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AutoSprint #44 November 2003
Interview by Michele Merlino
Seventeen seasons in the top racing category from 1977 and 1993: Riccardo Patrese can really assess different F1 eras.
What was your approach with F1? What aspects of it caused you most difficulties?
My first F1 car was the Shadow I drove for a few GPs in 1977 while I was participating to the F2 championship, this being my priority. What I found more difficult was going from 300 bhp to cars which had 500 bhp. We are talking of an era in which aerodynamics were not very effective and 200 extra bhp were a problem. It wasn’t as easy as now to move from minor formulas to F1.
How did you manage the car setup?
Regulations were almost entirely limited to springs, suspensions and bars…
Was it hard to drive a whole GP with those cars?
No, not in 1977, because we did not have a lot of grip and the cars were rather slippery. It became tougher afterwards, already in 1978 the Arrows incorporated some of the wing-car concepts. Things got complicated due to the lateral and frontal Gs. The turbo era made it even worse, because those engines were quite abrupt in releasing their power and they were not easy to drive. A constant problem, at the time, was the fuel load at the start, which, with the Cosworth, was about 180 litres, but with the Alfa Romeo in 1984-85 reached 240 litres! With that load the car became like a truck to drive, nowadays, with 2-3 refuelling pit stops, you start with 60-70 litres and, thanks to the fact that you have power steering and other similar mechanisms, it’s not so hard anymore to turn your wheel. Race strategy was also different, since you had to preserve the tyres, the engine, the brakes...it was mentally more complicated. Today drivers must be at 100% all the time, they run as they were doing qualifying laps and they don’t have to think about anything else: turn and brake, the car does the rest. Since the end of the 70ies until the arrival of the semi-automated gearbox instead, you had to be very careful when shifting gears because you could break the engine, or you may be overtaken because you missed a gear...not everyone could drive a F1 car. A driver from a minor formula was not even considered for driving a F1, if he did not have such qualities that could make him considered a future champion. Today you can take any driver, put him in a F1: he cannot do too much damage: you can’t break an engine due to a driving error, you just have to avoid spinning off, but that also is an old problem: electronics control the power distribution, a factor which, in the past, would make the difference between drivers.
Do you think the show is suffering for this?
Well, no, I think the show is good! This year the championship was a real fight, with several drivers involved. Then we had the Silverstone GP with lots of drama and overtaking. I could go out and say ‘ah, it really was so much better in my time’, but in truth there already were GPs with very little overtaking and periods in which one team would dominate and there was not much of a show: I’m thinking of McLaren in 1988 or, going further back, of the Lauda and Regazzoni years at Ferrari. I am not so drastic to say that today it’s not spectacular anymore, so long as there’s a variety of drivers and teams battling for the title, with victory only coming in the final stages, I am having fun. Sure, it’s a different way of racing, today it is easier to drive, but the values are still respected. A fast guy today would have been fast in my time as well, and vice-versa.
Maybe now the whole thing is a bit more predictable. All circuits are well known due to the amount of testing done, and until the 90ies you had street circuits…
It was just an extra factor which made it more difficult. Look, Piquet did not like street circuits, but he won three world championships. What has changed is the level of hazard: forty years ago the hazard in driving F1 cars was very high, nowadays it is minimal. I mean, it is good that safety has improved, but I don’t think today’s drivers are having the same fun we had twenty years ago; because back then there was a further challenge, like tackling the historical corners which now have disappeared. At Monza we had the two Lesmo corners. To be fast there, you had to do the second one in 5th gear, no excuses, now it’s done in 3rd gear, after a good braking. In order to evaluate drivers, you would go sit at Lesmo and listen, those who would keep down, and those who’d lift. A pleasure for the spectators and for the drivers alike: how many could claim they were doing the 2 first corners at the old Interlagos circuit in top gear, flat out at 280 kmh without lifting, with a 70ies car? Where can you find, nowadays, a corner like that? If back then drivers were called “the cavaliers of hazard” now they’ve become “the hazard managers”, they know that, whatever happens, they will pull it off 99%.
In which part of the driving has electronics become more dominant?
First telemetry, then the gearbox, then traction control and, even more deeply, the suspension management, culminated in the 92-93 Williams.
Those Williams were the maximum level of automation in F1 Did you feel your driving abilities were dimished?
Frankly no. True, like nowadays F1 it was much easier to drive, and this enables more drivers to have a go at F1, but I did not feel diminished of my qualities, maybe because I had driven more primitive cars, I felt I could tackle any F1. I was not annoyed; I actually liked to have such an advantage. In particular the active suspensions, which greatly increased the car’s grip: in ’92 we dominated the championship.
Which car did you find more satisfying in terms of the pleasure of driving?
Two cars: the Brabham 49D, with which I won my maiden GP at Montecarlo in 1982, then the Williams FW14 in 1991, without the active suspension, which in terms of driving was more pleasant than the active car in ‘92.
Thanks to Carlo Fiorentini