In the 1970s, a young Italian went from entry-level single-seaters through to Formula 3, Formula 2 and then Formula 1 in the space of just over one-and-a-half years. Riccardo Patrese tells his story to Formula Scout
There’s not many racing drivers who can claim to have successfully transitioned from a totally different sport, although Chris Hoy became a European Le Mans Series LMP3 champion after a record-breaking cycling career, but the man who sets the template for all who follow is Riccardo Patrese. And he happens to be the ninth most experienced Formula 1 driver in history.
Patrese skied and swum competitively in parallel to his karting career as a teenager, with the latter culminating in winning the world championship title in 1974. That success didn’t automatically make motorsport Patrese’s long-term future, as he saw little point in continuing karting beyond that point.
But Scuderia Nettuno came calling off the back the karting title and pointed him towards single-seater racing in the form of Formula Italia. The single-spec series used Abarth cars and engines, with a long-nose design and no aerodynamic appendages.
Patrese juggled his maiden car racing campaign with university, not expecting his racing career to go much further without a financial boost, but in finishing second in FItalia behind Bruno Giacomelli he earned the chance to race in F3 for 1976.
“Forget what’s happening now,” Patrese says to Formula Scout, referring to the current junior single-seater landscape.
“I had the offer from Trivellato Racing to come drive for them for the European Formula 3 championship. I accepted it. Of course. Because he [Jacopo Trivellato] offered me to go and race in European F3. Because he trusted me to be good.”
Trivellato had been the Italian importer for racing car constructor March, but for 1976 he defected to Chevron and had factory support to run its new B34 model in FIA European F3 as a one-car entry.
“At the end we did a one-day test at a circuit called Casale Monferrato. One-day test,” Patrese says of his pre-season mileage.
“And we went straight to Nurburgring. The old Nurburgring. It was a bit different to what is happening now that you make, especially in Formula 4, 3000 kilometres in wintertime of testing before racing. It was completely different to [that]. So I had to adapt to the car very quickly. And then on the top of that, the first race was at the Nurburgring. And that was a big challenge, but it went quite well I think.”
Over the April 3/4 weekend, the German and European F3 championships got their seasons underway on the Nordschleife.
The German F3 race ran on the Saturday, meaning Patrese got to rack up some important experience on the 22.84km layout before Sunday’s European F3 opener.
“It was good weather for the German race that was on Saturday, and I managed to finish second that race. Then following that, it was grey, grey sky on Sunday. We started dry, and I went into the lead, and then came a little bit of rain, and I slowed down a little bit because, you know, first race, first moment that I drove the car in wet conditions with slicks. And I finished third. But it was still a good result.”
Patrese had come 0.4 seconds short of victory in his German series cameo, and finished 23.1s behind the winner on Sunday.
“It was good experience, but difficult. But I managed to do it, and I took the car home safe and we got the podium. And the following race we were in Zandvoort and I won. So the start of the championship was good, and even the end was good because I came champion that year.
“We did Nordschleife, Enna-Pergusa, at Monza I won the Lottery Grand Prix, but the guy that won me the lira, never came to thank me. Because of course I was together with the ticket that won, in those days you won 500 million lira, which is like €1 million now.
“The car was the B34, and that was just for F3. And the B35 was for Formula 2, or Formula Atlantic. The car was the same in the European F2 championship or in the Atlantic championship or even in the Pacific, because there was also a championship that was called Formula Pacific. And the same car was used in all of these three championships.
“For sure in those days aerodynamics was very poor, and all the grip came from the tyres and mechanical set-up that you had. In the wet I think it was a challenge, because a lot of [it] was done from the driver. The way that you could adapt to the car, and you could drive in difficult conditions, so let’s say that it was hard work.
“You could change suspension, I mean geometry, roll-bars, shock absorbers, everything you could do – I mean it was free to do everything you wanted [when you were racing].
“You could change springs and rollbars during the sessions. If you had to change the shock absorbers maybe you could change between one to another section. It was quite quick to make adjustments to the car.”
All this set-up variation was the kind of learning that young drivers don’t quite get today in the lower rungs of single-seaters, particularly when so much of the decision-making is done outside of the car and aerodynamics has a greater influence.
“There was [car] development. We did some changes, like we changed I remember the set-up of the shocks,” Patrese adds.
“There was no aerodynamics basically in those days, so not much to do really. Two types of tyres from Goodyear. Two compounds. A softer, and one harder. So we could have it a little bit softer or harder depending on the weather or the asphalt that we got. So there was much less possibility to do things. We are talking F3, not Formula 1.
“Even in F1, when I came in ‘77, if you compare the car that I drove the first year in ‘77, and you compare the car of now, it’s like here to Mars.”
Using the softer Goodyear compound tyre was actually crucial to his season, as Trivellato got hold of the grippier compound for the Vallelunga season finale and it contributed to Patrese taking pole for the first heat race. He went into that round a couple of points behind factory March driver Conny Andersson, and Andersson got ahead of him off the line in their heat.
However drama ensued as the Swede was deemed to have jumped the start and he was handed a one-minute penalty. He therefore spent much of the 10-lap race keeping Patrese behind him – and some would say holding up – in the hope that delaying the Italian would prevent the title from going his rival’s way. Instead, the penalty dropped Andersson to 18th and meant he didn’t get through to the points-paying final while Patrese did and with the title now in his sights.
Patrese finished second in the 32-lap title decider to Gianfranco Brancatelli, enough to match Andersson on dropped scores.
“My big battle was with Conny,” Patrese recalls. “We finished on the same points, but I think I had one more win than him and because of that I was champion.”
It actually came down to third place countback, with both having four wins (Patrese winning the Enna-Pergusa Grand Prix and the Hessenpreis at Germany’s Kassel-Calden airport circuit in addition to Zandvoort and Monza) and two second places. Patrese made the podium’s bottom step twice in points-scoring races, while Andersson only did once.
“So it was really a very tight fight, but there were drivers that were like Bracatelli, sometimes Giacomelli came and drove with the March, but was busy with the British championship. But he came sometimes to drive in the middle of us. Rupert Keegan was there too, there were good drivers.”
It wasn’t only the European title that Patrese won, as in the same race he was crowned Italian F3 champion too.
“Now Mr Trivellato said ‘OK, now you are champion in F3, I give you a F2 to drive’. I said ‘thank you very much’. “
After bringing a lot of eyes onto F3 in 1976, Patrese did the same in European F2 in 1977. He came sixth and fifth in the opening two rounds, leading the Chevron charge, and then came third in Hockenheim’s Deutschland Trophy. After that was the Nordschleife, a circuit he actually knew, for the 205km-long Eifelrennen race.
“I got the pole at Nurburgring, at the beginning of May. I was 2.8 seconds in front of all the rest of the field. And in the field there were F1 drivers like Jochen Mass, Clay Regazzoni, Alan Jones. Because of that, the following Monday I got a call from Shadow, I tested the week after at Paul Ricard. I did 300km, and they said afterwards ‘OK, we go to Monaco and you debut there’, and I was in F1.
“It was not like now that you need the millions and millions and millions to go to F1.”
Patrese ended up retiring on the second lap at the Nordschleife, but once again the impact preceded the outcome. Three weeks later he was racing in F1 aged 23, just two years, one months and 22 days on from his single-seater debut.
“It was the period of [designer] Tony Southgate. It was not the best car in F1, but in those days, and in the end the opportunity came because Tom Pryce was killed in the accident at the South Africa Grand Prix. Because of that terrible accident, there was a free place and they asked me to replace him.”
Patrese drove his Shadow DN8 to ninth on his debut, and he got eight more chances in the car over the rest of the year. He scored his first point in the season finale, the Japanese Grand Prix, then flew straight back to England to complete his F2 campaign. Second places at Mugello, Rouen and Nogaro helped him to fourth in the European standings (while also winning the Italian title), and after that he flew all the way back to Japan to contest the Super Formula finale at Suzuka and won it.
He would remain Asia for the Macau Grand Prix, which ran to FPacific regulations at the time. As described by Patrese, the Bob Harper Racing-run Chevron B40 he drove was a very similar car to what he had stepped up to F2 in.
“In effect, when I drove in Macau in 1977 the car was the same car that I drove in F2 but had a FPacific engine that was a little bit with less power, something like that,” Patrese says. “F2 had 300 horspower, here we had 240-something.”
While the challenging Guia circuit hasn’t changed too much since the 1970s, there were some notable differences.
“The circuit they didn’t change much, but at least now you have the barriers,” Patrese worryingly points out.
“In the first year I went there, there was no barriers. So when we were going up the hill there, for the very fast Esses, I remember that I was doing the walk of the track and there was a small wall about 40cm high, and I said ‘OK, for sure now it can be there’ because maybe it was Monday or Tuesday before the race so [I was thinking] ‘for sure they’ve put a rail or something, because you could see below there were cars, homes, houses.
“Maybe 20 metres [below] that there were houses. So I said ‘ah, for sure they’ll put a rail just for that’. But no, they didn’t put a rail. We raced with only that small wall, and if somebody was touching or going off, we were flying on the top of the houses. So it was also that quite a challenge. In those days, safety was not a big matter. We went, we raced, and [didn’t worry].”
Patrese took pole, and nabbed a cash prize in doing so, then drove one of the most unbelievable and sensational races to win. Alan Jones took the lead at first, but he then had mechanical trouble and was hit by Patrese, which ruined his race further and also sent Patrese to the back of the field. On top of that, the Italian had a lengthy pitstop and was then shown the black flag. He stayed on track though and fought his way back up the order before then lapping his opposition once in the lead.
In 1978 he returned to Macau to become a two-time winner of the grand prix, and cameoed in SFormula (then known as Japanese F2) again too, but he had also already established himself in F1 with Arrows and in sportscars too.
“From the driving point of view F2 was very similar because the F1 aerodynamics was very poor. But a lot more power.
“Because I went in one year I went from the 160hp of the F3 then to the 300 of F2 and the 550 of F1. With the more power the car was moving a lot. But in the end, that was not a big problem. I think if you are good, then you needed to drive everything. A part then of my career I also drove prototypes, endurance races; I won many six-hour and 1000km races. When you are good, you are good [in everything]. With the wheel, in the end [if] you are good you drive everything [too].”
Patrese’s F1 career ran all the way to 1993, and he did the GP Masters series in 2005 and ’06 for ex-F1 stars. Now, he’s following the fledgling single-seater career of his F4-driving son Lorenzo, who has also switched across from another sport.
“I don’t enjoy watching because I suffer a lot,” Patrese admits. “When I look at Lorenzo driving, I suffer. Not because I’m afraid of safety, [but] because you know all the fighting and I would like to see him always at the best if it’s possible.”
That fighting aspect of racing in F4 does get Patrese’s approval, despite the costs of modern entry-level junior single-seaters.
“F4 prepares very well for fighting, you know. Sometimes in F1 you don’t see much fights, here you see a lot of fights. So it’s a logical consequence from karting, because also there you are really having to fight hard. So, in the end, yes [F4 cars prepare drivers well.
“I think the car is very basic, and difficult to drive. The car is quite physical. If you jump to the next step, I think from the driving point of view it’s easier. Because you have more downforce, OK then that doesn’t mean that then you are the quickest, but from the driving side I think when you go the step forward it’s a little bit easier.”
And what of Patrese Jr’s own racing accomplishments? “His start in F4 is promising. He has a lot of passion.
“I never asked him to drive, because he was born as a rider, not as a driver. He’s quite good on showjumping with horses.
“He was in the Italian team in the European championship in France only three years ago. And in karting he started very late compared to the other guys, because he started when he was 11.
“Usually they start in karting when they are seven, eight. My wish was him to go and ride, because I like also myself riding now. But he wanted to drive, so we started with karting, and then yes OK we started with F4, and then you needed to fight because if you want [to race], you need to have budget, because you have to spend money, especially at the beginning. So we will see [where he goes].
“You cannot predict anything from the formula point of view, because from here it is a cost, and then if you go the next step it’s a cost, and then even more and even more as you go. It’s important that he makes good results, I think, and then maybe somebody puts an eye on him.”
The younger Patrese did five races with AKM Motorsport last year in Italian F4, then has returned to the team for a full campaign in 2021. In the Paul Ricard season opener he claimed his first point, and is currently 14th in the standings.
“Let’s say that from the sporting point of view and the agonism, he started when he was seven,” says his father.
“So when he came here, he was already prepared to have pressure and fight for the good result. Especially in horse riding, he was in the national team and he was doing national cup, so it means he was in a team of four riders and he was competing for Italy. So you have also the responsibility to be there for your nation. I think it was taught there to have pressure, let’s say he didn’t start when he started karting from this pressure point of view, he had this already in his baggage.
“Now he has to make a little bit of experience, as normal, because you know for example he still has to improve the start. You can make pole position, but if you don’t start too well then you lose all the advantage you had. So he needs to raise his game, but I think he has a lot of will and a lot of passion, and that is the most important thing. Because it’s not my will that he has to be a racing driver, it’s his!”