18th February 1992 by Michael Day
How did you first begin in motorsport?
I started in karts when I was very young, about 8 years old, and I went on with this activity during the summer time. I kept going with karting until the age of 20 when I won the World Championship title in 1974 at Estoril. After that I said OK, I've got to stop this sport and concentrate on my studies. I was at the University of Padua for Political Science. Somebody offered me a drive the following season in Formula Italia. It was like, you know, just to try a new experience but not really thinking that I could be a professional racing driver. I tried one season of this and the results were very good and somebody else offered me a drive in Formula 3, and after that it just came very quickly.
Were you aware of Alan Rees's interest in 1976?
No. I know that mainly in 1977 my chance came because the management of Shadow was not very happy with their other Italian driver, and they wanted another Italian. Probably because I was young and my results were good Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver and Don Nichols decided to get me. All this came from coincidence, they were not happy about Zorzi at the same time I had good results in Formula 2. I was having pole positions and leading races, F1 drivers were coming to F2 to make some races so because of that I think I got a chance.
Was Ferrari an option then? I've read various things about contacts you have had with Ferrari...
With Ferrari I had a contract for 1978 and there was a possibility for me to go there but for some reason we never reached agreement. Because of that, still now, I'm not driving for Ferrari. I was at least four or five times in my career, close to going to Ferrari but we never had an agreement and at the moment I don't know why really.
Are you still looking to drive for them?
Maybe, one day, I'll still have the chance to go there. I'll be very happy to go there.
When you joined Arrows were you expecting to be so competitive so soon with a new team?
I had a lot of trust in the people of Arrows who I knew from Shadow because really the group was the same. I had a lot of trust in Tony Southgate, the chief designer, and when you are 23 years of age they are always very good anyway and you have difficulties to realise that really the potential you have behind you is very good. We led South Africa and were very successful until the problem with Shadow that meant we couldn't use the FA1 anymore.
You finished 2nd in Sweden but there was a lot of criticism of your driving there, and that was followed by events at Monza. What is your view of that now?
Well, I think at the period I was quite shy. I didn't have much relationship with my colleagues, especially the top drivers. Anyway it was difficult to have an open relationship with them and for sure I was trying very hard to get to the top. I have to say that because I was young and was coming from karting and smaller categories, my style was quite aggressive and maybe in Sweden, to defend my position, I tried everything I could. But that was because I was aggressive and young. I think now I'm still aggressive but probably I can play a better tactic and nobody complains.
There's a fine line between blocking people and doing it cleverly...
Yes. I think anyway that it was just the last part of the race, the last 5 or 6 laps. You can accept it if you do that at the end of a race when you have to save second place, especially for a young driver.
You could have won two or three races in 1978...
Mainly the problem was that they had to build a new car very quickly because of the problem with Shadow, and the car that replaced the FA1 was not as good, mainly because it was built in one month I think.
You almost left Arrows at the beginning of 1981 when you could have joined March or Toleman. Why did you stay?
Yes, but I was...I have to say that I was very comfortable. I liked Arrows very much - Alan Rees and the team, it was like being at home, and the team was trusting me a lot so there was a very good relationship. I was prepared to stay with Arrows and not prepared to leave for a team that was not really a top team. I was very happy to stay there. 1981 was not a bad year, especially the first part when we had the Michelin tyres. The car was running very well and at Long Beach we had the pole and led the race. I think that in a way with Arrows I could win some Grands Prix for them but for one reason and another reliability was always a bit of trouble. We were not consistently a top runner but on some occasions we were quite competitive.
There was the tyre 'war' in 1981 when the team had to change to Pirelli...
Yes, exactly. Michelin left us without tyres and we had to make a choice so we went to Pirelli and of course we had to work very hard because they were new to Formula 1.
What were your expectations of Brabham, because that was very much Nelson Piquet's team?
When you go to a new team where there is a driver who has a lot of influence it is always difficult to find your place. When I went to Brabham I had to build my reputation there again as a new boy. There was a nice atmosphere there, I liked Brabham very much because it was an easy atmosphere, the team was very friendly, Nelson was very friendly. I think that when you find an atmosphere like that it is not difficult to get into the team. The beginning of the year was fantastic because I won the race in Monaco and I was having good results. I was third in Long Beach, second in Montreal with the 49, the Cosworth. Then, for the future, we decided to go with the BMW programme and that lost us races because the car was quick but not reliable. When I swapped from the 49 to the 50 the results were not so brilliant. When I swapped to the BMW turbo I was in front of Rosberg and he won the championship. Anyway, it was a good move for the team at least because in 1983 we won the championship with Nelson.
What are your memories of winning your first race at Monaco?
They are very good.
It must have been a remarkable race?
Yes. I think that from the moment Prost crashed I think I had to be the natural winner but it was not so simple! I spun because of the rain, then Pironi went into the lead, then de Cesaris. There was a little bit of excitement and maybe at the end I was a little bit lucky but with all the bad luck I had before I think I deserved it anyway.
