by Alberto Patrese
Riccardo Patrese is the most outstanding Italian driver in F1 today. He’s very young, being born in Padua 24 years ago, after proving himself one of the best drivers in F2 and in F3 (he became European champion in F3), and he’s amongst the more promising talents in F1. He made his F1 debut in 1977 with the Shadow team; now he’s the #1 driver at Arrows. He finished second in Sweden after getting within reach of victory in South Africa (he had to retire towards the end of the race while he was comfortably leading). Riccardo has an elder brother, Alberto, who works as engineer at Alfa Romeo, who provided this portrait of Riccardo for us.
I have “met” my brother Riccardo for a second time in the pits of the Paul Ricard circuit in France.
I knew it all: the team’s work, the choreographic presence of supporters which orbit around the motor racing world in great numbers; I knew all about the cars, which at that moment were half-dismantled, waiting for setup and tuning; but I was astonished to meet a “different” Riccardo, serious-looking, but confident, busy in a discussion with the team manager; he listens and, in a language foreign to him, is ready to answer; everything around happens as a consequence of that discussion.
I am sure he can see me, and I’m expecting eye contact as a greeting sign; instead, in a little while I realize that, in that environment, I do not exist. My pride is wounded, but soon afterwards I think about how difficult a job can be, a job that leaves no room for any distraction.
We spent together the previous weekend in our country house, to toast to my daughter's fifth birthday. Riccardo wanted to play ball with her and asked me to join in; he chased our two cats around and told us about a certain trip to Japan, and other things which are normally more interesting to the teller himself than to the listeners.
If you force him to talk about motor racing, he does it only briefly and carelessly; when you hear him actually talking of the subject, that’s because he has deliberately chosen to do it, and then he becomes very professional and detailed. I ask myself what room he leaves, outside of the races, with the amount of F1-related problems he has to face, to the rest of his life, his loved ones, his hobbies, his spiritual life. The impression is that whatever moment of pause he has, it is dedicated to defuse a state of high stress. I believe that in his work he has to take very intelligent decisions, and he does it in a surprisingly short time; and yet you can see him giving up if late for a plane or when not finding a taxi.
We often wonder if, had he grown up in a family of musicians, he would have concentrated all his energy on a piano or on some other instrument. But he had a motor racing imprinting: it was like that for my father, and it is the same for me; at home we discuss at length about racing. Here stems the imprinting on his choice and here also stems our enthusiasm and the desire to participate to his success.
Riccardo doesn’t like to feel, in a way, “affectively exploited”, in the same way he is not prone to blowing his own trumpet or exhibitionism. He gladly signs an autograph for a kid, but goes mad at those who try to approach him with the excuse that they saw him grow up. He has patiently accepted the sponsorship duties; who can do without sponsors in his environment?
I wandered around the pits for more than four hours when, dodging a pile of tyres, he walks towards me, stops, eats a sandwich without enthusiasm and stares at me.
“Have you seen the last practice session?”.
“Where were you?”.
“At the Mistral”.
“I’m gonna shorten 5th gear a little . What do you think? Did you take a stopwatch? I’m too slow in that spot, I’m struggling every lap”.
And off he goes, leaving me with the certainty that the advice I could have given him was the best one.
Then there’s the race. There is absolute concentration in the hour before it, and relaxation in the hour afterwards, but his eyes are already pointed towards the imaginary map of the next circuit, the next Grand Prix; he feels it necessary to keep his excitement under control, whether it is due to dismay or to success, people have a thousand questions, journalists come over with their comments and polls, all together forming an overwhelming racing season.
“No, that’s not my job”, I tell myself, but it’s hard no to be enticed by this colourful maelstrom, where all the efforts in the research of perfection are a primary function of the result of that 2-hours race. I wouldn’t say that Formula 1 drivers love the danger, I would say they love reaching the “limit”, the real limit and the technical limit, and the two things together in front of all the rest.
Certainly Riccardo has always loved racing cars because he had been educated in this direction, but it was his own free choice to deliberately take his passion in his hands, to the point that I cannot think of him doing anything else.