Interview by Giulio Schmidt
Riccardo, if all goes right, 1982 should be for you the season of your “confirmation”. Shall we look back at your past and confess little and big secrets?
Ok, I’m ready!
I was born in Padua , on 17th April 1954, Aries.
You are a first son?
No, I have an elder brother, 13 years older than me. His name is Alberto, he’s an engineer, works atAlfa Romeo. He is married, has an 8 year old girl, Francesca, lives in Milan and he is a fanatic of model cars.
Tell me about your parents...
My mother’s name is Elena Zorzati. She’s from Padua . She was a second grade teacher, teaching literature. I think she was good. 5 years ago she retired. She’s very active, despite being over 60 years old.
And your father?
My dad Mario is a bit like me, lean, a lovely character, but methodical, precise, in his work. He is older than mom. He is a dealer in the food industry. He is also from Veneto , from the town of Badia Polesine . The Patrese family was formed 42 years ago, at the Duomo di Padova.
None, we lived normally with no such worries.
You have a scar on your face, under your lower lip. What happened?
I cut myself, as a child.
Did you grow up happy? Had a good childhood?
I think so. My brother, Alberto, was almost a second father to me, he always followed me with love, and he still does, his counselling is precious to me.
Whom did you get your passion for cars from?
Certainly not my mother, she was all against motor racing, until a short while ago. My father, and my brother, both were passionate about cars.
Did you play with toy cars?
Yes, and toy trains too...
Which schools did you attend?
Secondary school in Padua . I am now a university student, studying political sciences.
University which, I presume, you are neglecting...
Since 1973 I have only passed 8 exams in total. But I have not lost all hopes. I would like to get my degree.
When did you become interested in motor racing?
Well, at the beginning I was not so interested. I liked the races, but I was not madly in love. My brother, instead, he had a real passion. At 19 he bought himself a kart: and I started climbing on it, a curious 6 older. The decision of racing in karts only came 10 years later.
And in the meanwhile what sports did you practice?
Skiing, and swimming. I was also quite good, you know? I raced in skiing from 6 to 20 years old. In northeast Italy I was quite highly rated, I had a good rating also in the national standings. I was good in super G and slalom. In the summer, I raced in the swimming pools. I loved it. From 10 to 15 I was in the Rari Nantes Patavium team, I was swimming with Novella Caligaris*. I was doing freestyle, then moved to backstroke for the relay races. My times were not bad at all.
So why did you quit? Could you have become a swimming champion?
I think so, but you know how things go. We were some 15 guys, all good friends, we lived and played in the swimming pool. When the team parted, I lost interest. In the meanwhile, I was getting more and more interested in kart. I couldn’t do everything. I had to choose, swimming or karting. You know how it ended...
It ended with Riccardo Patrese karting world champion. It was in 1974, right?
Yes, at Estoril, in Portugal . I remember I beat, amongst the others, also Prost.
How long did you race in karts?
RP: Many. Professionally from 1970 to 1974.
Who were the other Italians?
I don’t remember them all. Necchi, Gorini, Mombelli, Cheever, Gabbiani e Rovelli, these were the more competitive ones...
Did you start getting paid for racing in that period?
A little. Two or three millions**. In those days it was a little something.
At 20 years old you crossed the bridge, from kart to a real racing car. Was it easy?
Still today I have to thank Scuderia Nettuno from Bologna , which offered me a car to race in the Formula Italia series. Moreover, the Italian karting federation had assigned me a second car, so I was in an optimal situation.
However not everyone agreed back home, right?
My brother Alberto did, of course. My father pretended to be neutral. My mother would not have any of that. I the end, I convinced her. I was just going to do one year in Formula Italia...
In Formula Italia you met Giacomelli, who beat you.
Easy there. Giacomelli won the championship, but I gathered more points than him. Fact is, he won 5 races, I won only 3. I gathered a lot of pole positions and lap records.
While you raced in Formula Italia, Eddie Cheever migrated to the UK to race in F3 and Formula Ford; Piero Necchi and Beppe Gabbiani stayed in karts, joined by Elio de Angelis, Prost, instead, had moved to Formula Renault. In a way, Cheever had been the fastest of all of you to progress, don’t you think?
