After showing promise in a number of sports as a child, including skiing and swimming, Riccardo Patrese started karting at the age of 9, going on to win the 1974 karting World Championship.
From there, he graduated to Formula Italia, Formula 3, Formula 2 and then to Formula 1 in quick succession, making his Formula 1 debut at the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix for the Shadow Team, where he scored a top ten finish.
At the end of the season, Shadow team boss Jackie Oliver left to form the Arrows team, and with him for the 1978 went Patrese, having turned down an offer from Williams, a seat taken by 1980 World Champion Alan Jones.
After almost winning the 1978 South African Grand Prix, but for engine failure a handful of laps from the chequered flag, Patrese went on to score four points finishes including a podium at the Swedish Grand Prix on his way to 12th in the World Drivers Championship.
The 1978 season didn’t pass without controversy however, as having already received criticism from a number of drivers including James Hunt and Ronnie Peterson over his overly aggressive driving, Patrese was deemed responsible by the F1 community (although not by the Italian courts who declared him not guilty of any wrongdoing) for the accident leading to the death of Peterson at Monza, which also involved James Hunt.
At the subsequent race at Watkins Glen a number of the senior drives of the day announced that they would refuse to race unless Patrese was excluded from the event, and the organisers complied. However, upon appeal, it was ruled that this would infringe Patrese’s right to work and he was reinstated, before Arrows would withdraw him to avoid any further controversy, returning him to competition in the Canadian Grand Prix seven days later.
Three more visits to the podium with Arrows led to Patrese finding himself in a Brabham for 1982 alongside World Champion Nelson Piquet. Whilst with Brabham, Patrese found it difficult to compete with Piquet, and whilst scoring a couple of wins, (including lucking into a Monaco Grand prix win in one of the most bizarre finishes in Formula 1 history: multiple retirements on the final lap allowing him to limp home for the win) a ninth and a tenth in the World Drivers Championship when team-mate Piquet was winning championships wasn’t good enough, and Patrese found himself surplus to requirements.
1984 saw Patrese join Alfa-Romeo, and for two seasons he struggled with a fuel-thirsty car that would often prevent its drivers from completing a race distance, robbing them of any chance of scoring points. By the time Patrese rejoined an in-decline Brabham team for 1986, it seemed like any chance of Grand Prix success had escaped him. But his professionalism and humility in the face of a slow and unreliable car earned him a 1988 Williams contract, and the 1987 call-up by Sir Frank to deputize for the injured Nigel Mansell at the end of 1987 (ironically alongside his old team-leader Piquet, who was in the process of winning that year’s championship).
Sadly for Patrese, his arrival coincided with the end of Williams’ deal with Honda, and both he and team-mate Nigel Mansell would struggle all season long with the underpowered Judd N/A engine, in a season where turbo powered drivers would take up 80% of all podium places, and win every Grand Prix.
Better times were ahead, and with Renault re-entering Formula 1 in 1989 to power Williams, Patrese and his new team-mate Thierry Boutsen were able to challenge for wins.
Six podiums later, Patrese finished 3rd in the 1989 World Drivers’ Championship, trailing just the McLarens, and ahead of his team-mate and both Ferraris.
A win in the San Marino Grand Prix of 1990 was the stand-out result in a string of further points finishes, but no podiums. The potential of the Williams car and the performance of the Renault V10 were by now obvious, and so the answer to the question of why Patrese and teammate Boutsen were able to score just two wins between them seemed to be that Williams needed to replace their two ‘#2 drivers’ with a clear #1 if they were to perform to their capability.
And so, Nigel Mansell was brought in for 1991 to partner Patrese, and the team were again able to compete for World Championships. Outqualifying Mansell regularly until the halfway point of the season, Patrese performed well, until Mansell’s upturn in form, and Williams’ increased ability to harness the technical wizardry of the FW14 resulted in Patrese taking more of a support role, while Mansell challenged Senna (ultimately unsuccessfully) for the World Drivers Championship.
The Adrian Newey designed Williams-Renault FW14B for 1992 was another technological leap forward for Formula 1 and the team was able to completely obliterate the opposition. Patrese, again, duly supported Mansell in his cruise to the World Drivers Championship, winning the Japanese Grand Prix and scoring eight further podiums, on his way to securing second place in the World Drivers Championship.
With the three top drivers of the day Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna all being linked with Williams drives for 1993, Patrese blinked first and secured himself a deal with Benetton before it became clear that none of those three drivers was too keen on partnering the other two, which left Prost as #1 and a spare seat alongside him had Patrese wished to stay. Being the consummate professional (something that became a mainstay of his career) Patrese honoured his agreement with Benetton and the Williams seat was taken by future World Champion and all-round good egg Damon Hill.
Partnered by a young Michael Schumacher for 1993, Patrese found it difficult to compete, and was released at the end of the year, choosing to retire rather than to pursue any opportunities further down the grid. The then longest Formula 1 career of all time had come to an end.
It has been rumoured that Patrese was approached about returning to Williams to replace Ayrton Senna after his fatal crash at Imola, but that Patrese chose not to return.