ControSterzo magazine - July 10/23 issue - N.10/11 2003

by Franco Panariti

The former F1 driver from Padua holds a record number of GP entries, 256. He nowadays rarely shows up at races. Today he enjoys family and his hobbies, which have nothing to do with racing cars. However he still has a couple of things to say. He delivered the message talking to Controsterzo.

When you’re looking for a former F1 driver, you normally can find him quite easily. You just go to a F1 race of some relevance, or even at free practice, and they’re there, looking around, dreaming, remembering. But this is not going to work if you’re looking for Riccardo Patrese. If you need an interview with him, it’s going to be tough. Not that he does not make himself available. The problem is that, since he has quit driving racing cars, he simply does not follow races anymore, and he’s so busy with his new activities, that it’s difficult to track him down. Business? Work? None of the above. Riccardo’s time is now equally divided amongst: tennis, swimming, fast boats, golf, show-jumping, skiing, and obviously football, since he still plays in the Nazionale Calcio Piloti, of which he is also the President. Can you believe that the driver who competed in the most F1 GPs with 256 entries is so far away from his former world?

Riccardo, do you ever consider your record? Do you think it will be beaten?

I think it will be tough, because nowadays’ F1 quickly brings you either to success or to oblivion. There’s no more time to mature, while we used to have even four or five seasons to grow, improve, and then become big. Even Michael Schumacher, who reached success very early, could feel fed up and slow down. He can beat me, maybe.

Anyways your generation was learning the trade in the minor formulas to gain access to F1. Now we have Button, Raikkonen, Alonso, who arrived in F1 very young and they may be discarded as quickly...

Once, there wasn’t such a rush to reach the maximum level quickly. You learned in a smaller team, and you grew until you could aim at something important. Today we don’t know yet whether Raikkonen is really a champion or not. He has well exploited his occasion and has a world championship worth car, McLaren, so he has to deliver. But let’s not forget of Jenson Button. He was a superstar in his first Williams year, and became a nobody in the second, when he found himself on a difficult car, the Benetton. As for Raikkonen it will depend on how well he’ll be able to handle pressure from inside and from outside the team. At Sauber it was certainly easier. He does not overtake a lot? Well, the way F1 is now, overtaking is almost useless. You overtake at pit stops. They are not a major factor as it used to be. Now you have all sorts of tactics. It’s sad, but that’s the way you race now. This is what they want, this is what they get.

I note that today’s young driver show a rather weak character. I remember well what happened when you started your F1 career, with the Monza accident in 1978, when they tried to destroy you, holding you responsible for something you had not done, but you showed your strength, an iron character...

I have not gone easily through those moments. I tried to hold on, going over it. It was a potentially devastating situation, instead it ended up strengthening my character, although it caused me problems on the social side. At the beginning, I was quite introverted, isolated, and this was interpreted as arrogance. Being pushed around and criticized after the Monza accident made me build a hard external shell, which became softer only in the second part of my career. That episode made me become even more “closed” to others, and this is why I have never been very popular.

You were a F1 rookie, anyway, same as Jenson Button when, after moving from Williams to Benetton, went through a crisis without having to face anything like what you have been through...Riccardo, you were a tougher generation!

If we look at the history of this sport, then we can see that drivers in the 60s and 70s were really the “danger knights”. Alas, as in many other disciplines, everything has now become more artificial. More Show and less sport. Professionalism is so extreme and economic interests so overwhelming that there is little space left for personalities, characters being uniformed to the parameters that grant a certain economic result.

Which one is your best victory?

Imola in 1990 with the Williams Renault, because it pulled me out of a stalemate. Actually they were all beautiful since I have not really won, like, 50 races, it is only 6 I have to remember...

I was going to ask about Imola, since I remember the booing and the insults against you from the Italian supporters, seven years before …

I did not hear them. Inside the car, with your helmet on, concentrating, you don’t hear nothing. You only know you’ve lost a race that was already won. This episode shows how un-sportive Italian supporters can be. However I remember that the same people were very happy when I finally won.

Amongst your team mates, which are the ones you remember more dearly?

