Nigel Roe­buck’s mem­o­ries of Pa­trick De­pailler

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

IN TO­DAY’S FOR­MULA 1 WORLD I THINK

of Kevin Mag­nussen as some­thing of a throw­back, in terms of his at­ti­tude to rac­ing – like Stirling Moss, he thinks dan­ger an in­gre­di­ent es­sen­tial to it – and to life it­self: if Mag­nussen re­minds me of any driver from the past, it is Pa­trick De­pailler, a throw­back even 40 years ago.

Like all his fel­lows, James Hunt was fond of De­pailler, but told me once of his be­lief that Pa­trick had car­ried a death wish. “Look at the way he lived his life – rid­ing big mo­tor­bikes with­out a hel­met, all that sort of thing. Pa­trick seemed to need to find risk in ev­ery­thing.”

While De­pailler was never a man to give a thought to safety – in mo­tor rac­ing or any­thing else – still I couldn’t go along with Hunt’s sug­ges­tion, and nei­ther did Nick Brit­tan, De­pailler’s man­ager for many years. “No, no, far from it. Pa­trick loved life more than most peo­ple – but what he did, he ac­cepted the in­evitabil­ity of death.”

De­pailler was killed in a test­ing ac­ci­dent at Hock­en­heim in Au­gust 1980. As he turned into the fa­bled, flat-out Ostkurve, his Alfa Romeo’s front sus­pen­sion broke, and the car was pitched head on into, and over, a guardrail. Pic­tures of the ac­ci­dent scene were more than usu­ally poignant: bits of shat­tered car ly­ing across catch fenc­ing folded up neatly be­hind the guard rail, in readi­ness for the Ger­man Grand Prix, a week hence. No one thought to erect it for a mere test.

Safety in mo­tor rac­ing was light years from what we have to­day, but if I dis­agreed with Hunt’s the­ory about a death wish, so I al­ways doubted that De­pailler would sur­vive the sport he so much loved. Brit­tan con­curred: “He knew he floated right out to the edge – and I think he knew it was go­ing to hap­pen one day. Re­tire­ment never crossed his mind.

“Pa­trick was like a pro­fes­sional com­bat sol­dier – he was the near­est thing to a sort of au­to­mo­tive SAS man, and peo­ple like that, you know, are aware there’s a good chance one day you’re not go­ing to pack your kit bag…”

The ma­jor­ity of De­pailler’s F1 ca­reer was spent with Tyrrell, and Ken al­ways spoke of him with con­sum­mate af­fec­tion: “Pa­trick was very French – never with­out a Gauloise, loved red wine, and so on. In a lot of ways he was a lit­tle boy all his life, al­ways want­ing to do risky things – and al­ways with a trust­ing be­lief that ev­ery­thing would be all right in the end. He lived ab­so­lutely for the present. I gave Pa­trick his first F1 drive at Cler­mont-fer­rand in 1972, and then of­fered him a third car for the North Amer­i­can races in ’73. This was his big chance – and 10 days be­fore­hand he breaks his leg, fall­ing off a mo­tor­bike! When he started driv­ing full-time for me, it was in his con­tract that he had to keep away from dan­ger­ous toys.”

In 1978 De­pailler won at Monaco, a re­sult cel­e­brated through­out the pad­dock, but af­ter five sea­sons with Tyrrell, he left in some sor­row for Ligier, where there beck­oned a more com­pet­i­tive car. Af­ter win­ning at Jarama in ’79, Pa­trick shared the world cham­pi­onship lead with Gilles Vil­leneuve, but if Ligier’s JS11 was the quick­est car of the mo­ment, his ri­valry with team-mate Jac­ques Laf­fite, while am­i­ca­ble, in­evitably brought prob­lems. At Zolder the pair of them ran away from the rest – and into tyre trou­bles.

Jody Scheck­ter’s Fer­rari won that day, and if Guy Ligier was fu­ri­ous, a few weeks later he was apoplec­tic. Un­like Tyrrell, he had un­wisely not pre­cluded ‘dan­ger­ous toys’ in De­pailler’s con­tract, and in late May Pa­trick went hang glid­ing – his lat­est pas­sion – and suf­fered dread­ful leg in­juries when pitched into a rock­face af­ter fly­ing too close to a moun­tain.

The worst thing about the weeks in hos­pi­tal, he told me, was not know­ing if he would re­cover prop­erly. “For a long time there was the chance of am­pu­ta­tion, and I was very fright­ened – not for five months was I sure to drive again.” I noted with­out sur­prise he said ‘drive’, rather than ‘walk’: be­ing alive meant be­ing a rac­ing driver.

I liked Pa­trick im­mensely, not least be­cause his ap­proach to life – laid-back, not a lit­tle dis­or­gan­ised – re­minded me of Chris Amon in a world in­creas­ingly peo­pled by ul­tra-pro­fes­sional au­toma­tons. Rac­ing had a nar­cotic hold on him, as I re­mem­ber from his speak­ing sadly of the end of his mar­riage: “She is scared of what I do – how can I blame her for that? But how can I stop this? I can’t…”

On the mend af­ter the hang glid­ing ac­ci­dent,

GRAND PRIX GREATS

De­pailler thought only about re­turn­ing to F1. Ac­cept­ing an of­fer from Alfa, he hob­bled through the pad­dock in the early races of 1980, but in the car noth­ing had changed.

When I think of him now, I re­mem­ber the sense of hu­mour, the lop-sided grin, the eter­nal cig­a­rette: “Peo­ple say I should not smoke. Pah! I am driv­ing a rac­ing car, not run­ning 1500 me­tres…” And I re­call his love of scuba-div­ing, mo­tor­bikes, hang glid­ing, and his be­wil­der­ment as fel­low driv­ers boarded flights with tennis rac­quets. If they spoke with rev­er­ence of Borg or Con­nors, Pa­trick’s he­roes were An­quetil and Mer­ckx, mul­ti­ple win­ners of the Tour de France.

Fran­cois Guiter, Elf’s leg­endary com­pe­ti­tions boss, and a ma­jor fig­ure in the sport, held De­pailler in spe­cial re­gard. Af­ter the Bri­tish GP in 1980 they hol­i­dayed to­gether, and Guiter said he had never seen him hap­pier. “He was with a girl he loved, and com­pletely re­laxed and at peace – but then, of course, he left early to do the test at Hock­en­heim.”

Nick Brit­tan re­called a din­ner at Zand­voort one year. “We were talk­ing about get­ting his chaotic fi­nances into shape, and I said, ‘Pa­trick, we re­ally ought to think about the fu­ture’. And I re­mem­ber he smiled at that. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘The fu­ture is for other peo­ple...’”

PA­TRICK DE­PAILLER Laid-back but with rac­ing in his blood

Af­ter suc­cess at Jarama in 1979 in the Ligier, Pa­trick was the joint leader of the world cham­pi­onship...

De­pailler’s first win, a pop­u­lar vic­tory in the pad­dock, came at Monaco in 1978 with Tyrrell

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