The McLaren hero who won for Ferrari by Alan Henry

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Updated: February 23, 2014
#27 VICTORY SHOWER

Those of you who follow @McLarenF1 on Twitter will doubtless have noticed a Tweet on Thursday of this week, hashtagged #ThrowbackThursday, depicting Patrick Tambay giving Jacques Laffite a lift on the sidepod of his McLaren M29, in the Watkins Glen pit lane, in 1979.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Frenchmen were as common in Formula 1 as vineyards are in Bordeaux, owing to the concerted efforts of Renault, Matra and Elf to make it so. The man charged with the task of managing the ‘get French drivers into Formula 1′ campaign was Francois Guiter, a marketing director at Elf.

The list of Frenchmen to have started grands prix in the 1970s and ’80s is long indeed. In addition to Tambay and Laffite, take a deep breath and try to read this little lot aloud without gasping for air: Jean Alesi, Philippe Alliot, Rene Arnoux, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Eric Bernard, Francois Cevert, Yannick Dalmas, Patrick Depailler, Jose Dolhem, Pascal Fabre, Bertrand Gachot, Patrick Gaillard, Olivier Grouillard, Francois Hesnault, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Max Jean, Gerard Larrousse, Michel Leclere, Francois Mazet, Francois Migault, Henri Pescarolo, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Johnny Servoz-Gavin and Philippe Streiff.

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Granted, not all of them were all that rapide in Formula 1, but some of them most certainly were. In addition to Tambay and Laffite, who won twice and six times respectively in their Formula 1 careers, Alesi, Arnoux, Beltoise, Cevert, Depailler, Jabouille, Pironi and of course Prost all won grands prix, 51 of them (and four world championships) in Alain’s case.

Interestingly, and in my view astonishingly, only three French drivers have ever started grands prix for McLaren: Prost, Tambay and Alliot.

Alliot, we should discount straight away. Of the 109 grands prix he started in his long and, it has to be said, undistinguished Formula 1 career, in only two of them was he at the wheel of a McLaren, in Hungary and in Belgium in 1994. At the Hungaroring he qualified 14th and retired after 14 laps; at Spa he qualified 19th and retired after 11 laps. Let’s move on.

About Prost, I could write a book. Correction: about Prost, I have written a book. That being the case, and because his glorious exploits at McLaren have been described in loving detail not only by me and every Formula 1 scribbler you could ever be tempted to shake a stick at but also at length and often on this very website (mclaren.com/formula1), I’ll limit myself to saying the following here and now.

In my opinion, Prost is the fourth-greatest driver in McLaren’s history, eclipsed ever so slightly by Mika Hakkinen in third place and Ayrton Senna in the runner-up spot.

In my opinion, Prost is the fourth-greatest driver in McLaren’s history, eclipsed ever so slightly by Mika Hakkinen in third place and Ayrton Senna in the runner-up spot. The father of the team, Bruce McLaren himself, to my mind occupies a unique position, pre-eminent above all other McLaren drivers not because of his in-cockpit ability, which was excellent but not majestic, but because of what he stood for and indeed stands for still. All at Woking bow their heads to Bruce, and rightly so.

Which leaves Tambay, which is where I kicked off this week’s pleasant saunter down memory lane.

Patrick’s first Formula 1 foray, a wild card entry for the 1977 French Grand Prix, was distinctly unpromising. Given a third Surtees TS19 to grapple with, conspicuous as it was in Durex-branded livery, he failed to qualify, as did one of his team-mates, Larry Perkins. The team’s number-one driver, Vittorio Brambilla, aka the Monza gorilla, qualified 11th, by virtue of a lap 2.5 seconds quicker than Tambay had managed to produce. And that, I remember remarking to one of my neighbours in the Dijon press room, was probably that, as far as the urbane young Frenchman’s Formula 1 career was concerned.

Not for the first time in my long career, I was wrong. Patrick turned up at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix two weeks later, now in an Ensign N177, looking far more comfortable, qualifying a respectable 16th, just six-hundredths of a second slower than Laffite, alongside whose Ligier JS7 he would line up for Saturday’s race (yes, Saturday’s race). Patrick retired with electrical failure after just three laps, but that wasn’t his fault; he was clearly making progress.

A fortnight later, at Hockenheim, Germany, he was better again, qualifying his Ensign 11th and finishing a superb sixth, just 2.5 seconds behind Brambilla’s fifth-placed Surtees at flag-fall. Again, progress was clearly being made.

