Patrick Depailler (France)
Written by Jay Walker. Posted in P34 Drivers
At a time when Formula 1 was beginning to take itself far to seriously Depailler was a welcome sight around the racing paddocks of the world. Almost always with a cigarette in his hand and a smile on his face though as Nigel Roebuck observed in his book Grand Prix Greats:
“….[Patrick] had a vulnerability about him that women found magnetic, and his face , in repose, often had a tragic quality that would be instantly dispelled by that lopsided grin.”
Depailler had come up the ranks through the tough school of Formula 3 between 1967 and 1969. Driving the Alpine-Renault he did, on occasion, drive the Alpine sports prototype and took a fine third place in the 1968 Monza 1000kms. An offer of a Formula 2 drive with the Elf-Pygmee team for 1970 proved to be somewhat disastrous and ended in a practice crash at the Salzburgring leaving him with slight burns.
Elf kept on backing him in Formula 2 only now he drove a Tecno but this proved to be another false dawn and his best result of the year was a sixth place at Pau. He still drove the little Alpine-Renault and became French Formula 3 champion for 1971.
After winning the prestigious Formula 3 race at Monaco in 1972 he decided to give Formula 2 another shot. In the Elf backed John Coombs March 722 he took fine second places at Enna, Pau and Albi.
Ken Tyrrell stepped forward and offered him drives in the French and Italian Grand Prix at the close of the 1972 season. Having been born at Clermont Ferrand, the venue for that years race, he acquitted himself well even if unclassified and in the Italian Grand he came home a creditable seventh albeit a lap down. More Formula 2 in 1973 and still no wins and it managed to get even worse. Tyrrell had arranged for Patrick to drive in the final two Grand Prix of that year in North America but in the words of Ken Tyrrell…..
“….ten days before the races he goes and breaks his leg falling off a motorbike. Later when he was driving full time for me, I had it written into his contract that he had to keep away from dangerous toys.”
Tyrrell finally took him on a full time basis in 1974 as No.2 to Jody Scheckter. Of course the original plan had been to have Patrick as No.2 with his old rival from the Volant-Shell days in France Francois Cevert as team leader. Tragically Cevert was killed in practice for the final race of 1973 at Watkins Glen so putting all those plans off.
So began Depailler’s best seasons. In the nimble Tyrrell 05/6 and 7 he scored points in six of the 15 races and took pole position, the first ever by a Frenchman in a World Championship Grand Prix, at Sweden. And in Formula 2 that year racked up wins at Mugello, Pau, Hockenheim and Vallelunga. These were the days when drivers were not tied down to one formula of racing as is the case now. 1975 was much like the previous season with Depailler’s best result being a third at South Africa though Scheckter did win at his home race. Ferrari and McLaren were at the head of the pack and if Tyrrell were to challenge them on a regular basis they had to find an advantage in the regulations. As everyone, excepting Ferrari, was using the same engine and tyres Tyrrell looked at the chassis.
And so for 1976 Tyrrell gave the world its first six wheeled Grand Prix car the P34. The concept was greeted with relish by Depailler and with scepticism by Scheckter. Depailler got to do the first shakedown tests and was impressed by the cars handling. The new car would not be used until the Spanish Grand Prix and only then by Depailler who qualified it in third but retired in the race due to brake cooling problems. Seven podium finishes certainly wiped the smiles off the more cynical faces in the pits. And the one two finish in Sweden, albeit at Andretti’s expense, was the icing on the cake.
1977 was to see the decline of the P34 and of the Tyrrell team in general. Depailler asked the team to simply stop playing around with the cars configuration and just let him drive it. But now front tyre development had fallen so far behind that the whole thing was ditched at the end of the season. Even so his best result of the 1977 was a second in Canada.
