from Chequered Flag July 1992
Riccardo Patrese is the most experienced man in Grand Prix history. Far from being past his prime, he is as capable as ever of beating the 'stars'
by Mark Gallagher
Sitting in his office on the morning after this year's San Marino Grand Prix, Riccardo Patrese was preparing to celebrate his son Simone's 15th birthday. His wife Susi was on her way from home, the twin daughters having been left with their nanny, and Simone was already waiting for him in the foyer of the magnificent Antico Brolo restaurant.
It was a good moment to talk with Patrese, for Simone was born four days before his father took part in his first Grand Prix - Monaco 1977. It is incredible to think that the Patrese we now watch used to race against Hunt, Reutemann, Regazzoni, Nilsson, Peterson and Emerson Fittipaldi. No wonder he is described, at the ripe old age of 38, as being a 'veteran', but after 16 seasons and 230 Grands Prix Riccardo is enjoying himself as much as ever. And running at the front.
He has won five Grands Prix, three of them within the past two years, and has never finished higher than third in the World Championship for Drivers. This year may be his best ever season, therefore, as he follows team-mate Nigel Mansell to a Canon Williams 1-2, but the over-riding feeling is that Patrese has never quite joined the superstar ranks. He has performed superbly while driving for Williams, often embarrassing Thierry Boutsen and, during the early part of last season, appearing to have the edge on Mansell. This year, however, he has been forced to play second-fiddle to 'Red 5', and he doesn't like it.
There is no suggestion of bias within the team, and the conclusion which most people have arrived at is a relatively simple one: Patrese is not as quick as Mansell. Both parties deny it, although for very different reasons, but you cannot fail to feel sorry for Riccardo when he has to sit through press conference after press conference saying what a wonderful job Nigel is doing and how happy he is for the team that they scored another 1-2.
One has the feeling that he probably goes home to Padova or Monte Carlo, closes the front door and lets out a load scream.
"Ok, obviously I am not happy to be second because I want to win races, and to be second four times this year is not what I was aiming for," he admits. "I get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that I worked very much on this programme with Williams-Renault and, knowing how much effort I put into it, I am very happy that we are now superior to anyone else. So, when I say that I am very happy for the team it also means that I am very happy for myself because of the work I put into it."
"The other side to it is that, as a racing driver I want to be first, not second, and because Nigel won five races and I finished second I am not satisfied. I wish I could have beaten Nigel but I lost five times, and I'm going to try very hard not to lose the rest of the season. I always try everything I can to win, but certainly you have to say that Nigel is very strong and in control of the situation, and it's not going to be easy to beat him. But I never give up in 15 years of Formula One and I am not giving up now that I have the possibility to win races with this beautiful Williams car."
If winning races is still on Patrese's agenda for 1992, then winning the World Championship is most certainly not. He is a realist, and after Mansell's fifth win of the season in San Marino he conceded defeat.
"I am not thinking any more about the championship because Nigel has a very strong lead," he admitted. "If at the beginning of this year I was thinking 'ok, maybe this year I can be World Champion' then after these five races I say 'ok, let's put aside that thought because we are too far away from Nigel.' In every race I try to win. Ok, a championship is a championship, but I think the taste is more intensive when you win a race than when you win a championship. The championship comes gradually, but the intensive moment is when you win a race or races. So I think, if I cannot have the feeling of winning the World Championship, at least I can have the feeling of winning a race."
Winning races, then, is what makes Riccardo Patrese tick, what provides him with the motivation to keep on going. He would like to win the World Championship, and still hopes to do so in the future, but that looks increasingly doubtful. If the rumours are true and Patrese leaves Williams at the end of this season, then even if he goes to Benetton or Ferrari the chances of him putting together a title-winning season are becoming remote. With people like Senna, Mansell, Prost, Schumacher and Alesi gunning for success, Patrese must join Gerhard Berger in having nothing more than an outside chance. His career, after all, can only last another one or two seasons at most. Fortunately he does not regard his failure to win the World Championship during his record-breaking career as being a major problem.
"I know that to be World Champion is very difficult," he admits. "I am trying my best, but if one day I realise that I am not able to do it I will accept the situation. It's not a bad feeling. When I finish my career I will be able to go back through all the years and be satisfied. I have had all the good feelings that a racing driver could have: I won races, I led Grands Prix, I got pole positions and fastest laps. So at the end of the day I am satisfied."
His first win came for Brabham in the hectic 1982 Monaco GP, while his second came the following year in South Africa. Then came a long, dry spell, first with Alfa Romeo in 1985/85, then again with Brabham in 1986-87. His first race for Williams was the 1987 Australian GP, when he was drafted in to replace the injured Nigel Mansell and drive a Williams-Honda in the final outing for the famous combination.
The 1988 season brought few results thanks to the fact that Honda's move to McLaren left Williams to use Judd V8s, but from the moment the association with Renault began Patrese knew he was onto a good thing. Indeed, he admits that he is something of an Anglophile when it comes to teams - Shadow, Arrows, Brabham and Williams account for the bulk of his Formula One career.
"Well, although I am Italian, as a driver I belong more to the English school because I always drive for English teams, with just two years for Alfa Romeo. I like the way the English teams think and work, and so I work well with them. Ok, so maybe one day I would like to drive for Ferrari, but I have to say that being with Williams, and winning everything, I would like to drive more with them!"
"The relationship between myself and Williams is very good, starting with Frank, Patrick Head, Adrian Newey, my race engineer, my mechanics and all the people on the race team, the test team and in the factory. I think we have built up a very strong relationship in five years together. I respect them a lot, and they respect me, so the atmosphere is good."
One of the reasons Patrese is so highly thought of is the amount of work he has been prepared to put into developing the Williams-Renault FW14B. Last winter it seemed that hardly a week went past without Patrese popping up in some far flung circuit, droning round and round, usually in the company of official test driver Damon Hill, and never once complaining. Surely it was difficult for him, a family man, to find the motivation to be away from home this much during the off-season?
"No, no problem. I am quite well organised. I go away and I come back, I see my children very often. It's not really a big problem because it's always been like this so my children are used to the situation and so am I."
"I like testing, because although the testing and racing are two different things, in the end they come together. When you are testing you can discover new things which can make the car progress. You are always researching something and it's a challenge. You have to see how the new things work and decide whether they are good or bad. If you make progress then it's a good feeling, and on top of that I think that being in the car at least once a month during the winter is good for training. Also, when there is a complicated programme such as we had with the active suspension, it is important that one of the official drivers is close to what is happening and can help make the important decisions. Testing is the only way to proceed if you want to win, and if you are not one hundred percent dedicated to it, it is very difficult to beat the opposition."
The opposition, in Williams's case, is McLaren, and Patrese is the first one to admit that he was surprised at the lack of competition from the World Champions at the start of this season.
"It surprised me a little because they have been so good in the past few years that I expected more of a challenge from them. However, we have made a lot of progress, and if you look at the lap times we are sometimes even quicker on race tyres than we were on qualifiers last season. I don't know what happened at McLaren, but the fact that they almost never tested in the winter seemed strange. We were asking ourselves, McLaren is not testing so what are they doing? The answer was nothing, or not really very much."
"I think they under-estimated how much progress we could make during the winter. They were about half a second quicker than us in the last two races of 1991, and they thought that if Williams worked hard and found a second, they they only had to make little improvements to be competitive. Unfortunately for McLaren our step forward was much bigger than they expected, and when it came to racing us they were really surprised."
Away from racing Patrese is something of an all-round sportsman. He plays tennis and golf, is something of an expert skier and keeps his body in peak condition by training in a gymnasium. He admits he is not in Nigel Mansell's league when it comes to playing golf, but accepts that a career in downhill skiing was once a possibility.
"When I was 13 or 14 years old, living here in Padova, I skied a lot, but to be a professional ski racer you had to live in the mountains and so I would have had to move, and change school. It was too complicated and also I didn't know if I could really do it so I stayed here, enjoyed myself and did school races."
In 1964, at the age of 16, he began racing karts, and by 1975 he had won the World Championship. He then moved into circuit racing, winning the 1976 Italian and European Formula 3 championships, and at the start of 1977 he moved into Formula 2 before stepping up to Grand Prix racing with Shadow. It was in 1975 that he met his wife Susi, and the arrival of Simone in 1977 was followed by the birth of the twin daughters, Maddelena and Beatrice, in April 1985. Susi accompanies Riccardo to the Grands Prix, and he admits this is something he prefers.
"The nanny looks after the girls and Simone has his own life now, so it is not a big problem for Susi to be with me. I like to have her with me because she is a very relaxing person. She is very calm, very smooth and she helps me when I am dealing with the press or I am upset about something. Sometimes people want to talk with me when I am not in the right mood, so she comes to see me and says 'Riccardo, ok, it's better you talk to them' - she is, how you say, a smoothener?"
Patrese aims to stay in Formula One for another couple of years, but he has given little thought to life after Grand Prix. He had considered driving Indycars, but decided against it, a decision reinforced by the horrific accident suffered by his former Brabham team-mate Nelson Piquet.
"I was very sorry for Nelson when I heard what happened because I am a close friend to him. I always thought I might go and do Indianapolis when I stopped driving in Formula One, but I was afraid. Nelson did not have the opportunity to test out this Indianapolis business fully, so he ended up in a situation I thought might happen to me. I thought 'maybe I go there and I have a big accident', and I didn't know if it was worth it. After 16 years in Formula One, to start from zero and race five more years in America, is not what I want to do. When I stop Formula One I want to relax with my family."
"Also, I have to say that I think to race at 380km/h flat out around an oval surrounded by walls doesn't look very safe to me. In Formula One the risk is there, of course, but we are always trying to improve safety by reducing the speed of the cars, modifying the circuits and making stronger monocoques. We are very aware of safety. In Indy the walls are always there, and in the last 20 years, instead of going 300km/h now they go 400km/h. Speed is equal to risk and danger."
So Indy is out, and being competitive in Formula One remains the most important thing in Patrese's career. He has no desire to see Simone follow in his footsteps, however.
"He is a very good boy. He is good at school, he plays tennis competitively. But the difference between my son and myself is that if I lose I am really upset and get no satisfaction from being second or beaten. To be a champion you have to be aggressive and you cannot be satisfied if you are not first or number one."
Being first, being aggressive and winning is still important to Patrese, then, which is all the more reason why being second to Mansell does not sit easily with him. Between now and the end of the year he intends to change all that.