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Patrick Depailler remembered

Race drivers, you may have gathered by now, I love talking about. There are those I enjoy talking to and those I don't, but the genus race driver fascinates me now as much as ever it did

Recently I was telling a friend about the internal conflicts at McLaren, the lack of entente between Prost and Senna, the chasm between their personalities. "It's something I've never really thought about," he said. "The psychology of it all. You just tend to think about racing drivers as blokes in helmets, sitting in cars, all much the same."

Not so. There is as good as no difference in the length of time it takes Senna and Prost to get a McLaren-Honda around a race track, but the only other quality they share is intelligence - which should not necessarily be taken for granted. Over the years I've talked to many a driver, and concluded his head is not a very crowded place.

Because racing drivers spend their professional lives in such an unusual occupation, one might assume them all to be a little strange, a little quirky, but this is not the case. Some, like Senna, are obsessive, yes, but there are workaholics everywhere. Some have chaotic love lives, others live in domestic harmony, just like folks in your village or mine. They are united only by profession.

At this time of the year Patrick Depailler always comes into my thoughts. He was killed on August 1, a date already scarred in my memory by the death, in 1959, of Jean Behra, whom I worshipped as a kid. Patrick, I had discovered in conversation a few weeks earlier, had felt the same way.

He lost his life in 1980, testing. There was only the scream of a single Alfa Romeo V12 to be heard at Hockenheim that Friday morning, which is how they knew of the accident as it happened, immediately rushed out to the forest in whatever vehicles were to hand.

Their haste was needless. He had died instantly, probably within a second of taking in that something had broken. The Ostkurve was then a top gear corner, taken flat, and the Alfa never started into it, running straight on, across the run-off area. Patrick was without a chance.

Photographs from the accident were more than usually poignant and wretched: bits of the shattered car lying across catch fencing - catch fencing folded up, neatly in the Germanic way, behind the guard rail, in readiness for the forthcoming Grand Prix. For mere testing no one had thought to install it.

I heard the news on the radio as I drove back to London from the Williams factory in Didcot; called Autosport, then went on there. In the melancholy there was also a measure of pragmatic panic: I'd interviewed Patrick at length not long before, and the story was due to go in the following week. Unthinkable now, of course. We chose a mug shot for the front cover, and I settled to the writing of an obituary to replace the feature.

Always a salutary experience, this, when your feelings for someone truly surface. I can't feign personal grief, and it has nothing to do with any lack of respect. Any Grand Prix driver commands my professional respect, because he does the only thing with his life I ever wished to do. Of course his loss distresses me. What it does not do is confer on him an affection I perhaps never felt in life.

In fact, this is a dilemma I have rarely faced, since over the years the gods have cruelly - almost selectively, one might begin to think - gathered up good men from this sport. Pryce, Peterson, Villeneuve, de Angelis...there have been many and Patrick Depailler belongs in their company.

As long as men have raced cars, an abiding cliché has been that they never truly consider their own mortality, that the accident is always 'going to happen to the other guy'. But this is less than the truth.

There have been those, like Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter. who frankly admitted their chief preoccupation lay with keeping themselves alive. But at the other end of the spectrum is the driver who, mounting the steps at the funeral service of Elio de Angelis, murmured to a colleague that he hoped it would be this way for him: "Bright sunshine, then suddenly black - nothing." Opposite extremes, perhaps.

A former Grand Prix driver once told me he believed Depailler had a death wish. Look at the way he lives his life, he said; hang-gliding, and riding motorbikes without a helmet. Needs to find risk in everything. Why, he offered as the final clincher, he even smokes!

I always find faintly amusing lectures on the perils of cigarettes from people who turn into Stowe at 180mph. From a shipping clerk I'd take it.

And I thought the man's argument ridiculous. At Silverstone I fell into talking about Depailler with Nick Brittan, his manager for many years. He too, thought fatuous suggestions of a death wish: "No, no, Patrick loved life. But what he did, he accepted the inevitability of death."

It always seemed to me, however, that he was never going to retire. And Nick agreed: "I think he knew he floated right out to the fine edge - he was powerful quick, after all, and I think he knew it was going to happen one day. There was never any question of retirement in his mind.

"Patrick was almost like a professional soldier - a combat solider. He absolutely loved what he was doing, loved nothing better in the whole world than being a bloody good race driver. He was the nearest thing to a sort of automotive SAS man, and people like that, you know, are aware there's a good chance one day you're not going to pack your kit bag. But that's not the same as having a death wish - far from it."

