His face was special, everytime people was watching this pilot, quite often with a Gitane cigarette on his lips,they could immediately understand his french nature. Patrick Depailler has been one of the french icon inside racing. He was capable to make anyone comfortable with his disarming smile. He was controlling his life in this way and at the same time, he was able to control his violent and competitive feelings coming out wach time he was going to start a race.
One, tenth, a hundred challenges: the sport was his soul. He loved to compete against himself or someone else, trying to defeat physics laws or technical problems. He was used to know victories are something rare but he was satisfy by competition and the adrenaline it was generated by it. Danger was not only something inside his job, it was a constante member of his personality and life. Patrick was accepting this as something of his daily life. He was moving step after step, jumping over each danger or problem with a simple smile.
Sometimes there was a payday and life was asking a big price, but Patrick was aware how the world was running and he knew it was necessary to pay something. He was not born in cotton wool, he was born in Avergne, in the middle of France where space is reduced and mountains are high. The 9th of August 1944, in Clermont-Ferrand, Patrick came to life and in this city (where there is a small circuit similar to Nürburgring) he started his pilot career. Before he studied as dental technician but without great results, he did it just to satisfy his parents because he had something else in his mind: cars and racing.
He loved Jean Behra, an outsider pilot capable to beat sometimes the best pilots but who will never win a GP or a championship. A real fighter with a great personality. Patrick was 15 years old when Jean crashed at Avus during a minor competition. One day, Patrick decided to follow Jean example and started to compete with a motorbike in a national race on the circuit of Charade close to his home. Patrick was 18 years old, he competed with a motorbike set up by himself and against official teams. Even so, he is capable to finish third advanced by two official motorbikes. Jean-Pierre Beltoire, a former champion, congratulated with him.
It was a good start but Patrick can not compete again until 1964. There is the military service and once he came back, he joined Ford Jeunesse selection program. This program was created to find a new group of potential racing pilots to act for Avergne Car Racing Club. After having been selected, he won his first competition at Montlhery but suddenly this program was stopped. There was the GP of France to prepare and Clermont-Ferrand was going to be the host. This was a terrible blow for Patrick. Finally, he decided to give another try with motorbikes but sponsor was a strange word impossible to find even in a latin dictionary during those days. Once again, Jean-Pierre Beltoise cross his destiny with Patrick and suggested to join the “École Windfield” another idea used to select talent people to be used to race. Patrick arrived to final but he was beaten just by Francois Cévert a rising start of car competition.
Luckly, Jean Kédélé noticed him and selected Patrick to become official test pilot of Alpine-Renault F3 team. He will do this jobs from 1967 to 1969. An important period of time where Patrick got a good knowledge. He got all the secrets to understand how to set up a car.
During 1970, he joined a F2 championship, racing with Pygmée. A disaster! A negative experience closed with an accident during a practice session at Salzburgring. Next season, the sponsor Elf promoted Patrick to Tecno racing team but even with this italian team, he did not get good results: sixth place at Pau circuit.
He decided to move back to Alpine and race again in F3. Here he crossed again with Jean-Pierre Jabouille, both they raced together in F2 with Pygmée and Tecno. Their relationship is not very good and there is a big rivalry uncomplicated by some french issues (Depailler is coming from countryside while Jabouille is coming from capital city and their mindset was totally different). Patrick finally achieved six second places, five victories and in 1971 won the F3 french championship. During this year, he competed on Tour the France Rally and won it using a Mantra-Sinca 650, working together with Jean-Pierre Beltoise and listen up, Jean Todt (Actual FIA president) as navigator.
During 1972 he finally landed in F1 when Ken Tyrrell gave one of his cars to compete during the GP of France. His debut was not positive, due to a problem with front-wheel suspension he ended last. Tyrrell did not care and gave him another chance and Patrick raced in the U.S.A. where he finished sicth. That same year he did another race at Montecarlo with his Alpine F3 and he won.
His career was always moving slowly, with difficulty and after working hard. In 1973, Patrick raced in two other competitions, driving again a Tyrrell. This was not enough and Patrick used often his motorbike to move and enjoy his spare time but that year he suffered an incident breaking one leg. During an interview he simply answered with one of his smiles and promised to be back in 1974.
In fact, during 1974 he came back with a lots of energy and won the F2 championship winning at (Pau, Mugello, Hockenheim and Vallelunga). That year joined Tyrrell racing team as official pilot together with Jody Scheckter and replacing the poor Francois Cévert, who lost his life at Watkins Glen.
In those five years, Patrick joined his life with Ken Tyrrell but they did not always agree. They were pretty stubborn and Patrick did not speak a good english and their relationship was not very nice. Somehow, Patrick did pretty well and his skills somehow, Patrick did pretty well and his skills during test and practices were enjoyed by his team. He was the one in charge to develop the P34 a revolutionary car with slic tyres. A weird car, difficult to drive but capable to win: Scheckter won his first race in Sweden during 1976 while Depailler did second five times.
Jody left, next year, to move to Wolf team and Ronnie Peterson joined Tyrrell racing team. Ronnies was a great driver but P34 was not his car and Patrick overwhelmed him with better results and after 1977, Ken Tyrrell decided to come back to a classic car with four wheels. Once Tyrrell was back with a four tyres car, Patrick was joined by Didier Pironi a new driver. This was one of the best season of Depailler in F1. He finished third twice (Argentina and U.S.A.), two times second (South Africa and Austria) and finally first at Monaco. He finished fifth in final list and got 34 points.
In 1979 Ligier called Patrick and gave him the important role to develop the brand new Js9 and Js11 cars. He did pretty well and together with Laffitte did a great season but finally the Ferratri driven by Scheckter and Villeneuve began to win everything but they could not cancel the Ligier like they did with other teams. Unfortunately, Depailler decided to humble oneself. This time he suffered an incident performing a flight with a hang glider. He was alive but very luck to have survived: right leg broken and left heel destroyed. End of the season, end of the story…
Patrick was not too much worry about it and he did not loose his smile as usual and after a couple of months he was back. Just in time to get a call from Alfa Romeo racing team to become official pilot together with Bruno Giacomelli. He drove the 179 crated and designed by Carlo Chiti.
Depailler was back on track and he started to work hard on this car. The result were not nice: just a fifth at Argentina GP with Giacomelli while the other races were a disaster. Patrick got seven consecutive drop-out (Argentina, Brazil, U.S.A, Belgium, Monaco, France and Great Britain).
Alfa Romeo Team was not happy at all. They were the team who won the first F1 championship with Farina and Fangio therefore they wanted to change that situation. Nine days before German GP, they moved to Hockenheim and performed some private practice session. Patrick was there and ready… Who knows if he knew that 1st of August 1980 it was the anniversary of Jean Behra’s death: his idol when he was a teenager who crashed during a race.
It migh be! Or might be not! Pilots have something else to care about and they are pretty good to push back some thoughts.
Test started and Patrick began his job and during a lap, at full speed, before a trun something collapsed (a front-wheel suspension? We will never know) and it was impossible to control the car. Unfortunately, destiny can not be controlled with a smile and even less a crash barrier.
The impact was terrible!
Just a moment and Patrick was not here anymore...
Like a journalist once said:
He is racing in a better place…
Depailler Patrick ( 9th August 1944 – 1st August 1980)