16 January 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 44 - The risk taker

In 1979, the Monaco Grand Prix – the seventh round of the World Championship – took place on Sunday May 27. Going into the Monaco weekend Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter led the World Championship with 25 points, but he had won only one race. Ligier’s Jacques Laffite, who had won the first two races of the year, had 24, while Carlos Reutemann (Team Lotus) was third, despite not having won a race. He had 21 points. Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve was next with 20 points, having won twice. He was equal on points to Ligier’s Patrick Depailler who had won in Spain. The title was wide open…

Scheckter won that weekend and stayed ahead, increasing his total to 30 points, because the points system allowed only the best four results from the first seven races, despite being structured 9-6-4-3-2-1 for the top six. They were all still in the hunt but there was then a five-week break before the French GP at Dijon on July 1.

The weekend after Monaco was a long weekend in France, with the three-day Pentecote holiday. There was little for the F1 drivers to do. Formula 2 took place at Pau and there was the annual Nürburgring 1000km sports car race in Germany, but for the F1 drivers it was time off. Patrick Depailler decided to go home to his native Puy-de-Dome departément, the area around the city of Clermont-Ferrand, which features a string of picturesque volcanic craters, cones and domes. His plan was to go and jump off the side of a mountain, strapped to a hang-glider, and see how long he could keep the device in the air, looking for thermals and updrafts in the airflows around the mountains. It is a pastime that requires not only skill and courage but also experience. And it’s dangerous because flying with the wind can often bring surprises.

Depailler was not a man who worried much about risk. He smoked like a chimney, he had raced motorcycles in his wild youth, he still liked to ride them, and he loved to scuba-dive. And, of course, he was a Formula 1 driver… which meant that he had a contract which meant he wasn’t supposed to do these things.

But he found it hard to live without the thrill of such things. This had been illustrated a few years earlier when Ken Tyrrell agreed to run the young Elf protégé in a third car for the French GP at Depailler’s home circuit of Clermont-Ferrand, alongside Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert. Tyrrell was impressed and so in 1973 offered Patrick the chance to race in the Canadian and United States GPs at the end of the season. Ten days before the Mosport race he crashed a trials bike and broke his leg. The opportunity was lost. But Tyrrell took him on for 1974, having lost Stewart to retirement and Cevert to a crash at Watkins Glen. Paired with Jody Scheckter, he showed his speed, taking pole position in Sweden that year and finishing second to his team-mate. That year he also won the European Formula 2 title, winning four of the nine races he took part in. He would score 14 podiums in the years that followed, racing the Tyrrell six-wheeler in 1976 and 1977, before he finally won his first F1 victory at Monaco in 1978. He finished fifth in the World Championship that year and then agreed to join Ligier, which was expanding  to two cars and switching from Matra engines to Cosworths. Designer Gérard Ducarouge designed the  beautiful JS11 and the team began to the season with three wins in the first five races: two for Laffite and one for Depailler. Both drivers were obviously in the running for the title…

This seems not have been a consideration when Depailler launched himself into the air on Sunday, June 3 and headed his hang-glider away from the mountain and began to look for thermals. He looped around and flew close to a cliff, where one can often find air moving upwards, but then an unexpected gust pushed the hang-glider into the cliff face and it tumbled to the rocky ground below. He survived but had hurt back of his legs and a wrist in his fall. His friends called for help and a medical helicopter was despatched by the Protection Civile service and he was put on to a stretcher and winched away, being flown to the main hospital in Clermont-Ferrand. He had multiple fractures of his right tibia and fibula and a broken right wrist – and his left ankle and foot had both been damaged badly. Surgeons completed a lengthy operation to try to put the bones back in place, but they warned that he would probably need more surgery. For some time there was still a risk that they might need to amputate. Guy Ligier recognised that Depailler was gone and so signed Jacky Ickx for the rest of the year and began talking to France’s next rising star Didier Pironi about a drive for 1980.

Depailler was not a good patient and as things were healing in August he managed to fall out of his hospital bed and re-break his leg. It was not until November that he knew for sure that he would be able to race again, thanks to a series of operations conducted by Professor Emile Letournel, the head of orthopedic surgery at the Centre Médico-Chirurgical de la Porte de Choisy in Paris.

He managed to convince Alfa Romeo to sign him for 1980 but in the early part of the year he was still in pain and not fully mobile. The car was fast – which was demonstrated when he qualified third at Long Beach, the fourth race of the year - but not at all reliable. He was soon back on the pace and often beating his team-mate Bruno Giacomelli in qualifying. But then the team went testing in Hockenheim in the week before the German GP. On August 1 the Alfa Romeo suffered a suspension failure in the high-speed Ostkurve at around 175 mph. There was no catchfencing in place and the car hit the barriers. Depailler did not survive. He is buried in the cemetery of his home village of Crevant-Laveine, in the land of the volcanoes of the Puy-de-Dome.

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