Depailler spent most of his Formula 1 career with Tyrrell, and Ken has always spoken of him with great affection: "In a lot of ways, he was a little boy all his life - always wanting to go skiing or hang-gliding or motorcycling, things like that. And he had this trusting belief that everything would be all right in the end. He lived for the present.

"I gave him his first F1 drive, at Clermont-Ferrand in 1972, and then offered him a third car for the North American races in '73. This was a big chance for him - 10 days before 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..."

When Depailler won the Monaco Grand Prix for Tyrrell, in 1978, it was one of those rare days when everyone in the paddock was happy with the result. So many times before his fingertips had been on the hem of victory, but always it had slipped away.

At the end of that season, sorrowfully, he left for Ligier: sorrowfully, because Tyrrell was like family by now. But the Ligier looked a more competitive proposition, and so it proved. After his victory at Jarama, the fifth round, Patrick shared the lead of the World Championship with Gilles Villeneuve, perhaps his nearest kindred soul in motor racing.

In the early part of that season Ligier's JS11 was the best car in the business, but Depailler's rivalry with his team-mate, Jacques Laffite, was very definitely that: a rivalry. There were no team orders, and at Zolder the two of them fought their way clear of the field - and into tyre troubles. Scheckter's Ferrari won, and afterwards there was criticism of a Gallic triumph lost, especially from Ligier himself.

Patrick didn't understand. "If you are a racing driver," he shrugged, "you race..."

If Guy was angry in Belgium, however, he became apoplectic a few weeks later. Unlike Ken Tyrrell, he had not precluded 'dangerous toys' from Depailler's contract. At a loose end during the five-week gap between Monaco and Dijon, Patrick had gone hang-gliding, severely injuring his legs. He'd been flying too close to the mountain, he said; there had been a lot of turbulence, which had pitched him into the rockface. Then he added, with disarmingly illogical logic, that he would have been able to cope if he'd had more experience - which he would have had if only Tyrrell hadn't stopped him...

At the time the general reaction to Patrick's accident was chillingly hard-nosed. In purely commercial terms it was maybe inevitable, for he was an important link in a major operation; but in human terms I found disturbing the lack of sympathy for a man perhaps confronting life in a wheelchair.

"The worst thing," he told me, "was lying there all those weeks, not knowing if I would recover properly. For a long time there was the chance of amputation, and I was very frightened. Not for five months was I sure to drive again."

That was what recovery meant for Patrick; driving again. Without that, he seemed to be saying, life would be insupportable. And he was appalled, at the time of our last interview, by the plight of Clay Regazzoni. It wasn't a matter of being insensitive, for he was anything but that; no, it was an honest opinion, simply expressed. For him. being alive meant being a race driver.

I liked him a lot. And not only because he passed up all the camp accoutrements of the contemporary superstar. His attitude to life and work was refreshingly haphazard in a world where dour automatons increasingly people professional sport. But working with him, I suggested to Nick Brittan, must have been maddening on occasion.

Nick laughed at the memory of it all. "Well, you never really knew what was coming next, that's true. I remember one day there was a knock on my door, and there stood this strange gentleman. 'Patrick sent me', he said. 'I 'ave ze packet. Can I come in?'

"So I let him in, and he opens his hand - and there's this packet of uncut diamonds! 'Thirty-five thousand pounds', he says, 'and you're to pay me...' Hang on, I said, where's Patrick? Tried all his numbers, not there. Finally I got hold of him: 'Ah dites donc! Forgot to tell you, sorry...'

"It was a rip-off, frankly, but the guy came back next day, got his money, and at the next race I gave Patrick the diamonds. Who knows what happened to them, but that was him - making spontaneous decisions, quite often wrong, about things which were of no consequence to him. You or I would be appalled at being ripped off in a deal of that size, but it didn't bother him. 'I am 'opeless, you know, with the business matters,' he'd say..."

Racing had a narcotic hold on Depailler. I remember his speaking sadly of the end of his marriage: "She is scared of what I do - how can I blame her for that? But how can I stop this? First of all, it is necessary to be honest with yourself."

He had never the slightest doubt about coming back to Formula 1. There is a belief in racing that no driver is ever quite the same again after serious leg injuries, but Patrick was the exception. He may have hobbled unsteadily down the pit lane in the early races of 1980, but on the track he was unimpaired, quick and feisty as ever.

Depailler's hobbies were such as scuba-diving, skiing, sailing and - as we know - hang-gliding. He would look askance at his colleagues as they boarded flights, tennis racquets under their arms.

"Le sport dur!

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