For the 1978 season Tyrrell gave Depailler the nimble 008 and he obliged them by putting it on the podium five times and scored the first win of his career at an emotional Monaco.However at the end of the season Depailler and Tyrrell parted company. Depailler feeling the lure of France as he went to drive for the Ligier team. Indeed Ligier were on a high and gave Patrick his second Grand Prix win at the Spanish race. However whilst lying equal third in the championship he went hang-gliding, then a relatively new sport. He crashed heavily and broke both legs.
The 1979 season was over for him. Struggling for fitness he returned with the Alfa Romeo team in their cumbersome 179 V12. It retired from every race up the British Grand Prix and the team went off testing to Hockenheim for the upcoming race. At the second part of the Ostkurve, it tightens, the car left the road. At 165mph there was no chance of survival and almost no way of knowing the cause but most suspected tyre or suspension failure.
He drove hard and played hard but never overdid either of them.
Nick Brittan, Depailler’s manager summed him up as a man who:-
“….loved life. But what he did, he accepted the inevitability of death.”
F1 Statistics – Patrick Depailler
GRAND PRIX STARTS
GRAND PRIX WINS
What others had to say . .
Adriano Cimarosti (journalist) – “Depailler had all the makings of a World Champion.”
Nigel Mansell – “Throughout the 60’s and 70’s I followed the fortunes of the Grand Prix drivers. I particularly liked watching Patrick Depailler, who was a very gutsy, aggressive driver with lots of style.”
Mike Knight (racing school owner) – “He was the one guy who I thought: ‘Christ he is frightening me to death….’ He was always flat and extremely brave.”
Jody Scheckter – “For me he was the typical Frenchman and Grand Prix racing driver. His life consisted of beautiful girls, dangerous hobbies and fast cars.”
Ken Tyrrell – “Patrick was at 17 a little boy, he was at 28 a little boy and was at 34 still a little boy.”
Ken Tyrrell – “He loved being a racing driver more than any other driver I’ve ever known.”
Jean-Pierre Beltoise – “He was a fine motorcycle rider, very sensitive in the wet. He could have made a career from it for sure.”
Nick Brittan (manager) – “He was powerful quick, after all. He absolutely loved what he was doing, loved nothing better in the whole world than being a bloody good race driver François Guiter – I am convinced that Patrick could have been World Champion in 1979.”
Nigel Roebuck (journalist) – “Patrick Depailler was a man I liked enormously. He was courteous, natural, amusing and totally without affectation, a real free spirit in a bland world. He never became blasé in his attitude to motor racing and retained a boyish passion for driving Grand Prix cars.”
Jean-Paul Ray (friend) – “Right to the end, he remained the most down to earth and approachable of all the drivers.”
William Court (author) – “As French as frites, garlic and Gauloises, lively as a cricket, brave as a lion and, as some may add, mad as a March hare. Wonderful value for the spectators, great fun as companion and brimful with those traditional French qualities of ‘cran’ and ‘élan’.”
Steve Small (author) – “Depailler was something of a free spirit – a throwback to an earlier age, who lived for the moment and raced accordingly. Steve Small (author) – He had lived life to the full, and even in darker moments, as he fought the pain of his injuries, it would not be long before a broad smile would emerge, crinkling his face with laughter lines. A fitting way to remember him.”
Peter Windsor (journalist) – “Patrick always seems to be laughing at the racing world through a haze of French cigarette smoke. He always seems to have all the answers and is always about to win the next race.”
Jody Scheckter – “Patrick was always so optimistic about the six-wheeler. Chantal Depailler (sister) – He was a very sweet child, very affectionate with us. Jean-Paul Ray (friend) – He was a gentle guy but he had a real power, a will that was very strong. Nothing could stop him doing what he wanted to do.”
Alain Prost – “At my first Grand Prix, Patrick was the only driver that came up to me and offered his help, even though I did not know him well at that stage.”
James Hunt – “Patrick Depailler… well, I’ve no doubt he had a death wish. Very pleasant bloke, but I always thought he was barking mad. Depailler seemed to need to find a risk in everything.”