Grand Prix International

Issue #84 (Detroit GP 1984)

In From The Outside

by Mike Doodson

Grand Prix International

With more than seven years of experience in Formula 1 behind him, one of the world's most gifted drivers has only two Grand Prix successes to his credit. Did Riccardo Patrese, darkly handsome and always so silent, burn his chances of being a champion again when he left Brabham? In a new kind of GPI profile, we study the man through the eyes of people who have known him as a driver and a human being.

Every sport has its mal-aimรฉ, the man or woman the public loves to hate. It may be because he wins too easily, like some of those East European athletes of indeterminate sex who clean up the women's events, or it may be because he loses badly, like tennis star John McEnroe. In Formula 1, the mal-aimรฉ is Riccardo Patrese. Unlike McEnroe, Riccardo is not openly antagonistic towards the press, but in seven years as a Grand Prix driver he has done nothing to attract journalistic sympathy towards himself. In the pit lane, most other drivers give you at least a friendly grin. From Riccardo, regardless of the circumstances, you get a glance that goes right through you.

For this article I spoke to people who know Riccardo a little more closely than the average pressman. I was expecting to find that most of them were severe critics, unwilling to be quoted directly. It was a pleasant suprise to discover that this quiet and handsome young man from Padua has made more friends than enemies during his seven seasons as a Formula 1 driver. If any of my informants requested anonymity, it was to protect himself from his team manager, not from Riccardo personally.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Riccardo Patrese has won only two world championship F1 races in the span of seven years. That's not many when you look back on the ease with which he racked up success in F3 and F2. "Hugely talented" was the reputation which he brought to the Shadow team in 1977, and nothing has happened to reduce that stack of ability in the intervening years.

On the record, Arrows team manager Alan Rees, describes Riccardo as "very fast and also a nice person". Having been a fine F2 driver himself, as team-mate to the late Jochen Rindt with the Winkelman Team in the late 60s, Rees knew what he was doing when, with Jack Oliver, he decided to approach Riccardo to join the Shadow team as the replacement for a rather less talented Italian before the Monaco GP of 1977.

Rees will always be grateful to Riccardo for the loyalty which he showed when he agreed to follow the ex-Shadow personnel, led by Oliver and designer Tony Southgate, who split away from Shadow to form the Arrows team at the beginning of 1978. "If you remember, Riccardo led the second race we did, in South Africa, until something broke on the car. But that was all the encouragement we needed at the time."

The man who acted as the intermediary between Oliver and Patrese at the beginning was Giorgio Piola, the Italian journalist and artist whose work appears regularly in GPI. Piola has a theory about Patrese which may have some bearing on his lack of racing success: "Sometimes I think that Riccardo is really unlucky, but I also think - and this is a personal idea - that perhaps he wants to win too much. If he could win more he would be much more relaxed."

For the first three seasons with Arrows, however, there was to be nothing but frustration for Patrese. First there was the sensational legal case in which Don Nichols, the founder and owner of Shadow, proved that the first Arrows had been plagiarized from designs that rightfully belonged to Shadow. There was a succession of cars that were either too hastily designed or too advanced technically to have any chance of winning races. It wasn't until the Long Beach GP early in 1981 that Riccardo was back in a car that had a fair chance of winning.

He started that race from pole position and led comfortably until a piece of rubber sponge blocked the fuel pick-up pipe and stopped the engine dead. A setback like that can happen to anyone, but not everyone would be as badly affected personally as Patrese was. "When something like that happens, you have to stay away from him for ten to fifteen minutes" says Piola, knowingly. Unfortunately, it seems that not all of the Italian journalists did, and Patrese's abrupt remarks - reported back in Italy in all their dubious phraseology - almost certainly laid the foundations for the worsening state of relations between Riccardo and his Italian public.

For a number of reasons, the Arrows was never as competitive again as it had been at Long Beach. By the end of the season Riccardo was ready for a change of team, and the opportunity came to join Brabham, where Parmalat wanted an Italian national driving as team-mate to Nelson Piquet, the newly-crowned World Champion.