I have no real bad memories. Jochen Mass, at Arrows, he was almost a father to me, and we went along very well. It was ok also with Nigel Mansell at Williams, although he was always winging, or with Nelson Piquet at Brabham, a fantastic team mate on the track but especially in the paddock and outside races. He was always up with some funny joke. Even with Schumacher, in my last year in F1, I had a good relationship. With all of them there’s always been a lot of competition, because your teammate is your first adversary.

At some point in your 5 years at Williams, between 1988 and 1992, I was sure you would have eventually become World Champion …

In 1992 I felt like I could win the title, at least until half season. Then, at Magny-Cours, I was clearly told that I had to let my team mate Mansell go by. That request made me understand that I would never be world champion in a British team with a British team mate. In Italy it’s quite the opposite, no one cares about putting an Italian driver on a winning car, in the UK they are more nationalistic. Already in the winter before the 1992 season, looking at the high competitivity of the Williams-Renault, I understood we were going to win, and I started worrying that the driver “destined” to win would have been Mansell.

So let’s talk of Ferrari and Patrese.

With Maranello there was never anything concrete. Despite in the early stages of my career, Ingegner Ferrari told me that I was going to be a Ferrari driver, I think that afterwards he was not counselled properly on me. Everything finished when in 1981 they took Pironi. Until that moment there was apparent will from both sides to reach an agreement. Later, with the arrival of Cesare Fiorio, we got nearer again, but in that moment I was more interested in a car which was giving me more chances of winning.

With which Team Managers did you have the best “feeling”?

Certainly Bernie Ecclestone. He has been very good to me and I owe him a lot. For starters he took me back in the Brabham team after the dark Euroracing Alfa Romeo years. Throughout my whole career I could count on his counselling. When he decided to sell the Brabham team, he let me free one race early so I could drive for Williams. He was my guardian angel. But I have fond memories of them all, Alan Rees, Frank Williams and Patrick Head.

You forgot Flavio Briatore at Benetton…

I never called him Flavio, I call him Mr Briatore. I cannot call him a friend. He only cares of his personal interest, but I don’t think he did that so well when he forced me to step down at the end of 1993. I left F1, but the year after he changed 3 more drivers and the Benetton was awful. This means that when I was saying that the B193 was not good I was right. Since Michael Schumacher’s wins were his own, not the car’s. The German can win driving a pig, as he has demonstrated in his first seasons at Ferrari. His main talent is in fact wining with not very competitive cars. He won two championships with cars that his team mates were driving nowhere. Schumacher is a superior driver, but let’s not talk of Briatore please.

Do you think that nowadays the drivers are, overall, less outstanding?

Once, you had on track, all together Prost, Senna, Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg, Lauda, Berger. It was something else. Whoever won, had beaten super-champions. Michael was unlucky not to be able to confront Senna, that could have brought him to be considered the best ever. We could have seen fantastic things between them. Truth is, Michael is made of the same stuff: he is a master. With the retirement of Hakkinen, Schumacher’s superiority has become embarrassing. Montoya is coming up quite well, but I have the impression he alternates great races, like in Montecarlo, with doubtful ones. He is being pumped up even before he’s done important things. Quite like Alesi. He is a great guy, spectacular, generous, but in his career he only got one victory and, what else? Overtaking Senna at Phoenix , but we must remember Alesi had some fantastic Pirellis, the same tyres that brought a Minardi on the first row of the grid. Sometimes the press makes up myths!

When you retired you said: “I would only race if I have a competitive car”. You did not find it and dedicated yourself to other things. In this moment I’m thinking of poor Michele Alboreto…

I called it a day after Ayrton died, few months after my exit from F1. I had no drive, because I wanted only to race at top level. It was right, after 17 years in F1, to dedicate myself to the family. I did a few races in ETC with Ford and at LE Mans with Nissan, but it did not work out. For Michele it was different. He enjoyed the sheer pleasure of driving, loved the race start, loved to be a driver and recognized as such. You could see him on TV, unlike me. I did not care about being famous. I went back to normality and I enjoy it. I have a beautiful family. The twins are doing great in show-jumping, I love sport in general, I have invested my earnings well, so I keep my life busy thanks to the races, concentrating on my hobbies. Is it wrong?

Certainly not, Riccardo. In fact, I bow in front of your wisdom and serenity.

Thanks to Carlo Fiorentini