After winning championships in Karting and Formula 3 Riccardo Patrese made the step up to Formula 1 in May 1977 at Monaco with the Shadow Grand Prix team. His debut came as a result of Shadow having to alter their driver line-up following the death of Tom Pryce at the South African GP in March ’77. The team brought in Alan Jones to partner Renzo Zorzi who then left after the Spanish race. Patrese had his first taste of a Grand Prix car at Paul Ricard shortly before Monaco and then impressed everyone with a fine 9th place finish. Although he was forced to miss a couple of races Riccardo ended the year with a superb sixth place, and his first World Championship point, at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Members of Shadow, including Alan Rees and Jackie Oliver, split with owner Don Nichols to form the new Arrows team for the start of the 1978 season and Patrese was signed to partner Gunnar Nilsson. Tragically Nilsson was unable to race as he was diagnosed with cancer and sadly died in October 1978.
Arrows made their debut in Brazil having launched their new car, the Arrows FA1, in the snow at Silverstone days before. A 10th place finish was impressive enough but at the next Grand Prix in South Africa Patrese and the team stunned the F1 establishment by leading for 36 laps. Engine failure cost them the win with only 15 laps to go but driver and team had made their mark.
Second place in Sweden showed how competitive the new combination was although there were comments made about Patrese’s aggressive driving style. Ronnie Peterson in particular criticised the Italian’s vigorous defence of second place in Sweden. The progress of Arrows was then severely hampered by a court case instigated by Don Nichols who claimed ownership of the design of the FA1. As a result the team had to design and build a new car in a short space of time. The A1 made its’ debut at the Austrian GP but proved to be less competitive than the FA1.
Then came the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and the accident that claimed Ronnie Peterson’s life. Riccardo Patrese was blamed by his fellow drivers for causing the accident and the GPDA, led by James Hunt and Niki Lauda, effectively forced the organisers of the next race at Watkins Glen to refuse his entry. Riccardo and the starter of the race, Gianni Restelli, were also charged with manslaughter in February 1981. Both the GPDA and the courts later cleared Patrese of any blame, although the court case lasted until November 1981, and re-establishing his reputation was to prove a long and difficult process.
Three more years at Arrows saw little in the way of results, although in his final year with the team Riccardo earned his first pole position (at Long Beach) and was briefly a front runner again.
In 1982 he joined Brabham to partner Nelson Piquet who had won the World Championship the previous year. Bernie Ecclestone had joined forces with BMW but the partnership was difficult at first and results suffered. However, the high point of Patrese’s season was his debut win, in remarkable circumstances, at Monaco. His second year at Brabham saw his teammate win the drivers’ title again but the Italian suffered from poor reliability. At least Riccardo’s first spell at Brabham ended with a victory but this would be the last time he would reach the top of the podium until 1990.
There were high hopes for the Benetton Euroracing Alfa-Romeo team that Riccardo joined, with Eddie Cheever, for the 1984 & 85 seasons, but results were spectacularly absent and he returned to Brabham with his future in doubt. While the second spell at Brabham did not produce significant results it did, with the help of Bernie Ecclestone, open the door to a seat in a Williams-Honda for the last race of the 1987 season. Thus began the Patrese renaissance.
Teamed with Nigel Mansell in a Williams-Judd Riccardo found a supportive environment to re-establish his career. The FW12 was reasonably quick but unreliable and Mansell left at the end of the year for Ferrari. In 1989 Frank Williams brought Renault power back to F1 and (new team-mate) Thierry Boutsen led Patrese to a Williams 1-2 in Canada which was the start of a hugely successful era for all concerned. Riccardo returned to the top step of the podium once again at the 1990 San Marino Grand Prix. Having lost the same race in 1983 while leading this proved to be an emotional victory on home soil.
In 1991 Williams re-signed Nigel Mansell and the team was ready to challenge for the title again. Unexpectedly it was Patrese who led the way, outqualifying his illustrious teammate in the early races and winning in Mexico. Ultimately, however, Mansell established himself as de facto number one and won the title in 1992 with Riccardo as runner-up. Having been told that Williams’ choice for 1993 was Prost and Mansell Riccardo signed for Benetton. Mansell then quit and headed for America giving Damon Hill his big break. Thus it was that Riccardo Patrese ended his Grand Prix career as teammate to Michael Schumacher. Results were disappointing until the latter part of the season by which time Riccardo had been freed from his contract by Flavio Briatore.