Issue #62 (San Marino GP 1983)
Thirty is a turning point in most people's lives, a time to take stock. The day after the French Grand Prix, we met a Patrese quite unlike his public image. He spoke to us kindly and with insight about his career and his hopes, not to mention a certain contract with Ferrari...
by Franco Lini
We had arranged to meet at the Cafe de Paris, not far from the Monte Carlo casino. I was sitting at a table on the terrace when I spotted them, holding hands like a couple of newly-weds. They were strolling along, totally relaxed, as though they hadn't a care in the world. Riccardo and Suzy Patrese were on their way back from a shopping expedition in Monaco - now their home town. Judging by the number of packages that Suzy was carrying, the trip had been fruitful. As they joined me at my table I asked Suzy whether she had already spent all the money Riccardo had won at Paul Ricard the previous day.
Riccardo cut me short: "Please, let's not talk about unpleasant things," he said. "I'd rather not discuss the race. The engine broke..." Yet another incident to add to Patrese's long catalogue of misfortunes...He's only thirty, but he has been driving in F1 for six years. In that time, he has rarely had competitive cars, and on the occasions when he has, financial or technical problems always cropped up.
"I started in Monaco, with Shadow, when it was going through a bad patch. They had just lost their Number One driver, Tom Pryce, Renzo Zorzi had not come up to expectations and Alan Jones' reputation in those days wasn't what it is today. The car wasn't really competitive. I had a very mediocre season, which was made no easier by the fact I was still racing in F2."
"When Shadow and Arrows split I went with Arrows. This time, I had a good car, but we had to change it half way through the season for copyright reasons, after Shadow won the case they had brought against us. All of which meant we had one month to put together a new car from scratch. Needless to say, it wasn't a great success. I stayed with Arrows for four years, and I liked it. I got on well with the people there, particularly Alan Rees. We had our moments, but ultimately lack of funds curtailed our technical development. It was a shame; we had a good team which could have achieved a great deal given the resources."
The lean times came to an end when Patrese joined Brabham, one of the richest and most competitive teams in F1. Even so, when you tot up the total of Patrese's six seasons in F1, you're left with a single win, last year at Monte Carlo. Fate has not dealt very kindly with Patrese, as he's only too well aware. Take the 1978 African Grand Prix, which he would have won, but for last minute engine problems.
"It's true that I had high expectations at the start of this season," says Riccardo with a touch of bitterness in his voice. "Now I've seen my chances in three races upset by minor mechanical problems. At Rio, I could have come first or second. At Long Beach, I was in position to win, but the engine started to lose power during the thirtieth lap and then it packed up altogether. Then yesterday at Ricard, the water in my engine vapourised. It irritates me that this kind of thing seems to happen to me more often than to other people."
Riccardo pauses for a moment, shifts around in his chair and then continues the story, more relaxed this time. "Listen, I'm glad to be where I am today, even if I did miss a lot of opportunities because of mechanical problems. Last year, I won here at Monaco after holding second position throughout the race; that was one occasion where I had luck on my side. Prost was the strongest. If it hadn't started raining towards the end of the race he would have won it. He left the track, I went into a spin. If it hadn't been for all the incidents in the last lap I would never have won. That day I should have finished second, not first."
Patrese started out in karting before going on to F3. It was a good time for him, when he didn't have to hang about waiting for victories. "I spent six years in karting, including five seasons in international racing. In the final season I won the European Championship. In F3, I became European Champion in my first season. But I don't think it was easy; I had to work and to suffer to get results like that. I set myself targets, and I got there. But I had to fight every step of the way."
All right, it wasn't handed to him on a plate, but at least he was rewarded for his efforts, whereas in F1...
"Let's not exaggerate; my F1 record isn't as bad as all that: one win, four second places, one pole position, several best lap times. Of course I want more. My ambition is to win other grands prix and the world championship. I still need to earn a few more stripes before I'm regarded as being in the running for the title. But Rosberg managed it with a single victory."
Sometimes, a journalist has to provoke, for example by asking whether, after his rapid rise through the ranks both in karting and F3, Riccardo might have run out of energy by the time he got to F1.
"I had my share of problems before joining Brabham. I just hope I get a chance to show you that I'm ready for anything. There are still thirteen grands prix to go, I could still win a few. I haven't given up the hope of winning the championship, you never know. Even if my season hasn't got off to such a good start. It's no joke being fifteen points behind a driver like Nelson; it's a serious obstacle, but not an insurmountable one...Still, if I haven't succeeded in closing the gap by mid-season, I'll help Nelson win the title, as he would if he were in my position."
There's no getting away from the fact that Nelson's results are more convincing than yours.
Patrese's eyes widen in astonishment: "But that's not true. Last year I finished ahead of him on points and on the starting grid I was often in front of Piquet."
You don't have an inferiority complex towards Piquet?
"Why should I have? The results speak for themselves. In '82 I finished the championship with 21 points, while Nelson had 20. And we won one grand prix each. As far as speed is concerned, I think the balance is tipped in my favour. Nelson has been world champion, but from the technical point of view we're treated as equals. It's clear Nelson has the advantage of the prestige that goes with having won the title. But I also feel perfectlycapable of becoming champion. So I've no complexes. What's more, Nelson and I get on like a house on fire, we're friends. I'm ready to help him out whenever the need arises."
Maybe it's the after-effect of a leisurely day's shopping in Monaco, but the Patrese I'm talking to is a very different person from the distant, haughty, cold individual he's often made out to be. He's not the most outgoing of men, that's true. But after meeting him on several different occasions we feel justified in saying that the man and his popular image have little in common. When, for example, he drove in Group C for Lancia Martini at Monza, he was calm and relaxed. How does one explain this change? Has shyness got something to do with it?
"Yes, I am shy. When I first started in F1 people took my reserve for arrogance, which led to a great many problems, the day after the drama at Monza, for example. From that moment on, and mostly because of what the press wrote, people have been hostile towards me. I felt their attitude was unjust and retired even further into my shell. I didn't deserve that kind of treatment."
"But over the last two years, things have changed. I'm not anti-social. It's just that when I'm working, I need to concentrate. At other times, it's different. I'm reserved, there's no denying that, especially with people that I don't know. But with people I see more often, I'm more open. The problem is that I'm stuck with an image, I just can't get rid of it."
The suspicious, mistrustful Patrese?
"Yes, that's it. But if I'm mistrustful, it's as a result of all that I've gone through, especially since Peterson died. Add to that my natural shyness, and you can see why people who don't know me think me arrogant and pretentious."
He says all this simply, calmly, with an air of detachment. This Patrese is very different from the one the public know. He has changed, and not everyone realises it. Maturity, marriage, family responsibilities and a new-found confidence have combined to help change Riccardo's outlook. Which means that he can discuss, objectively, the subject that's inflamed and divided so many Italian F1 fans: "the Ferrari affair."
Three years ago, Riccardo's future seemed very rosy indeed. The Commendatore seemed to want an Italian driver and Patrese seemed the obvious candidate. The Scuderia's last Italian driver had been Merzario just before Lauda arrived on the scene. Enzo Ferrari confided to a handful of Italian journalists that "if an Italian was to drive a Ferrari, it would have to be Patrese." Then, a few months ago, Enzo Ferrari hinted to a journalist that if the contract was never signed it was because of Riccardo's excessive financial demands. "Our budget did not allow us to offer the price he was asking."
Does all this mean that Patrese will never drive for Ferrari?
"Why not? It's been a long time since I last spoke to a Scuderia representative. On that occasion, Ferrari's commercial director to me they had no plans for me. I don't feel bitter towards them, and neither do I think that the Commendatore had a profound reason for not wanting me on his team. If they were to approach me again I'd be glad to talk to them because the Scuderia is still one of the strongest teams there is - in terms of both human and technical potential. And now, I'm an experienced driver."
"I'd pay the closest attention to any offer from Ferrari, as I would to offers from Williams or McLaren. It's true that at the beginning of my career, emotional factors would have played a greater part than they would today. The very name of Ferrari has a unique, mystical power over all young Italian drivers. I never demanded too much money from Ferrari. I simply wanted Ferrari to make me a definite, and precise offer. When he wouldn't, I simply asked for the same sum as I was earning at Arrows, and believe me, that wasn't too much. I signed a rough contract, which was later cancelled. I know I didn't do anything to make Ferrari cancel it. As far as I'm concerned, it's all a complete mystery. I still don't know why Ferrari's attitude towards me changed. I signed the rough contract in 1978, after the South African Grand Prix, and the plan at that time was that I would join the Scuderia in 1980. Later, I was told to wait until 1981. And in 1981, when the time came to sign the contract proper, they asked me how much I wanted. I spelled out to them that the issue was not of paramount importance for me and asked them to draw up an offer. I never got a reply."
"It makes me smile that people think of me as mercenary. Not once during this affair did I make excessive demands. Anyway, from now on, none of this matters any more. If Ferrari contacted me again, I'd be very happy, and if their proposals suited me, I would accept them straightaway. Any professional would behave the same way in the circumstances."
Patrese belongs to that group of professionals who are mindful of their obligations. He has a full diary, what with his F1 and Group C commitments. He looks on Group C as relaxation, after the tensions of F1, even if he's not very keen on long races such as the Le Mans 24 hours. At least in Group C he mixes with a different crowd, more relaxed and easy-going than the folk in F1. And he's among Italians, in an Italian team with Lancia Martini. Quite a change from the British mentality of the Brabham team.
Patrese may not want to admit it, but these races might help change his relations with the Italian public, a public which has never taken him to its heart. That, perhaps, is the secret wound that Patrese is busy trying to conceal from the world.