Riccardo went on to win his first Grand Prix, with Brabham, at Monaco in 1982. It was a lucky victory, won because two other cars retired almost within sight of the flag, and even Riccardo needed proof before he would believe he was entitled to lead the champagne throwing. He succeeded - after much deliberation on the part of Bernie Ecclestone - in keeping his Brabham place for 1983, but it was not as good a season as either he or the team expected it to be. While Nelson was winning races, Riccardo was crashing or blowing up. He should have won the San Marino GP at Imola, but no sooner had he taken the lead from Patrick Tambay's Ferrari than he ran wide into the dirt and crashed ignominiously, to the apparent delight of the thousands of his fellow countrymen watching in the nearby grandstand. The Patrese pride was being badly bruised. Not only was he not finishing races but he was also being regularly outqualified by Nelson Piquet. And, halfway through the season, he committed a serious tactical error. He issued a typewritten list to Italian pressmen of all the mechanical failures which had caused his Brabham-BMW to retire.

Nothing like this had ever been done before by a topline driver. Bernie Ecclestone, who prides himself on providing both of his drivers with cars that are equally well prepared, was furious. And although Riccardo finished his year at Brabham with a win at Kyalami, it was another lucky success, a sort of grace-and-favour gesture from Nelson, who only dropped out of the lead to save his engine and make sure of winning his second world title.

Nelson insists that his personal relations with Riccardo were always correct, if not warm. But he says that the Italian made a series of incredible tactical mistakes at Brabham, beginning even before he'd driven the car for the first time. "He told Bernie at the end of '81, when we were still racing the Cosworth engine, that anyone could be a champion with Gordon Murray's chassis. Later he said it wasn't fair that he hadn't been given the BMW turbo at the same time as me. I think that Riccardo probably believed what he was saying at the time, but to Bernie Ecclestone it must have looked as though he was just making excuses."

Piquet hints that whatever his former team-mate lacks is psychological rather than physical. "You know, Riccardo is ten times stronger and fitter than me. But in that famous Brazilian GP of 1982, when I fainted on the podium, Riccardo also had a problem with the heat, and he spun, I think he just gave up then..."

Gordon Murray, designer of the Brabham, agrees with everyone that Patrese is still one of the very fastest drivers in the world. "I also think he's probably harder than some of the others on the mechanical bits, although not the hardest. Last year he didn't finish many races with us, and some of the things that happened to him could have happened on Piquet's car.

As a team driver he was someone who always drove fast in every race, you always knew he was on the limit. From an engineer's point of view he always gave us very good information about how the car was behaving. Nelson is different, because he's been with us for such a long time now that he actually makes suggestions about how we can improve the car.

One of his failings, as an Italian, was that he was under too much pressure from his national press. I think it was a pity for his career that he went to an Italian team, because I firmly believe that a driver like Riccardo benefits from being with a British team like ours. And speaking personally, I would have been happy to have had him with us for another year."

While the typewritten list of car failures did nothing to raise Riccardo's standing as far as Ecclestone was concerned it might have been forgotten if it hadn't been for an incident in September '83 at Monza, a race which Nelson had to win if he was to keep alive his chances of snatching the world championship out of Alain Prost's grasp. Let Nelson describe it...

"Riccardo was always very honest with me. Before the race at Monza he came to see me and told me he was going to try to win. 'It's the Italian GP, my home race, and I really need to win here,' he said 'even if it affects your chances of getting the world championship.' I thanked him for telling me and he asked me if I thought he should go and tell Bernie what he had just said. So I said yes, that would probably be the best thing.

So Riccardo went straight to Bernie and told him, incredible...and sure enough, Riccardo took the lead, but blew up his engine almost immediately. I don't think that Bernie would ever be able to forgive him for that..."

