The three decades driver.
It takes a certain amount of skill and luck to achieve longevity in one of the most cut-throat sports in the world. Formula One rarely goes a season without a new face brought in, and a not so old face jettisoned in the pursuit of success. To last an 18 race season is a success. To last 50 races is a great success. To bring up a century is remarkable. Then there is Riccardo Patrese, whose longevity was, for a long time, unparalleled. Patrese lasted 256 Grands Prix across three decades, making his debut in 1977 and seeing his final chequered flag in 1993. Only five drivers have competed in more races all but two after Patrese had retired in an era with more races a season than ever before.
256 Grands Prix gains you a lot of respect in the paddock, but it wasn’t that easy for the Italian to shake off an early reputation. When he made his debut in 1977, Patrese was seen as quick but unruly, and a liability to himself and others. Unfortunately, in a time where deaths on track were a genuine and likely possibility, being unruly was a big problem. A major crash in Italy, which cost the life of Ronnie Peterson was blamed on the young Italian, particularly by James Hunt, and it took his reputation a while to recover. His pace was never really in doubt, though. He led at South Africa in 1978 in the new Arrows Team’s second race. However, first place on the rostrum eluded the young Italian until his time at Brabham in 1982.
That win in 1982 was at Monaco in what many people see as one of the most bizarre races in the history of the sport. Rene Arnoux in the Renault turbo led the race early before spinning and stalling on lap 14. That left his teammate Alain Prost in the lead. Prost controlled the race until, with two laps to go, it started to rain. Coming out of the harbour chicane, shallower and quicker than today, Prost lost control and hit the barrier. So, with two laps to go, Riccardo Patrese found himself in leading the race. It was at this point that the real madness began. Patrese spun going down to the Loews hairpin and ended up facing the wrong way. Didier Pironi in his Ferrari inherited the lead, only to run out of fuel coming out of the tunnel. Alfa Romeo’s Andrea De Cheseris should have gained the lead, but he also ran out of petrol. Amazingly, It looked like Williams’ Derek Daly was going to win, but he stopped with a broken gearbox. So, after reversing down the hill and getting his Brabham going, Patrese gingerly rounded the final few turns to win the race. His first in Formula One. Amazingly, as he crossed the line, Patrese had no idea he had won and when he was told he was as shocked as anyone.
Even though he took such a bizarre win, his inconsistency was costing him. He threw away the 1983 San Marino Grand Prix but put in a flawless display in South Africa. Regardless, at the end of 1983, the Championship winning Brabham team dropped him.
He found a new home at the very uncompetitive Alfa Romeo team with his top-level F1 career seemingly over. While he put in decent performances with Alfa, the car was just too poor, all too often running out of fuel and robbing its drivers of Championship points.
He was given a second chance at Brabham in 1986, but by that time the team was a shadow of its former self. It had a very powerful BMW engine, but the engineering was not good enough to compete. Patrese, too his great credit, never criticised the team and always acted in a professional manner, putting to bed his early career reputation and gaining respect from all in the paddock.
Patrese got another chance at a top team when he replaced the injured Nigel Mansell in the Williams at the end of 1987 and joined the Englishman permanently in 1988. ’88 was a poor season for the team, hampered with uncompetitive Judd normally aspirated engines compared to the turbo-power of Ferrari and McLaren. 1989 saw Williams get V10 Renault engines to make them competitive again. Even though he took no wins, Patrese finished third in the Championship. He finally took his third Grand Prix win in 1990 at San Marino.
1991 saw the return of Nigel Mansell after two seasons at Ferrari, and Patrese was relegated to a genuine number two driver. Still, he took two wins in ’91 and out-qualified the Brit at every race in the first half of the season. He even swallowed his pride and gladly helped Nigel’s championship bid in Italy and Portugal per his contract.
1992 saw Patrese’s diplomacy about being second driver put to the ultimates test. He always answered questions on the topic with “no comment” and gifted Mansell a win at the French Grand Prix by moving over. He took six second-places that year won in Japan. Williams and Mansell took the title as a reward for Patrese’s selflessness, team play, and ability.
In 1993 he joined Benetton with young teammate Michael Schumacher but was unable to match the German. He left Formula One at the end of that year. In 1994 he was invited to rejoin Williams to take the place of Ayrton Senna after the great Brazilian’s fatal accident but declined.
There was a lot of luck in Patrese’s long career. After his failures at Brabham and his step down to Alfa, it could have been the end. But he rebuilt his career and got a final chance at the big time with Williams, which he duly took. His team-play, diplomacy, and professionalism were standouts in a career that saw many great drivers come and go but he remained as part of the very fabric of Formula One across three of its most competitive decades.