Patrick Depailler: One of the old school
When you look back at some of the real characters of Formula 1 from the 60s, 70s and 80s, no one was less ‘F1’ than Patrick Depailler.
Forget your healthy diets and exercise, Depailler’s regime was: ‘cigarette, helmet on, into the car, drive bloody fast, pit, out of the car, helmet off, and cigarette.’
As you will see in the video at the end of this story, he was fearless and fun-loving.
The Frenchman loved his driving, and loved his adrenalin. He started racing motorcycles, which in itself is an idea of his lack of fear. He switched to cars, and eventually made a his first Grand Prix start with Tyrrell at Charade in France (the race that Dr Helmut Marko, now of Red Bull Racing lost his eye when hit by a stone), and Depailler raced again for Uncle Ken at the end of the season at Watkins Glen, America. His full-time chance came again with Tyrrell in 1974 – though he should have raced a handful of times in 1973, but broke his leg in a motorcycle accident.
To give an idea of the way he thought, it is said that when he raced in F2 in 1973 with what was a badly broken but recovering leg, he tied his boot to the throttle pedal as his leg wasn’t strong enough to keep it there.
After the death of Francois Cevert, and Jackie Stewart’s retirement, Ken Tyrrell needed two new drivers for 1974. Depailler and Jody Scheckter were Ken’s choices for his team. Depailler was still on crutches at the time… But he was going to drive that car.
Depailler, obviously something of a renegade, and Tyrrell locked horns a few times, mostly for the Frenchman’s love of dangerous activities between races.
His Tyrrell career lasted until the end of 1978 and netted just one win, at Monaco, although he was leading at the final corner at Kyalami, South Africa in 1978, until Ronnie Peterson passed him.
When Ligier expanded to two cars, Depailler joined to race with fellow Frenchman Jacques Laffite for 1979. In the first seven races, they scored three wins between them, Patrick dominantly winning the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama.
Then his desire for adrenalin took over again – and almost cost him his career. A mid-season hang-gliding accident broke both his legs badly. He knew straight away his season was over. He spent almost four months in hospital this time, such were his injuries. He wasn’t giving up though.
While still suffering acute pain, he signed for Alfa Romeo for 1980. Frail, he made his debut for the Italian team at the first race. He qualified on the final row of the grid in Argentina.
The Alfa too was fragile, and twice Patrick had huge accidents due to car failure, one at Paul Ricard, and one at Brands Hatch. This time, the third one wasn’t a charm. That third failure, testing at Hockenheim, Germany, claimed the life of the maverick and charismatic Frenchman on August 1, 1980. His statistics of two wins and 19 podium finishes is not a fair reflection of his talent.
The days of the daredevil, smoking, F1 drivers may be over now, but if anyone summed up the happy-go-lucky attitude of those days, Patrick Depailler was it. If you want proof, check out this mad lap of Montreal, in the wet in the Tyrrell, to see a guy that was having fun, enjoying himself, even on his in-lap!