to finish the race]. In Mexico, because of the very high temperatures I think, there was a slight hesitation in the engine. And at Magny-Cours my gearbox didn't catch second gear and I was stuck in neutral for a while. I tried two or three times to get another gear and, eventually, I caught third but I went away very slowly."
"So, I can find an excuse but I am disappointed not to get into the lead. It's a bit stupid to spend two days trying to get a good grid position and then throw it away at the start. Maybe I have to take more care with my starts, although, I have to say, I did ok at Imola. But it's a fact; three poles and three bad starts."
Try again. You drove with Mansell at Williams in 1988 and were rarely as quick. How do you explain this season's form?
"In 1988 it was a completely different situation. I was very new to the team - I had to make my own space inside. I had the contract of a number two, which I don't have now, and in those days we had the 'active' car which, from a reliability point of view, was a complete disaster. I'd do two or three laps, the car would break down and then I'd be in the pits for an hour waiting for it to be repaired. So I didn't have the time to warm up - to get into the problem. When we changed to the conventional suspension, my performance was much stronger, much closer to Nigel's."
"This year I have my position inside the team. They know me very well; they trust me and I trust them. The only difference between Nigel and me is that he has the priority for the spare car. But there is no number one or number two. I can win races; he can win races. I know the material Williams is giving me is identical to Nigel's. When we started the season I said to myself that I could be competitive. I don't know if I could be quicker than Nigel..." huge shrug, "I try."
Before the British Grand Prix, Patrese had out-qualified Mansell in all seven races, beating him in a straight fight at Mexico and generally set the pace for the Williams team. It prompted much gossip in the F1 paddock about the relative salaries of the two drivers because, depending on who you talk to, Mansell is paid between five and 10 times as much as Patrese. Does he think he's getting a fair deal?
"Next year, because of my results this year, I hope to be paid better. But money is something that gets the media excited. If I think I'm getting the money I deserve then I'm not complaining. I have to be satisfied, it doesn't matter what other people say. And, at this moment, I have no complaints."
So who will be paying Patrese next year? It's no secret that he's higher on the shopping list of other teams than at any other time in his 15-year F1 career. Does he know who he will drive for in 1992?
"Not yet", and he says that with all the assurance of a man who's not expecting a problem in finding a good drive. "For me to stay another year - or more - at Williams would be good. I have a fantastic relationship with everybody and it would be good to stay. But because of this new wave that is pushing me, maybe I have better opportunities elsewhere."
New wave? For a split second I think I'm on the track of discovering the secret to Patrese's Indian summer. "New wave of results. There is a lot of publicity around me because, of course, I'm going well. I'm a surprise for a lot of people who didn't expect me to be as good. I thought I could be as good so I haven't discovered anything. I thought if I had the right equipment I could be in the right spot."
"It makes me laugh a little bit, you know, because sometimes everybody criticises you and sometimes they ignore you. Maybe you are doing a good job but you don't have the best material and so it's very difficult to show that you are good. Now I have the possibility with this fantastic organisation at my back, to be in the sun. So everyone comes to talk to you, they want interviews and they speak nicely of you. It makes me laugh because I think I am the same person of three or four years but nobody took the trouble to find out."
The message is embarrassingly clear. The press are a fickle lot who recognise success rather than talent in the same way that medals are generally awarded for achievement rather than courage. The curious thing is, it really does make him laugh.
Being an overnight sensation isn't easy for a young driver. Ask Jean Alesi. It happened to Patrese in 1977-78 and the fall-out nearly finished him. Now he's at the top again, secure, confident and able to laugh off the criticisms and disappointments.
One final try to shake him. In 1978, in only his ninth grand prix, in a car (the first Arrows) making its second appearance, he appeared to be heading for victory in South Africa until the engine blew. The cynics gossiped (but never wrote) that the car was running illegally, the fledgling team desperate to run at the front to raise sponsorship. Are the stories true? Again that look of slightly hurt bewilderment. Has no-one asked him this before?
"This must be some kind of joke." And, damn it, he's laughing again. "That car was perfectly legal. I finished second with it at Sweden a few weeks later and was running third at Brands Hatch (his memory for every race is photographic). I thought I was going to win until a bearing in the engine failed. It was a very good car. You know, everybody was talking about me then as the new star of F1." Smile, shrug. "It wasn't as easy as that."