from Autosport 28th September 1978
Riccardo Patrese is threatened with a ban from taking part in the American Grand Prix. Is this action justified?
CHRIS HOCKLEY reports.
Brilliant but brittle, fast but fallible, he is fearless on the track, yet afraid of the unknown off it. He has a tendency towards superstardom matched only by his tendency to attract controversy. Those are the characteristics of the controversial young Italian, Riccardo Patrese.
Seldom has a driver burst upon the Grand Prix scene oozing more raw talent, and seldom has a young man stirred up such a hornet's nest of antagonism from his elders at the same time. You have to go a long way to find a more level-headed racing driver than John Watson. So, when Watson says, "Patrese? I don't feel at all confident racing with him," it is time to sit up and take notice.
After a season of astonishment at the Italian's speed, coupled with niggles about his race tactics, Patrese's name hit the headlines the world over following the tragedy at Monza which claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson. James Hunt, in particular, pointed the finger at Patrese and accused him of causing the accident that led to Peterson's death. The Arrows ace, for his part, vigorously denied responsibility and said he was fed up with being blamed for accidents.
Out of it all has come a threatened ban on Patrese for the American Grand Prix, a move instigated by Messrs Hunt, Scheckter, Fittipaldi and Lauda. It now seems inevitable that his 1978 season will be remembered as the year in which he staked his claim to the World Championship - and was branded the wild man of motor racing. A simple choice between Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde.
Before trying to unravel the puzzle that is Riccardo Patrese, it may be necessary to explode one or two myths about the 24-year-old from Padua, near Venice.
To start with, he is not a brainless idiot. He expresses himself well in English, and is currently studying for a degree in political science, fitting in his studies between race dates.
How about this for common sense?: "I had no heroes when I was younger. I started out to become a Formula 1 driver because all the drivers are human, they are not gods. But one man I admire very much in the immediate past is Jackie Stewart. He was very professional, very precise. Sometimes he didn't have the best car, but he still became World Champion".
Secondly, although he struts around the pits like a proud cockerel, full of self-assurance, in a way he is insecure. According to Arrows chief Jack Oliver, he has turned down offers from his beloved Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, not to mention Lotus and Williams, to stay with Arrows for another season. Patrese said, "I think in time I would like to drive for Ferrari or Brabham-Alfa Romeo - it is a normal dream for any Italian driver. Brabhams made me an offer because Parmalat want an Italian driver in the team next year. But I want to stay with Arrows. The team is getting better with every race and next year, if we have a good arrangement with the tyres, we should be in the first few places every race. Also, I like very much Tony Southgate, Alan Rees and my mechanics - I like being with a team that is friendly."
Oliver added that, despite denials from Patrese, he had been approached with a tempting and lucrative offer from Enzo Ferrari himself: "He was hounded from May to July by Ferrari, Williams, Lotus and Alfa Romeo! Ferrari even asked to see him three times in Italy. But he has always been committed to us. He is quite a shy individual - not outward-going or extrovert. He feels equal to us, because he is a young driver in a young team."
Shy and introverted he may be but, like many others, he reserves his passion for the race track. And from the time he first sat behind the wheel of a kart, his talent has shone through the storm clouds. He was world karting champion in 1974 after partnering Eddie Cheever in the Italian kart team and first stepped into the cockpit of a racing car less than four years ago to finish second in the Italian national Formula Italia series.
He moved into Formula 3 with Pino Trivellato Chevron the following year, and immediately became locked in battle for the European title with Conny Andersson. But at the end of the season we witnessed the first display of emotion. After high drama at Knutsdorp, where he was knocked off by another car, he arrived at the final round needing a conclusive victory over Andersson to claim the championship.
The race was at Vallelunga, and Andersson was soon docked a minute for allegedly jumping the start of his heat, effectively ending his chances of taking the title. The Swede fought back by baulking Patrese in an effort to keep him as far down the leader board as possible. After the race, Patrese let go with a tearful outburst, and the whole incident nearly ended in blows. But at the flag, he finished second and clinched the title.
It was up a rung to F2 in 1977, where again he was an instant front runner. But no sooner had he formed a nodding acquaintance with his F2 Chevron than he was at Monaco, in the seat of the Formula 1 Shadow vacated by Renzo Zorzi. He drove to a polished ninth place, and consolidated his new-found status quietly during the rest of the year, with little hint of the furore that has followed this season.
"I drove well at the beginning and end of the season," said Patrese. "In the middle I was thinking maybe it was easy to arrive in Formula 1, and I just made mistakes by driving too hard. You need experience to keep everything OK in an F1 car. The difference between F2 and F1 is more psychological than anything else. I didn't find the power of an F1 car very difficult to handle, but what I did find difficult was the way you have to think. In F2 or F3, you go flat out from beginning to end. In F1 you have to save tyres, to save engines, to save brakes, to save everything. It is not easy."
Patrese sat out the close season while the bitter battle raged for control of Shadow. Out of it all came the new Arrows team - and the young Italian was plunged straight into the deep end when it became obvious that Gunnar Nilsson's illness was going to prevent him taking up the No 1 seat.
"I think it is good for me to have so much responsibility," he said. "It is good to learn very quickly and, when you are No 1, you have to be very professional about things. Everybody waits for what you say about the car before they know what to do."
To say that he did learn quickly is something of an understatement. In the fledgling team's second Grand Prix, in South Africa, there was Patrese, out in front of the stars and running away to what looked like being a simply sensational victory. But then his engine blew.
Patrese makes no bones about his performance at Kyalami: "The way I drove was perfect. I waited for the right moment to go and I overtook Lauda, Scheckter, Andretti and then I went away. It was a good race. I saved the engine when I was in front but then I had bad luck, a stupid thing. The bearings broke."
