Interview by Joe Saward
Riccardo Patrese is having a tremendous season. With the new Williams-Renault combination he is enjoying his best results for years. In Rio, on the day he became the most experienced Formula 1 driver in history, he started from the front row of the grid and led the race in the early stages. Since then there have been three consecutive second places in the north American races. In Montreal he would have won the race but for a problem which enabled his team mate Thierry Boutsen to pass him close to the finish -- just before Ayrton Senna's McLaren-Honda blew up. After the flag, despite his own misfortunes, Riccardo was the first man to congratulate Thierry.
With 182 Grands Prix now behind him Patrese is enjoying his motor racing more and more. He has a competitive car, a supportive team, and is more relaxed than in the past.
"At the moment to finish second to McLaren is like winning," he laughs. "Second place in Mexico was the result of the winter work which we did, not only me but Renault and Williams."
"I am very happy with the way the Williams-Renault relationship has developed. We are much closer to McLaren than I thought we might be."
"The relationship between Patrick Head and the French is very good -- and we still have the new car coming."
"Williams was pleased to be back on the podium, and for Renault it was the first good result of the new programme."
"The best thing for me is the relationship within the team. You must create a good atmosphere in a team so everyone can work better and have a better chance."
But it's also been good for Riccardo Patrese?
"Yes, it was good for me too. It was a confirmation that I was back on the top."
"It has been a long time..."
Indeed it has. After 182 races he still has only two victories to his name. Doesn't the record frustrate him?
"It is not easy to win in F1," he smiles. "The fact that I have two victories is already something. Other drivers drove for a long time and they never won a race."
"I have won races and set fastest laps. I don't have anything to prove."
"One of the reasons why I won only two races was because I didn't have many chances with the cars that I drove."
"I think I lost a bit of time because I could have been with Brabham earlier than 1982."
"In 1978 Bernie (Ecclestone) asked me if I could drive for Brabham. I said no. I preferred to stay with Arrows. Bernie offered a three year contract -- exactly the same which Nelson Piquet took -- but, in that period, I had some promises from Ferrari. I preferred to stay with Arrows, and have one year contracts, so that I could be free to go to Ferrari."
"I was dreaming a little bit of Ferrari. They let me down. From then on, as a professional driver, I wanted to be in the right team at the right moment. I don't care if it is English or French or if it is Ferrari."
"Now, I would go to Ferrari because I think it is a good team, but if another good team gives me a chance to have a winning car, it is the same."
"When I had no more hopes to go to Ferrari, Bernie took me into his team. Our relationship was always very good."
"In 1981-82-83, I could have had more than two victories -- maybe four or five. I was leading Grands Prix. I was constantly running in the front of the field. I left in 1984 and 1985 because I think Nelson didn't want someone who was pushing him very hard in the team. He wanted to have a real number two, not somebody that could give him trouble."
Riccardo joined Euroracing.
"They were not good years," he admits. "We had a lot of trouble and, of course, they were the two years I enjoyed least in Formula 1. That was the only time I thought about giving it up."
"But, anyway, I went through that, and I was able to get out of that difficult situation. Bernie wanted me back at Brabham and I have to thank him for that, because otherwise I could have had trouble to find a place after two such disastrous years."
"Bernie trusted me a lot by giving me the chance to drive for Brabham again. My relationship with him was always very good, and I have to say that he is a friend."
"When he decided to stop with Brabham, he helped me join Williams."
"He couldn't put me in the Williams, because it's not as though Frank does what Bernie says, but he said, 'I think Ricardo is very good, try him, and you will have a good driver.' So I had somebody who was advising Mr Williams to take me."
"I think I got the Williams drive more from what I showed, especially in the Imola test, and, you know, from my career in the past."
"Unfortunately last year we had the problems with the engine at the beginning. Only at the end did we start to be a little more reliable."
Riccardo stayed on at Williams at the end of the year when Nigel Mansell moved off to Ferrari.
Today there is a very different Riccardo Patrese, but how does he think he has changed over the years in F1?
"I think I play the tactics of the races a little bit better then when I was starting," he says. "That comes from experience. I can play a race attacking or I can play a race defending with a much better chance of finishing the race and have the good result at the end."
"It's because I am more relaxed inside the car and I can think a little bit more than when I was young."
Yet he still has the same motivation as when he was the hungry young charger in making his Grand Prix debut at Monaco in 1977?
"Yes. When we have to test new things that are important to make an improvement to the car, I am in that mood. I have to say that in the winter time, I like to test. But when the season is starting and we have to do the races, although I still like testing, I don't like it to excess. You get to be like a discharged battery. You don't have the energy anymore."
"In the winter time you can afford to test a lot, and you can get tired of testing. In the season it's better to test the right amount, not too much, otherwise it can be big trouble."
"Sometimes I need 10 days between Grands Prix, just to recharge the battery. And then when I go back to the next race, I feel the desire to drive the car."
And what about breaking the record for the most Grands Prix starts. Is he proud of that achievement?
"Last year, I was not taking a lot of notice of the record," he says. "When I came to the point to beat the record, I have to say I am quite pleased I did it. Being in F1 for such a long time means that people appreciate what I did during my career. And if I'm still here in a competitive team -- a top runner -- I think it is satisfying."
Looking back which are the high points in his long F1 career?
"Well, I think, the races I won," he smiles. "I have quite good memories of all the teams I worked with. I always had a very good relationship inside the teams and specially with Arrows, Brabham and now Williams. They gave me good times."
And the bad times?
"Well," he says. "I've lost some friends, like Elio de Angelis -- when he was my team mate -- that put me down quite a lot."
"The race in Monza (1978) is also something that I do not like to remember. I think what they did to me was completely wrong, in the way that they tried to punish me and destroy my reputation."
"That was a long time ago and it is hard to change a reputation. But, you know, all the bad things come together to teach you something."
"My career has not really been very level. I had some good years and some bad ones, good results and bad. I think all the troubles formed a good character, a more mature person, who is ready now to be a competitive driver again."
And it's true too. The image of the wild red-misted fiery Patrese is slowly disappearing. He is calmer, more relaxed about life and visibly enjoying himself. He' still highly competitive but less overtly so.
But what about the incidents like that with Julian Bailey in Spain last year. Was that the old red-misted Riccardo again?
"I don't think I was to blame," he explains. "He held me up on a fast lap, I don't know if it was deliberate, but I was angry. The number of times something like this happens in a Grand Prix weekend is amazing. I went past him and slowed down. Really, I was very surprised that he hit me. Of course everyone saw this on television and I was blamed, but I did not do it deliberately, I don't think he was paying attention. Maybe it was inexperience."
"You know," he adds, "I don't have that many big accidents -- not like some drivers. We have many accidents in F1, but I haven't had that many really big ones. There were two: the one with Piquet in Monte Carlo was very spectacular from the outside! Inside the car it did not look particularly bad to me."
"I had the other at Zandvoort, when I didn't have any brakes at the end of the straight. That was bad. You realise that you cannot do anything when you see a wall coming up. You don't know what is going to happen."
"Maybe people criticise me because I am not friendly, but I think that people who know me very well can say the opposite. I am not a person who talks a lot unless I am friendly with the person. That is my characteristic. I don't speak a lot until I start to have a good relationship."
Riccardo was always painted as this petulant Italian enfant terrible. Meeting him for the first time, some years ago, I still remember the surprise that he wasn't at all like that.
He struck me then, and remains today, a charming, rather gentle character. Sure there are times when he does lose his temper and is best not approached -- like after the race at Monaco this year -- but generally he seems perfectly friendly, happy to chat. Not like the image at all.
Interestingly, Riccardo has had very few bad relationships with his team mates over the years. Can he explain that?
"I should say that the only time I had problems was at the beginning with Andrea de Cesaris (at Brabham). We had some problems in the past which we never cleared. When he came to the team, I was a little upset and also again during the season. But things went better and at the end we were working together. When you are in a team you must co-operate with the person who is beside you."
In his career, of course, he has driven alongside some of the great drivers of the modern era, who impressed him the most?
"Everybody impressed me quite a lot," he says. "All of them had different characteristics: perhaps in the way they did qualifying or something. I drove with some very good drivers: Alan Jones (at Shadow), Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Nigel Mansell (Williams)... There was also Jochen Mass when I was with Arrows. We could talk for five hours about them all."
"I got on very well with all of them, really. I have to say that Nigel impressed me a lot for the speed that he has in his hands -- in his way of driving -- and the way he is able to find the very quick lap."
"Alan and Nelson were both strong, they were World Champions... Nigel did not have the luck to win the championship but I think he deserved it."
Riccardo has been racing against some of the present F1 grid for more than 15 years, going right back to the days of karting.
"Yes," he laughs. "The group, I think, was me, Eddie Cheever, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg and... I forget some of the other names."
Those were crazy times?
"Well, we were younger!" he smiles. "I don't know if I was crazy. In karting there was very tough competition, you had to be a little bit tough -- maybe I should say wild -- to win."
"Me and Eddie, we raced together in the Italian national team, competing together with two other guys for the European championship of teams. One was Piero Necchi and the other was Gabriele Gorini. We won in 1973 and 1974. In the World Championship in Estoril at the end of '74, I won the first two of the three heats so I was already World Champion. I helped Eddie to get second place against [Francois] Goldstein. So at the end we finished first and second in the championship!"
Riccardo has always been of a competitive nature. Before embarking on racing, Patrese was a top skier.
"Yes, I was quite good when I was young, until I was 14 or 15 years old," he explains. "In Italy, every area has a local team. I was in the Veneto team. It's like being a county player I suppose. It was the last stage before being on the national team."
"Then, to go further, I had to make a decision to go and live in the mountains with my family -- to have more practice. My family is from the flat country, and they decided that, because of the studying and everything, it was too complicated, so I couldn't really go for that."
"I kept doing ski races until the age of 20. And I think I was good ...but, of course, not good enough to be anywhere near a national skier."
Riccardo still loves skiing and has a house in Cortina in the Dolomites.
"Yes, I still love to ski. I am too old -- at 35 years old you cannot compete with guys of 20 years. I do ski races sometimes -- amateur races -- and I enjoy them very much. In ski races you have categories for ages. At the moment, I just went from senior, which is the worst category -- it goes from 18 to 34 -- and you have to compete against the 18-year olds, to a category that goes from 35 to 40. I am a young skier in this category and, in fact, I get some advantage because I am quite competitive!"
Riccardo's other great passions are less competitive: his family and his model trains.
"I like to spend time with my family and sometimes it is difficult being in F1, but I think I have a good balance now. I see my family and I race. It's good."
And what about his famous train collection?
"I'm not an expert! I am a collector of Merklin trains that were made in a German factory at the end of the 19th century. Now, their trains are very perfect, the shape of the trains is very precise but mainly in plastic. The trains from around 1935, which I prefer, are a quite different style, in light metal. But I like the developments that I have in my collection."
All in all, Riccardo seems to be happy with life. After the ups-and-downs of his career he is now much more stable, much more relaxed.
So how many more years can we expect to see him in motor racing?
"I've been in motor sport for most of my life and I never think about stopping. So I don't know what I would do. I think when I feel that I don't have any more fun, and I don't have the chance to be successful, then I will stop. But I don't think I have reached this point yet!"
Far from it. Riccardo is closer to success now than he has been for many years -- and there is no way in the world he is going to give it up -- even if he has done 182 Grands Prix.
Two hundred and more is not out of the question.