Patrick Depailler is a driver who had all the characteristics of a true racing driver. He competed purely for the thrill of racing, and his passion was the driving force behind his career. Like so many others, however, Depaillerr’s ambitious career was cut short, not to mention being in the wrong car at the wrong time.
Patrick Depailler was born on 9th August 1944, as the son of an architect. In his earlier years, he was considering becoming a pastry chef, and was also looking at a career in automotive engineering. After he finished his education, he received a qualification as a dental technician. However, by his early teens, he had already caught the racing bug. His first mode of transport was an old Vélosolex, and later a Mobylette, which apparently was funded from his grandmother. He would spend hours a day in the shed, working on the bikes, trying to find the smallest amount of extra performance.
However, he never got a chance to race until 1962. He borrowed a friend’s 500cc Norton 88 SS, racing at a wet Monthléry circuit. Despite treacherous conditions, Patrick finished 2nd. He made the decicion in 1963 to move int0 motorcycle racing, although his parents had no knowledge of it. In his first national 50cc race at Clermont-Ferrand, he was 3rd, and he was approached afterwards by none other than Jean-Pierre Beltoise. At that time, Beltoise was a multiple-times mototcycle champion, and he had noticed Depallier’s riding technique. His compliments fuelled Patrick’s career even further, and pushed him to continue racing.
However, before he could continue, he was forced to spend six months in military service across France. While he was away though, he was pointed towards a newspaper article, with the “Operation Jeunesse” featured in it, which was a single-make championship, designed to find young talent for the future. Once he was finished in the military, he added his name to the thousands of entrants, and won a preliminary test, and selection process. In 1964, he competed in the competition with a Lotus Seven, and instantly scored 2 second places, then a 3rd. His next race, at the Chamrousse Hill Climb, was his first ever victory in motorsport.
After the 1964 season, he failed to acquire the finance to stay in car racing, so he went back to Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and while Jean-Pierre was injured after an earlier crash, Depallier drive his 250cc Bultaco, and did very well. Later, Beltoise went to Depailler’s home, and convinced his parents to support his future career, even though they had only recently found out about it. While they disapproved of Patrick’s dangerous activities, his father provided the finance for him to continue racing.
This allowed him to sign up to the Winfield School in Magny-Cours in 1966, to try and win the Volant Shell. He eventually lost out to fellow forgotten hero Francois Cevert, but Beltoise convinced Alpine to sign Depailler for 3 years. He went into French F3, and while he won many races, and competed in sports car racing, it took him until 1971 to actually win the title.
With that title in hand, it was time for Depailler to move on, and he raced in Formula 1 for the first time in the 1972 season with Tyrrell, at the final race of the season at Watkins Glen. He finished 7th, which was an amazing feat considering it was his first race. Afterwards, the 1-2 finish of Jackie Steward and Francois Cevert, both driving Tyrrells, drove alongside Depailler into the pits as a show of strength. However, he did not stay there for the next season, as he went back to F2 in an Elf chassis. He was scheduled to return to Tyrrell for the final 2 races of the Formula 1 season, but he crashed a motorcycle and broke his leg, ruining his opportunity. However, despite his mistake, he was still granted the opportunity to try again in 1974.
Patrick Depailler at the 1974 Swedish Grand Prix, driving a Tyrrell 007
However, the space allowed for him in the Tyrrell team only came around this time because of the death of Francois Cevert. For the 1974 season, he drove the 005/006/007 variants of the Tyrrell car, and alternated between them, although it it not clear why. Nevertheless, he did very well, getting 5 points-scoring positions in 15 races. However, his season was blighted by several retirements, mostly caused by mechanical problems, and 2 collisions.
While the Tyrrell car remained not very competitive in 1975, Depailler managed to score his first ever podium position in South Africa. While he was in the points only 4 other times, there were less retirements than last year, and only one of those were mechanical related. In 1976, the arrival of the mad 6-wheeled Tyrrell gave the team a boost in terms of pace, even though it went down in history as looking absolutely ridiculous. He managed 7 podium positions out of his 10 finishes, an amazing result. After 2 seasons finishing 9th twice, Depailler was now 4th overall. However, these results were blighted by another awful run of mechanical retirements, so while the car was so quick it could be on nearly all of the races, the car’s reliability held him back.
Patrick Depailler at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix, 3rd place, behind team-mate Jody Scheckter
The 1977 season was a step backwards, as yet again a huge list of retirements held Patrick back. He stepped on the podium 3 times, but still never won a race. The car’s performance was off, and it could rarely finish consecutive races, leaving Depailler 9th with only 20 points. While 1978 still didn’t put an end to the Tyrrell’s dire reliability, Depailler finally scored his first win in Monaco, and by doing so took the lead in the championship for the first time. 4 more podiums weren’t enough to keep a hold of the championship lead, and the car let him down again that year, as he was only in 5th place in the drivers’ championship. However, his driving skill was never diminished, as at the final race of the year in Canada, he drove magnificently in the wet to finish 5th, as shown here (note the slide at 1:48):
1979 saw another win for Patrick, as he took victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, which this time put him level with Gilles Villeneuve in the championship. However, this year was ruined not by the car, but a hang-gliding accident, which broke both of his legs after the 7th race, and forced him out for the rest of the season.
By the time he had recovered, he had decided that he would move on from Tyrrell. He must have been sick of the car’s shocking reliability, despite its tendency to perform well when it didn’t explode. While the Alfa Romeo had only spent a year in Formula 1 since leaving back in 1952, Depailler decided to join them to try and improve their cars. But, this move eventually ended his career.
The first disastrous problem was that the car was even more unreliable than the Tyrrell. In the first 8 races of the 1980 season, Patrick failed to finish a single race. He didn’t retire in South Africa, but was 25 laps down (out of 77), so surely that must have been a mechanical problem as well. All of the other races resulted in retirements, 3 times the engine, and 4 times all different components. While it was clear that the Alfa Romeo was an all-round horrific car, there was nothing Depailler could do.
Patrick Depailler overtaking team-mate Bruno Giacomelli at the 1980 British Grand Prix, which turned out to be his final race
Even if he could have made a difference, he didn’t get the chance. In testing for the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring, a suspension failure pitched and threw his car into the barriers at the high-speed Ostkurve, which caused fatal head injuries when the car rolled over.
The scene of Patrick Depailler's crash
Unfortunately, Patrick Depailler is never remembered as the driver he could have been. Those who do remember would think of the endless retirements, yet I’m sure his fierce driving skill can be used to prove that he deserved a better chance than he did. He had a pure passion for racing, had the skill to match, but misfortune meant he will never be remembered as a possible World Champion.