Since then he has been at the right end of the field and there have been more than a few flashes of brilliance, notably in Sweden, where he finished second to Lauda's fan car. But it was also at Anderstorp that it all began to go sour. Maybe the pressure on him was telling after all, maybe he was anxious for another South Africa. But, whatever the reason, it was the first time that fans outside the Grand Prix clique got a whiff of the turmoil that was brewing around Patrese.
Ironically, it was Ronnie Peterson who had a go at him after the race, accusing the Arrows man of baulking him dangerously. Patrese flatly denies this: "It's not true, " he said. "I just changed my line to make trouble for him, but I was not weaving."
Several other drivers though have said that the Arrows is unacceptably difficult to pass. One of them is John Watson, to whom I turned for an appraisal of Patrese, because John is a man unlikely to talk without thinking first.
"Let's put it this way, " said the Ulsterman. "In Holland, Emerson Fittipaldi and I had a nose-to-tail dice for 45 laps...and I had every confidence in him. I knew he wouldn't do anything silly - he is intelligent and mature. But I wouldn't feel so sure if I had Patrese behind or in front of me. I don't feel at all confident racing with him, and that is as far as I will go. I would rather let his own record of shunts, bumps and knocks stand, and let people judge from that."
So here goes, a race-by race breakdown of Patrese's season up to Monza:
Brazil: Banged wheels with Watson. Two pit stops. Finished 10th.
South Africa: Crashed in practice. Walked down pit lane in tears after blowing up while leading by a mile in the race.
Long Beach: Sixth. Clipped a wall, but otherwise steady drive.
Monaco: Two crashes in practice. Said one was brake problem, other driver error. Tenacious drive to sixth after race-long duel with Pironi.
Belgium: Start line shunt with Hunt, who was pitched into the wall and retirement. Lying fourth when rear suspension broke.
Spain: Retired when fifth with engine seized. Said he was expecting it as gauges had been in the red for some time.
Sweden: Watson spun into retirement - he said Patrese missed a gear in front of him and he had a 'problem' trying to overtake him. Tangled with Jones, who spun into the sand at the same place as Watson. Finished second a nosecone ahead of Peterson, who accused him of weaving.
France: Fine drive to eighth in an unbalanced car.
Britain: Lying second when rear tyre punctured. Drove so quickly back to the pits that his rear suspension was wrecked.
Germany: Spun during race and several drivers said they had problems getting past him. Finished ninth.
Austria: First time out in new A1 car. Left road in downpour that ended 'first' race. In second race Watson stalled on the line and in the confusion Patrese tangled with Ertl and spun out of race.
Holland: Collided with Pironi as the Tyrrell hurtled off the road on the first lap.
And so to the tragic Italian race. There is no doubt that other factors were involved in the crash: the start line mess, the tunnel-like nature of the track, and so on. But James Hunt immediately accused Patrese of barging into him, and triggering a disastrous chain reaction. The day after the race, Patrese defended himself in the Italian newspapers. He said that his conscience was clear, and that he would not be made a scapegoat. He added that every time there was an accident, he seemed to carry the can, and he was sick of it. Of Hunt's outburst, he said he was already in front of the McLaren before the devastation started.
And he had this to say earlier in the year when asked about his temperament: "Maybe I am not really Italian, because I think I am a very cool person. If I make a mistake, I think about it and try to find something to solve my problem." He added, "I don't get depressed very easily. I was upset when my car broke in South Africa, but after an hour I was OK."
The Monza debacle brought other drivers' anger about Patrese to a head. But, although he may be short of friends among other teams, his own is right behind him. Jack Oliver acknowledged the 'wild man' jibes as "having some foundation, but not very much."
And he went on, "The criticism being levelled at Riccardo is consistent with complaints about other young drivers in the past who have now matured and become leading Grand Prix drivers - people like Jody and James. They became instantly successful because of their ability and because they were in the right team, and they were always in the middle of controversy. Riccardo is a little strong in the head but, in terms of ability, he is above his station. And whenever you get a junior driver who is instantly successful, he is never liked by senior drivers. They are embarrassed or feel pressured, and so they are quick to criticise.
"For instance, if James and Emerson had a coming-together in a corner, they would not make any criticism public because they are of equal standing. But, of course, James would have a go at Riccardo."
Patrese has reportedly been cleared of any involvement in Peterson's death by an Italian tribunal. Details of the enquiry, held a few days after the GP, are sketchy. What is known is that the investigators had little evidence to go on because most of the drivers they wanted to interview had already left the country.
But Oliver said: "The initial evidence was just from a TV film taken from behind the cars, plus what James said about Riccardo. But a Dutch TV film shot from the front and side of the cars shows Riccardo going across in front of James with feet to spare. He did not touch James at all." According to Arrows designer Tony Southgate, the tyres on Patrese's car after the drama were clean and showed no signs of contact.
If the aggro ever dies down, Oliver is convinced that his young charger will confound the critics to become World Champion in the near future. "For a 24-year-old in Grand Prix racing, he is certainly a lot more mature than I was at that age," he says. "He has proved that he is capable of taking charge of the driving in a Grand Prix team, and he has done a good job for us.
"I like his dedication. I like the way he spends time in the garage after practice without being eager to get away. In view of our troubles, we are lucky to have such an outstanding young man, and we must be in a strong position for next year."
Patrese the thinker has put his ambitions into a clear perspective for the next few seasons. "First of all, I want to win a Grand Prix," he says. "Then maybe I will think about a lot of points and perhaps one day to become World Champion. But at the moment it's a long way away."
If he is allowed to get on with his racing, it may not be as far in the future as he thinks. But the question is, if he gets there, will he be idolised as a worthy occupant of the throne, or will he be a king without a crown?
Saint or sinner...Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission