Nigel Roebuck Q&A in Autosport 15th May 2002
Riccardo was a driver I much admired, and a bloke I like very much - but it wasn't always so...
Absurd as it seems now, for much of Patrese's career, I resolutely avoided contact with him, this the consequence of a brief conversation we had at Zandvoort in 1979. He had crashed (brake failure) at the end of the pit straight in what Jackie Stewart would call, "A fairly important way", and when I later asked him what had happened, he gave me advice not only anatomically impossible, but also, I thought, bloody rude. That being so, I made a similar suggestion to him, and stalked off, siding with those who thought him a brat.
Thus, we had one those ridiculous 'situations', and it persisted until Patrese joined Williams in the late eighties. "Look," Ann Bradshaw, the team's PR said to me one day, "I love you both, and it's stupid you don't talk to each other." In the motorhome Riccardo and I shook hands, exchanged apologies, and were good friends ever after.
"I think," he said, "that maybe I often used to behave like that in those days. Everyone thought I was arrogant, but the truth was that I was shy. I was very young still, and didn't know any of the other drivers very well. And I must admit, I was very intense..."
Disliked, too. Riccardo was one of those young drivers very quick from the outset, and he frequently drove over his head in those early days. But what affected him more than anything was the multiple accident at Monza, in the autumn of 1978, which cost the life of Ronnie Peterson.
In the subsequent hysteria, other drivers judged Patrese culpable for the chain reaction disaster, which occurred within seconds of the start. At the time it seemed not to matter that the blame lay plainly elsewhere; this upstart had been disconcerting them all season long, and was a natural whipping boy, who needed to be taught a lesson. If Patrese's entry for the next race, at Watkins Glen, were to be accepted, they said, they would not take part. Thus, they effectively had him banned for a race.
"It was because they didn't like my attitude over the season, but by timing it when they did, it looked as if they were punishing me for the Monza accident. Psychologically, I had no problem with that, because I knew it hadn't been my fault. But it took a long time to forget how the other drivers treated me..."
Years later, one of them told me that this was the only incident in his career of which he felt truly ashamed. It had been a witch hunt, nothing more or less, and one of the loudest voices, sad to say, was that of James Hunt. To the end of Hunt's life, the rift between himself and Patrese was never repaired.
World Kart Champion in 1974, Riccardo came into F1, via F3, with Shadow in 1977, and spent years - too many years - with Arrows, then as now a fringe team. Bernie Ecclestone was always a fan, and tried to get him to Brabham in 1979, but at that time Patrese was starry-eyed about Ferrari, and declined to sign long contracts, so as to be free to accept The Offer, which was constantly promised, ultimately never delivered.
In 1982, finally, he committed himself to Brabham, winning his first Grand Prix at Monaco and his second, the following year, at Kyalami. For 1984, though, Ecclestone unfathomably chose to replace him with the terminally overrated Teo Fabi, and Riccardo, against his better judgement, signed for the Euroracing Alfa Romeo team. Two seasons in the deep wilderness followed.
"The cars were hopeless, and I was so angry about it that, by 1985, it was beginning to affect my private life. I can remember one day saying to myself, 'Hey, Riccardo, you have to do something.' I mean, I was not smiling at all! It was a turning point in my life. I changed my approach, my mentality, everything - and I still don't know how I made myself do it. After that, life became easier."
Bernie Ecclestone has been really close to very few drivers, but Patrese was one of them, and he went back into the Brabham fold for two more years. "It was lucky for me that Bernie and I were friends. Even though he decided to give up being a team owner in 1987, he recommended me to Frank Williams..."
So began the most productive relationship of Riccardo's career. "When I went to Williams," he said, "it was like a camera which had finally come into focus." Over time everyone in the team became very fond of him, not least because he established an excellent technical rapport with Patrick Head - not least, either, because he was so much easier to live with than Nigel Mansell, who returned to Williams in 1991. Rather more of a team player, too.
"You call Riccardo up," said Head, "ask him to test at a moment's notice, and he'll say fine, no problem, I'll be there. He's not a selfish man, that's the point, which is quite rare in a racing driver. His ego's under control, too. Which is also quite rare..."