I don’t know. In ’76 he raced a March, with a Lancia V6 engine prepared by Brambilla, he never qualified.
Let’s go back to Patrese. What happened in 1976?
I asked myself, why not try a F3...
She got involved by then, she started believing in it.
With Formula 3 you encountered your first difficulties. You were young, talented, but not everyone wanted you.
I knocked at many doors. Osella’s and Pavanello’s remained shut. I was lucky to meet Trivellato, who had just divorced from March and was preparing a brand new Chevron. He and the sponsor Stebel had faith in me. It was an extraordinary season. I won, in one go, two championships, the Italian and the European one. In Italy I duelled with Piercarlo Ghinzani, in Europe , with Brancatelli and Anderson.
He had moved to British F3. We met at Montecarlo and at the Gran Premio Lotteria at Monza .
At Montecarlo, Giacomelli beat you...
Yes but at the Lotteria I had my revenge, so, in 1976, between me and Bruno, 1-1.
And both of you, in ’77, moved on to the European Formula 2 championship.
Yes, always with Chevron and Trivellato. We were fast from the start. At Silverstone I got a point. At Thruxton I was leading but I had a tyre puncture, finished 5th. I was leading also at Nürburgring, but I spun off on wet track. In the European Championship, I finished 4 times second: and 4th at the end of the championship. It was quite a good season. I remember Arnoux, Pironi, Cheever, Daly, Zunino, Hoffman and Giacomelli.
The decisive race, for your Formula 1 career, was the Nürburgring, right?
In Formula 2, in that year, we had also a few F1 drivers competing. At Nürburgring, I scored a splendid pole position. I did 7’15”. 3 seconds faster than Jochen Mass, 4 seconds ahead of Clay Regazzoni. That fast lap was my business card to Shadow, which was looking for a driver to substitute Renzo Zorzi.
I still remember your Montecarlo debut, everybody predicted you would not even qualify, instead...
I had never driven a Formula 1. At end of practice, I was 15th fastest. I finished the GP ninth. What a great pleasure! And already that year I conquered my first point, in Japan . But I cannot forget Montecarlo for another reason...
The day before the Monaco race, on 18th May 1977, my son Simone was born.
Let’s mention Ambrosio, the Shadow sponsor, the “enfant prodige” of international finance who ended up in jail...
When I met him at Shadow, in the UK , I did not even know who he was. I certainly had not done any research. Ambrosio was very correct towards me.
What is your judgement of Ambrosio?
I just said. As far as I am concerned, he was very straight. I remember him very lively and active. He did not look like the Formula 1 type, but he was getting there. Certainly he wanted to stay in F1.
And then came Arrows. How did the things really go?
Already at the end of 1977 there was a general bad mood inside the team, no one liked Nichols anymore. The divorce was at a certain point the natural thing. In that period, my team mate was Alan Jones. Arrows preferred Patrese, Jones left.
And you refused, at that time, a proposal from Frank Williams. Had you accepted...
True, Williams contacted me. But, at that time, there was no difference between Williams and Arrows. Frank, I remember him very well, said: “I want either you or Jones, who comes first gets the drive”. I was not sure, I had the Arrows proposal: Jones instead was free, he had nothing in his hands.
I repeat: had you accepted...
It’s easy to say that now.
Did you regret that choice?
Truth is, in the key moments of my life, I was never very lucky. I always got someone or something standing in my way. That engine giving up in Southafrica, 14 laps to finish, when I was leading comfortably. Or Lauda’s fan in Sweden . It’s not right.
And with Enzo Ferrari? It was not a happy-end love story. Come on , tell us...
In ’78, just after the Southafrica GP, I got a call from ingegner Ferrari. The meeting was in Modena , at the Scuderia Ferrari headquarters. Ingegner Ferrari wanted to know me, to make a first contact.
I got a second call, towards the end of ‘78. Ingegner Ferrari told me he could not have me the following year due to force majour. But I was first in the waiting list.
Did you sign a pre-contract with Ferrari?
Yes, in April 1978.
Did you get them to pay you, when Ferrari could not follow up to the pre-contract...
No, no. Look, I had nothing to do with the decision. They called me at Maranello, and first thing they wrote me a check, saying “here’s what we owe you”, then I met Ferrari. This I want to be clear.
In the meanwhile you also received an offer from Brabham...
Yes, but they offered a 3 years contract, same as they did with Piquet later, and I was dreaming to drive for Ferrari one day.
But at Brabham you would not have wanted to be Lauda’s second driver. Think about it. At the end of that championship the Austrian retired...and you would immediately have become their first driver, and maybe in 1980, you would already have clinched the title, maybe you would not have made Piquet’s mistakes, maybe...
Maybe maybe maybe...I told you, in the decisive moments, what at the time seemed like the right thing, revealed to be wrong.
In ’78 you were also contacted by Alfa Romeo, right?
Yes, just before the Gran Premio d’Italia at Monza . Nothing concrete. I talked a lot with Corbari, very little with ingegner Chiti. But let’s make this clear, I stayed at Arrows not as a last resort, but because I did like the team, which by then I knew in all its pros and cons.
Let’s go back to Ferrari, because the story of Patrese racing for the prancing horse sooner or later has kept all of us in suspense. Tell us!
At the end of ’79, I met again with ingegner Ferrari. Basically, he said: “look, Patrese, the team has done very well this year”. I lost all faith, but I saw the light again in march 1980, when I received a request: “Patrese, how much do you want to race for us in 1981?”. I was given 24hrs to respond. It was not a difficult response. “It’s not a question of money. You make your offer”. No, I had to do the first step. In the end I said: “the same money I’m making now, nothing more”. I went to the Southafrican GP with high spirits. When I came back, at Ferrari they told me: “Consider yourself free, Patrese. We cannot guarantee you a seat”. End of story.
And then came Pironi. At the end of 1980, Alfa Romeo springs up again. Why did this deal not work out?
I don’t know. Ingegner Chiti called me at the Autodelta, before the Italy GP at Imola. I was committed to accept the offer. But Alfa opted for Andretti.
Right, by then you already had received a second offer from Bernie Ecclestone...
And not only from Brabham. As you know, Ragno wanted to enter Formula 1. With Ecclestone we could not conclude, at the time, due to issues with sponsor surface on the car. In the same time I lost the contract with March, it was Robin Herd’s fault, and same happened with Fittipaldi and Tyrrell. With Toleman I almost signed. With Osella, instead, I never had a contact. In the end I stayed at Arrows for another year. Now I’m finally at Brabham.
And here we close a chapter of your life; another one is opening up, possibly happier and more successful.
Hang on a second. I must remind you one thing. I have no regrets. I always did what I felt was right to do. I was convinced of my decisions. If things then did not turn out right...well right now I tend to be more philosophical about it, more fatalist.
Furthermore, we must not forget about what happened at Monza in ’78, a story that certainly did not help you.
Let’s not mention that. That story is finished.
They all said you were a difficult driver to deal with. Why?
You mean my relationship with the journalists. Yes, they did say so, but now things are better. Maybe I’ve changed too.
And they said you were arrogant and unpleasant.
I was shy, they called it arrogant. I tried to mind my own business, alone, that made me called unpleasant. I never was too friendly with people I don’t know.
Have you ever felt fear?
A driver cannot afford fear. If you had it, it would be a terrible agony. Of course there are tense moments while you’re in the cockpit. It’s not fear. It’s strong adrenaline bursts.
As a man and a driver, do you always say the truth?
Rather than lying, I prefer not to speak.
How are you in everyday life?
I decide what I want to do. And I go straight. I go all the way.
And how is it being a dad?
Simone is a beautiful reality. He is a beautiful child, a little tubby, at four years old he’s already 18 kilos. A little shy, maybe, like his dad.
Translation by Gionata Ferroni
* Novella Caligaris: Italian medallist at the Munich Olympics in 1972, 1 silver and 2 bronze. Then 800m freestyle World Champion. Set 21 European swimming records. Retired at 19 years old. She’s same age as Riccardo.
** Millions Lire, of course. Equivalent to approximately a thousand UK pounds.