“The italian school has won with me…”

How does it feel 24 hours after your maiden victory obtained after 6 seasons in F1? Riccardo Patrese admits that his Montecarlo success has contributed to giving him some inner cool.

by Oscar Orefici

Riccardo followed by Prost & Pironi

MONTECARLO – He wept, inconsolably, on that Saturday afternoon. Riccardo Patrese walked back to the pits, his white and blue helmet in his left hand; it was April the 4th, 1978.

It was only his 11th F1 Grand Prix, at Kyalami in South Africa, and the young driver was hoping to win his first GP, almost a dream. He had reached the top very quickly. After becoming European F3 Champion in 1976, he was already the spearhead of a breed of Italian drivers which had seemed lost forever.

Starting from fourth row, after a third of the race he had already got into the lead, overtaking drivers like Andretti, Lauda, Scheckter, he seemed on his way to glory when, with a few laps to go, the engine of his Arrows let him down.

Shaving the barriers

That was going to be a topic episode in his difficult career, which would have seen further bitterness and disappointment. Others, in his shoes, would probably not have overcome such hard tries.

He could have been destroyed by the heinous moral lynching he had to undergo after the tragic death of Ronnie Peterson, carried out by a jury which was formed not by some kind of sport authority, but by his more famous colleagues.

Then it was the denial, saying no to the top British teams, following the dream of driving for Ferrari. And then more victories vanished due to the unreliability of his Arrows.

“The past" – says Patrese today, after his Montecarlo victory – "cannot be forgotten. This victory, however, is payback for all the efforts done to grab it. I have been lucky, I admit it. But I believe I am still in credit with Lady Luck. Had it not started raining, I certainly would not have caught Prost. In the last three laps any result became possible. But many times I just missed victory, a victory which was well within reach, and it was missed for most trivial reasons. Certainly I would not have won had they suspended the race. We were at the limit. But in Montecarlo they never stop the race. In other two or three occasions it had started raining a little towards the end without the race director feeling compelled to intervene”.

Casino Square

For five long years Riccardo Patrese has waited for his first Formula 1 victory, and it has arrived in the one Grand Prix which is almost regarded as a World Championship. From the moment he crossed the finish line, many overwhelming things have happened: the cry from the crowds, the congratulations from Prince Rainier, the national Anthem, the gala dinner on Sunday evening with the royals. The dance with Princess Grace. But, afterwards, what does remain? Other champions, even from different sports, they’ve asked themselves and the answer was not always positive. Sometimes you can be attacked by a sense of emptiness, like the feat just accomplished did not count anymore.

“No" –Riccardo continues– "that was not my case. I have gone through particularly intense and unforgettable moments. This success, after so many disappointments, has given me an interior balance which I have never experienced before. I consider this victory both an arrival point, and a new start. I hope it has marked a turning point in my career.”.

Exactly 5 years ago in Montecarlo Patrese had his Formula 1 debut. He was then a shy young man, introverted. He would undergo criticism, sometimes harsh, because of his shy character, so uneasy to understand.

"Did I win?!"

“I have changed a lot. I believe" – he says- "I have an entirely different mentality, regardless the search for victory and the will are always the same. I have matured as a man and got more experienced as a driver. But I am still very protective of my private life. That’s just how I choose to live. Can success get to my head? I don’t think so. I have always been faithful to myself, to my beliefs and my friendships, and I don’t see why finishing a race first should turn my life around”.

One day, after having said no to Bernie Ecclestone for the second time having preferred to stay at Arrows while waiting for the nod from Maranello, he said: “A driver’s career depends primarily on his career choices. Fangio owes his five world championships to having always been able to pick the right car”.

“I haven’t changed my mind" – he says – "and I believe that Brabham is the right choice, in terms of potential and organization, despite there being problems related to the double technical path we are following. All the team, right now, is concentrating in developing the turbo and I am more or less running by myself. That’s ok, since the Cosworth powered car is well tried. For another two races Piquet will have the BWM turbo and I’ll have the normally aspirated engine. But when we come back to Europe both Nelson and I will have the turbo. I think it is the right decision”.

Monaco GP winner

No Italian driver has won a F1 race since 1975, but, as for the title, it has eluded Italian drivers since 1953.

“For the time being" – Patrese continues – "I don’t want to think about the title. There are at least seven drivers in for the victory. The championship will be decided in Europe, in the races which will follow the North American phase. We will practically start from scratch. As far as I’m concerned, it will be interesting to check out how our turbo behaves. Obviously I want to become world champion, every driver has this ambition. For the time being I feel it is important to have won in Montecarlo, having reached a goal which seemed bewitched”.

Riccardo has been defined egotist and bullish. But he seems to defy these definitions. Listen to him.

Monaco GP podium

“The most significant point in the Monaco GP" – he concludes –  "is that, apart from my personal victory, there was a more broad success of the Italian school, which is now a reality. Results demonstrate that drivers and cars from Italy are at the top. We are separated by fierce rivalry, but, in the end, we are also friends. The fight with DeCesaris? Come on, with Andrea we had already settled it Thursday evening. When you are under pressure some discussions are normal, or at least let’s say they are likely to happen.”.

Before going to the Nurburgring, for the endurance race with Lancia (“With the Turin bunch I have a good friendship. I like to hang around with them”) he is awaited at the Detroit Grand Prix. And people wonder: can he win again? Will it be him to take on Ascari’s legacy?

Translation by Gionata Ferroni