You were criticised for almost throwing away the race.
Well, I'd never thrown away a race before because all the races I'd lost were not my fault. South Africa was not my fault, Long Beach was not my fault...
Was this because of 1978 and all the criticism you received then?
I think that the publicity I got after the Monza accident was not good for me and, if I started my career well, after 1978 it was very difficult because nobody was trusting me. Let's say the first part of my career was not easy. When I won in Monaco somebody said that I did something wrong but it was very easy to make a mistake in those conditions. Prost did the same and I think he is recognised as...he was already recognised as one of the top drivers. When I started everybody was saying Patrese is going to the top very quickly and so on. Then, of course, after the Monza accident I went down and I stayed down until, I think, the bottom point was with Euroracing. It was not easy to survive because in F1 when you are not at the top you are not in a good light. I think that maybe outside I didn't have a fantastic image but inside F1 I think I had quite a lot of respect from everybody. When I worked with Arrows, when I worked with Brabham, I always try to make a nice atmosphere around me. Because of that people who were inside F1 knew that, first of all, I was a very professional driver, and also a nice guy let's say. On the outside it didn't always look like that. All this bad image changed in 1986 when I went back to Brabham where I started to go back up again. Bernie wanted to give me another possibility with his team. At the end of 1985 I didn't tell Bernie but I probably couldn't find another drive because I was so down.
Was it your choice to leave Brabham in 1983?
Let's say it was more a push from Nelson because he didn't want to have someone who gave him a hard time. So he pushed Bernie, he was World Champion, to give me such a poor offer that I could not really accept to stay there, especially also from the quality point of view that I had to be number two and never in front of Nelson and that is not racing. Also Alfa were promising me a lot of good things.
They had looked good the previous year...
de Cesaris was finishing second in South Africa, the last race of the year. They had quite good races so I said I'd try this experience but in the end it was not a good one.
At the end of two years with Euroracing what were your options? Were there any open to you?
No. Zero. Only Bernie. I went to him and said "I'm in the shit, what do I do?" He said, "OK fine, I think maybe in 1982/3 I didn't give you the best chance and I want to help you. You can come back to my team next year", and that really was a new challenge - after zero I try to go up. Maybe I started to work harder physically to get more strength and to be more fit. On top of that also the birth of my twin daughters...my private life became a little easier so I said "OK, let's try to go on" and I went on more relaxed, better-prepared and better morale. 1986/7 with Brabham were not fantastic results but you could see there was a progression to the top. Also, thanks to Bernie, I could test for Williams.
It was unusual for you to be allowed to test for another team.
Exactly. This is always Bernie. In the beginning he was my advisor. If I needed to ask advice it was always him. In 1978 he offered me a drive for three years, the same contract he offered Nelson. Because I had signed an option with Ferrari I couldn't accept. I had a piece of paper signed for 1979 saying I had to go to drive for Ferrari. So he offered me a contract but I couldn't sign because the following year I had to go to Ferrari and because of that I lost that opportunity, then Ferrari decided not to take the option...With Bernie I always had a good relationship and again in 1987 he gave me the opportunity. Also he didn't say to anybody but he knew that in 1988 he wouldn't have a team. For sure he said some nice words to Frank and because of that I could get the drive at Williams.
You were generally outqualified by Nigel Mansell in 1988 and yet last year you were on a par with him...
It's the same problem as when I came to Brabham in 1982. You go to a team where there is a driver who is established so you have to make your own room. In 1988 I signed a number two contract meaning I was number two in all aspects. We had the active car for the first part of the season which really was not working very consistently or reliably. Because of that we were doing 3 or 4 laps and then the car was breaking down. Nigel had the opportunity to go to the T-car and I couldn't do anything. I had to stand in the pits looking at the other people going around. Because of that it was very difficult to find my rhythm, my speed and the first part of the season was not competitive. Immediately when we swapped to the conventional system I could have more running and find my confidence. The last three or four races of 1988 I was definitely competitive against my team-mate.
Was there still the same situation when Nigel rejoined last year? Were you still the number two?
No. There was no number one or number two, there were two drivers to win races. My position was very different to 1988 because the trust of the team was now with me and I had my place, and so it was a completely different situation. Of course they had a lot of respect for Nigel because he has driven for them in the past and he's still a top driver, but at the same time I had found my place in the team. From the balance point of view inside the team we were completely equal. You could see, especially at the beginning of the season, that if the material I had was exactly the same l could win races.
The impression from outside it that it is very much Mansell's team.
This is because he says that. He says "this is my team, I am the number one". He said this in many newspapers that he was number one, mainly because he didn't think I could be on the same level as him. In effect he doesn't say this anymore, he says we are equal and the best will win the races. If one of the two is going to win the championship the other one helps his team-mate. I think the fact that all the world saw that I was number two was because he said that but I do not think Frank ever said that.
Interview © Michael J Day