Speaking of egos, in 1991 Mansell said this of his team-mate: "I take Riccardo's speed this year as a great compliment to me." Er, how so? "Well, because I'm the only one who can motivate him." Ah, yes. Had Patrese been inclined to return the back-handed compliment, he might have suggested that perhaps Mansell had overdone the motivation: that season it was not until Silverstone, after all, that the great man managed to out-qualify him...
As it was, Patrese always tolerated Mansell's excesses with admirable fortitude. And although the Williams-Renaults were not conspicuously reliable in '91, Riccardo had a very fine season, with four pole positions and a couple of victories, in Mexico and Portugal.
While not on the same page, week in, week out, as a Senna or a Prost, when the mood was on him Patrese was a magnificent racing driver, and my abiding memory of him will always be final qualifying at Estoril that year. Early in the session his own car blew up, and his behaviour was pure Latin theatrical as he stomped back to the pits. There the spare Williams sat, but, under the terms of Mansell's contract, it was for his use alone. Not until the last five minutes of the session, when Nigel clearly wouldn't need it, was Riccardo permitted to climb aboard.
There had been no opportunity for set-up work, merely an educated guess or two, and the Renault V10 was of an earlier, less powerful, type, but Patrese had ire and adrenalin to spare that afternoon; after a single warm-up lap, he shoved Senna, Berger and Mansell aside, and put himself on the pole. "That was good, wasn't it?" Patrick Head beamed afterwards, and he was even sunnier the next day, when Riccardo won the race.
The following year, though, Williams went 'active', and although their performance advantage was stupendous, Patrese was less at his ease, and rarely now on terms with Mansell. "I admit I prefer passive cars," he said, "because they have so much more feel. Nigel either has more bravery, or less imagination, or both..."
He finished second to Mansell in the World Championship in 1992, and then left for Benetton, with whom he had signed when it seemed certain that Frank would run Prost and Mansell the following year. Almost as soon he had put pen to paper, Riccardo learned that Mansell was quitting F1, and that he could have stayed, after all.
"That's life, isn't it?" he shrugged. "Two weeks after I signed with Benetton, there was a chance for me to stay with Williams, but I said, 'No, Riccardo, if you have signed something - or even given your word - that's it.'" Sadly, Benetton behaved rather differently when it came to the second year of his contract, and at the end of a disappointing '93 season, partnering the youthful Michael Schumacher, he had to accept that his 256-race F1 career was at an end.
There were only six victories, fewer by far than might have been predicted when he blitzed into Grand Prix racing in the late seventies, but I'll warrant that Patrese got more pure pleasure from his racing life than any of his more highly-touted colleagues. In a paddock, particularly after his 'transformation' in 1985, he was patently a happy man.
Away from it, too, thanks to the divine Suzy and their three kids, to whom he was devoted. It was never in Riccardo's nature to be flashy - no private jets or helicopters for him - and nor was he greedily obsessive about money, which also stood him proud of your average meeting of GPDA members. "I know other drivers make much more than I do," he would say, "but I can make a good life from what I earn, and I think what Frank pays me is correct for a driver of my record." Team owners dream of folk like this.
Perhaps, on reflection, Patrese left F1 at the right time, for he had little in common with the average grand prix driver of the nineties, preferring Beethoven to the inevitable 'Phil Collins and George Michael', and devoting himself, as well as to golf and skiing, to unusual hobbies, like collecting classic watches and rare Marklin model trains. Although he kept an apartment in Monte Carlo, in reality home was always Padua, where he was born, where he went to university.
You can tell a lot about a driver, I have found, from talking to his mechanics, and among them Patrese was always adored, not least because he never took them for granted. Grand Prix drivers are traditionally slow when it comes to reaching for their wallets, but in Adelaide every year Riccardo would treat the entire team - Williams and Renault personnel – to a memorable end-of-season dinner. Folk remember these things.
It was a sign of the team's affection for him that Patrese was invited to have a run in the Williams-Renault FW18 in the autumn of 1996. Tanned and fit as ever, Riccardo savoured the experience, and proved he could still do this, eventually setting a time which would have qualified him in the first couple of rows at the British Grand Prix.
I briefly wrote about it at the time, and later a letter of thanks came chattering over my fax. Unlike some, Riccardo Patrese will always be one of those guys you hope you'll run into in the paddock at Imola or Monza or wherever. Silly now to think how long we avoided each other...
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission