Nigel Roebuck’s memories of Patrick Depailler
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