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Two weeks on, the Formula 1 circus arrived at the Osterreichring, Austria, which was in those days a formidably daunting racetrack. Patrick attacked its flat-out curves with skill and sang-froid, wringing from the little Ensign a 1m40.290s qualifying lap, which was good enough for seventh on the grid. He was still seventh on lap 42, when his engine blew.

By the time we all rolled into Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix at the end of August, Patrick’s performance in Austria two weeks previously was causing tongues to wag up and down the pitlane. Little did we know that the best was just about to come. He qualified 12th, and was a little disappointed with that, but on race day he drove stupendously well, and would have finished third, behind only Niki Lauda’s Ferrari and Laffite’s Ligier, had not his Ensign run out of fuel in the closing laps, dropping him to fifth.

At that point, it was fair to say that most Formula 1 pundits would answer “Tambay” if asked “Who’s the most promising young driver in Formula 1 today?” – yes, despite the fact that Gilles Villeneuve had made his grand prix debut in the same race as had Patrick just six weeks previously: the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. And that’s why McLaren’s then boss, Teddy Mayer, quickly snapped up Tambay to be James Hunt’s team-mate for the 1978 season, despite the fact that Villeneuve had made his debut in a McLaren and would therefore have been a more obvious catch.

Ferrari tried and failed to sign Patrick at that point, incidentally, which is how Gilles came to be hired by the Scuderia to partner Carlos Reutemann for 1978.

My thesis is not, dear reader, that Ferrari made a balls-up. Undoubtedly, Gilles’ talent was sublime, and I rate him as one of the most naturally gifted drivers in the history of all motorsport. But, at the time, as we drove out of Zandvoort towards Amsterdam Schipol Airport on the evening of Sunday August 28th 1977, it was Patrick whom most of us regarded as the more promising of the two.

Sadly for him, however, in 1978 the ageing McLaren M26 was more or less obsolete, completely outclassed by the beautiful and super-fast ground-effect Lotus 79, in which Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson won a combined total of eight grands prix that year, Mario taking the world championship at Monza – at which race, coincidentally and tragically, Ronnie lost his life in a freakish start-line accident.

By the end of the season Patrick and James had scored just eight points apiece, McLaren languishing a lowly eighth in the constructors’ world championship.

The irony was that Ferrari – who had courted Patrick before signing Gilles, remember – had had a very good season, scoring five wins, four to Carlos and the last of the season, at home in Montreal, to the visibly jubilant Gilles. In that race Patrick qualified 17th and finished eighth.

The following season, 1979, was for Patrick worse still. Partnered now at McLaren by John Watson, he was outclassed. The team began the year with the large and ungainly M28, but after a couple of grands prix it was clear to everyone that there was nothing wrong with that car that a new car wouldn’t cure. Its midseason replacement, the M29, was an improvement, but nothing special, and by the time it arrived Patrick was a pale shadow of the confident young superstar-in-the-making about whom we’d all been waxing so lyrical just two years previously.

Wattie, as quick and as gritty as ever, scored a series of good results with the new car – fourth at Silverstone, fifth at Hockenheim, sixth at Watkins Glen and Montreal – but Patrick failed to score a single world championship point all year. At season’s end, McLaren bade him au revoir.

By contrast Gilles had finished a brilliant second in the drivers’ world championship, winning thrice in splendid style.

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Again, I admit I thought that that was that as far as Tambay and Formula 1 were concerned, because no team hired him for 1980 and he was forced to try his luck in Can-Am instead.

In North America, however, away from the stresses and strains of Formula 1, he relocated his mojo, and remembered how to win. Indeed he became Can-Am champion.

As a result of his fine Can-Am form, he was back in Formula 1 for 1981, albeit driving for the lowly Theodore team. At the season-opening United States Grand Prix at Long Beach, he qualified 17th, which attracted no-one’s attention, but then drove hard and well the following day to a fine sixth at the flag.

By midseason he was once again attracting the attention of the better teams, and so it was that he was paired for his home grand prix, at Dijon, alongside Laffite, the man to whom he’d given a lift on his McLaren M29’s sidepod at Watkins Glen in 1979, which @McLarenF1-Tweeted image started me off on this blog in the first place.