In spite of the long string of mechanical failures, the mechanics who have worked for Riccardo over the years have fond memories of him. When he left Arrows, he invited the entire Arrows team of mechanics to join him for dinner, and he did exactly the same for the Brabham boys earlier this year, when he had already joined Alfa Romeo.

"Mind you," an Arrows man remembers, "he had a few little obsessions. He hates his car to handle differently in left-hand and right-hand corners, so he insists on the corner weights being checked all the time."

A Brabham mechanic confirms this, and suggests that Riccardo probably causes himself more confusion than satisfaction in his search for perfectly symmetrical corner weights. "Still, for us, the mechanics, he was a nice guy." He adds: "He's quick and he usually keeps it on the road. He also adapted very quickly to the British sense of humour after we played a trick on him the first time he came testing with us. The first night he hung up his fireproof underwear in the garage, so we took it down and hung up some burned rags in its place for him to find the next day. He liked the joke, and we liked him for laughing along with us."

When Ronnie Peterson was killed in a first lap accident at Monza, however, the feelings towards Riccardo Patrese had been much more sombre. It was finally established officially that the main cause of the accident had been the decision of the starter to release the grid before all the competitors had come to a complete halt after their parade lap. But at the time there were several fingers pointed at Riccardo, who made a suspiciously rapid start which took him over the white guide line at the right hand side of the track before cutting back into the tightly-bunched pack of cars on his left. Moments later there was a multiple collision resulting in the accident which was to cause Paterson's death. The organizers of the next race on the calendar, at Watkins Glen in New York, received a letter from a group of top drivers - including Niki Lauda - who threatened not to race unless Patrese's entry for the United States GP was withdrawn.

Despite arriving at Watkins Glen with a local lawyer to reinforce his case, Patrese was unable to change the organizers' minds about letting him race. But he never forgot the incident, and was able to raise the matter at Kyalami in 1982, when Niki Lauda called on all the drivers to withdraw their labour unless FISA and FOCA agreed to cancel their demands for drivers to apply for a super licence under terms which Lauda considered to be unduly onerous.

At first Riccardo refused to join the protest unless Lauda retracted everything which he had said about Riccardo's driving four years earlier. Finally, Riccardo did join his fellow drivers, and he participated in the famous sleep-in at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Johannesburg. They must have done a good job of persuading him that bye-gones were bye-gones.

The private life of Riccardo Patrese is a long way from the turbulent politics and noise of racing. He lives a tranquil existence in Padua, a city with a long tradition of devout Roman Catholicism which slightly disapproves of the fact that his union with Suzy is blessed with a small son but not yet by the formalities of marriage. "When he is at home he probably forgets for some time that he is a racing driver, " says Piola: "He likes to play a lot of tennis, and he is very charming. Not at all the same person you see at the race track at weekends."

As Piola has already revealed in GPI, Riccardo's greatest passion in life is his enormous collection of model railway trains. "He spends a lot of time searching them out and buying them, it is almost like a job for him. But he never sells his trains, because he is not a dealer. He doesn't mind people knowing about his hobby: talking with him about his trains is like talking to Gordon Murray about wines or motorbikes."

Is it possible that Riccardo Patrese has succumbed, at the age of 30, to a life in the backwaters of motorsport, going through the motions of Formula 1 with the moribund Alfa Romeo team and earning almost as much in endurance racing with Lancia?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Italian sources suggest that Riccardo had a large part to play in the replacement of Carlo Chiti as Alfa Romeo's chief engineer by Guanni Ionti, the ex-Lancia man who joined Alfa at the Canadian Grand Prix last month. There are other changes in store at Alfa, as Eddie Cheever confirms: "Chiti had to go," he says, "because this team is going to start winning - and soon."

And what does Eddie think of Riccardo? "Well, I remember him from the days we raced against each other in karts. See that scar on his chin? He went over someone's wheel and hit a tree. But those crazy days are over now, and he's a very serious racing driver. He's not finished, not by a long way."