French F1 driver Patrick Depailler died 30 years ago today, while testing an F1 Alfa Romeo at the Hockenheimring in Germany.
Depailler never really fitted the mould for Formula One drivers. Some said he risked too much off the track and ruined what could have been his best season in 1979 by breaking his legs in a hang-gliding accident.
But former employer Ken Tyrrell summed up his irresistible charm: “Whatever he did you could never be angry with him for long. It was this schoolboy thing again. He’d look upset for a minute, then start to grin – and you’d burst out laughing! It was hopeless.”
Depailler is thought of by many as one of the bravest – and coolest – drivers of his era. He could have won more but for his fatal crash on August 1st 1980 – 21 years to the day since his hero Jean Behra also died at an F1 event.
F1’s nearly man
Depailler was one of several French drivers to graduate to Formula One in the 1970s thanks to a scheme backed by fuel company Elf.
He caught the attention of Ken Tyrrell and was chosen to partner Jody Scheckter in 1974, after Jackie Stewart retired and François Cevert had been killed the previous year. Though the cars weren’t always great, Depailler excelled, particularly in difficult weather, and formed a familial relationship with the team.
In a lot of ways, Patrick was a little boy all his life. He was always wanting to go skiing or motorcycling or hang-gliding, things like that. And he had this trusting belief that everything would be all right in the end.
I give him his first F1 drive, at Clermont in 1972, and then offered him a third car for the North American races in 1973. This was a big chance for him – and 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…
Just like his idol Behra, Depailler mixed a full F1 season with Formula Two races in 1974, during which time he won the European F2 title and in F1 peaked with second in Sweden.
During his five seasons at Tyrrell, Depailler played the role of F1’s nearly man, with 31 races in the points and five second places in 1976 alone.
He won his first race at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix, before moving to the Ligier team to partner Jacques Laffite.
At the beginning of 1979, things were on the up for Depailler. Ligier’s JS11 dominated the start of the season, winning both South African races (even if the winning car was at the hands of Laffite).
But in the middle of the season, Depailler was severely injured in a hang-gliding accident, breaking both his legs. The reaction within the industry was decidedly cold: Ligier insisted he had violated the terms of his contract, and terminated the relationship.
“The worst thing was just lying there all those weeks, not knowing if I recover properly,” said Depailler. “For a long time there was the possibility of amputation, and I was very frightened. Not for five months was I sure to drive again.”
Depailler came out of hospital and signed a contract for 1980 with Alfa Romeo. By the beginning of the season, he had discarded his wheelchair and was back on form.
But for all his stunts off the track, he was becoming increasingly concerned about safety in motor racing:
I like circuits where the driver still has a big part to play, even in a poor car. But unfortunately those are the ones that have become very dangerous in this ground effect time. I think I am courageous, you know, but I am not mad.
During an interview at Brands Hatch in June 1980 – two months before his death – he said:
Today we are cornering so quickly that run-off areas and catch fences are necessary, really necessary.
Without them, every mechanical failure would mean complete disaster. And surely no one would want that.
A few weeks later, on August 1st 1980, Depailler became another victim of the ground effect era. He was killed while testing at Hockenheim due to a suspected suspension failure at the Ostkurve.
His car hit the barriers at almost undiminished speeds, while the catch fencing that might have saved his life was rolled up in piles at the side of the track, ready for installation ahead of the Grand Prix.
Onboard with Depailler
These three videos capture Depailler in action during his Tyrrel days: at the wheel of the extraordinary six-wheeled Tyrrel P34 at Monaco, hustling his 008 around another street track – Long Beach – and fishtailing around a sodden Montreal in the same car:
Depailler driving a Tyrrell P34 without bodywork, at Monte Carlo
Onboard footage of Depailler at Long Beach, 1978
Onboard footage of Depailler on a wet lap in Montreal, 1978
Read more: Patrick Depailler biography
Image (C) Ericok via Flickr