Would Patrick’s Ligier chapter be the start of a long-awaited renaissance? It would not: in the eight grands prix that he and Jacques drove for Ligier in the second half of 1981, Jacques scored two wins and two third places, while Patrick recorded eight consecutive DNFs.

This time, as Patrick sadly turned his back on the Formula 1 paddock after the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, the last race of the 1981 season, having crashed out on lap three, I was almost certain I’d never see him in racing’s premier league ever again.

And as we flew to South Africa for the first grand prix of the 1982 season, it looked as though I was being proven right, for Patrick was nowhere to be seen. Nor was he present in Sao Paulo or Long Beach or Imola or Zolder or Monaco or Detroit or Montreal. Duly, as is cruelly often the case in such circumstances, the Formula 1 world began to forget he’d ever existed.

Ah… but please re-read that last paragraph, dear reader, if you will. Re-read in particular the list of grands prix that Patrick missed: Kyalami, Sao Paulo, Long Beach, Imola, Zolder, Monaco, Detroit and Montreal. Do you notice anything? No? Well, you should do: at Zolder, in qualifying, the great Gilles Villeneuve was killed.

At Monaco, Detroit and Montreal, Ferrari fielded just one car, for Pironi, unable as 84-year-old Enzo Ferrari was to bring himself to replace his dearly beloved and bitterly mourned French-Canadian ace.

By the next grand prix, however, the Dutch at Zandvoort, the still-grieving Commendatore had at last decided who Villeneuve’s replacement would be: Tambay. At last, albeit in tragic circumstances, Patrick would get his chance to race for the Scuderia.

Now 33, but as coltish as ever, he was determined not to waste his opportunity. More than that, he wanted to do well for Gilles.

At Zandvoort (Netherlands) he qualified sixth and finished eighth; Pironi won in the other Ferrari. But at Brands Hatch (UK), despite qualifying only 13th, he finished an impressive third, just 13 seconds behind second-placed Pironi, his team-mate. At Paul Ricard (France) he qualified fifth and finished fourth.

Then, just as it was beginning to look as though Ferrari’s season was coming together again, recovering as the Italian engineers and mechanics still were from the deep bereavement caused by Villeneuve’s death, tragedy struck again. In qualifying for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, Pironi had an almighty accident, sustaining serious injuries from which he would never recover sufficiently ever to be able to race again. Tambay qualified a plucky fifth.

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On race day morning, it was evident that Patrick was shouldering a huge amount of responsibility, the grief-torn Italian team having now lost its two superstars, Villeneuve and Pironi, to death and serious injury respectively.

Patrick started conservatively, ending lap one in fourth position. But then a very special narrative began to unfold, and if you can read what follows with a dry eye then you’re a harder cove than I am. On lap four he passed Prost’s Renault, and on lap 10 he overtook Arnoux’s Renault; he was second, only Nelson Piquet’s Brabham ahead of him.

As Piquet began lap 19 he was 20 seconds ahead of Tambay, the Brazilian world champion looking set for a comfortable victory. Then, as Nelson shaped to lap Eliseo Salazar’s ATS, their two cars touched, both of them spinning off into a gravel trap. Piquet, incensed, marched over to Salazar and begin to aim kicks and punches at him. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Patrick was leading the race.

Twenty-five laps later, he’d won it, crossing the finish line with both arms held aloft.

After the race, as we flocked around him on his day of days, he could speak only of Villeneuve and Pironi. “As the end of the race came near, and I realised I could win it, I was thinking only of Gilles, and of Didier,” he said.

We all knew exactly what he meant.

Are you still with me? Good. Give me a minute to catch my breath. Thanks.

Okay, what more should I tell you? Well, Patrick also won the 1983 San Marino Grand Prix, also for Ferrari, carrying to victory number-27, the number that Gilles had made so famous, and delighting the tens of thousands of adoring tifosi who had watched Villeneuve and Pironi finish first and second in their beloved red cars at Imola just a year previously.

Now 64, Patrick is the deputy mayor of Le Cannet, a town near Cannes, on the French Riviera.

Celebrating a wedding at Le Cannet

Celebrating a wedding at Le Cannet

He’s godfather to Gilles’ son, Jacques, the 1997 world champion.

His son Adrien races for Audi in the DTM championship.

Oh, and you’re unlikely ever to meet a nicer man.

SINCERE AND DEEPEST THANKS ALAN…

PATRICK

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