Patrick Depailler slices through the Thruxton chicane in his Alpine A360 Renault on 19 September 1971 during his victorious French F3 season…
At last really! He had been thrashing around in F3 since 1967; he was 5th in the ’67 French Championship won by Henri Pescarolo, 6th in the ’68 title won by Francois Cevert and 4th in ’69 when Francois Mazet won.
In 1970 Depailler did some F2 events in a Pygmee and Tecno and then stepped back to F3 in 1971 taking the French title from Jean-Pierre Jabouille also Alpine A360 mounted.
Just look at that roll call of French drivers at the time fuelled by a mix of the Volant Shell drivers program, Elf, Matra funding and talent!
The F3 event pictured at the articles outset is a team one ‘The European F3 Cup’ held at Thruxton won by a French Team comprising Pierre-Francois Rousselot, Jacques Coulon and Jean-Louis Lafosse. Depailler was in the second placed team along with Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Other future F1 drivers contesting the event representing their respective countries included Alan Jones, Vern Schuppan, James Hunt, Roger Williamson, Jochen Mass and Conny Andersson.
The individual finishing order of the talent filled Thruxton race was Rousselot in a Brabham BT35 Ford from Depailler with Brit Barrie Maskell third in a Chevron B18 Ford.
I tripped over the shot of PD researching an article on Dave Walker, an F3 contemporary of Patricks who took a similar length of time to break free from the F3 ruck, what a tough school of talent it then was. And has always been I guess.
Walker perhaps peaked in F3, noting the twice badly broken arm which impacted him from ’73 whereas perhaps PD never really peaked, he improved as time went on right until that fateful day at Hockenheim in 1981? James Hunt was another who was ‘thereabouts’ in F3 and peaked in F1. Conversely Jan Magnussen an example of unfulfilled F3 promise in F1 from a more recent era.
In 1972 Depailler contested the European F2 Championship finishing 3rd in a March 722 Ford, winning the Enna round. Mike Hailwood won that year in a Surtees TS10 Ford…but not completely done with F3 stepped back into an Alpine and won the Monaco F3 GP, the F3 race which matters beyond all others.
He also made his F1 debut with Tyrrell in the French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand in July.
He qualified the Tyrrell 004 16th of 24 starters and was non-classified with mechanical problems. It was a strong debut with Patrick invited to drive a third car for Tyrrell again at the season ending US GP at Watkins Glen, he finished 7th having qualified 11th with teammates Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert 1st and 2nd in a great day for the team, the Tyrrell regulars in the later 005/006 chassis.
Patrick stepped up to F1 full time in 1974 together with Jody Scheckter joining Tyrrell taking the seats vacated by Jackie Stewart’s retirement and Francois Cevert’s sad death at Watkins Glen in late 1973. An article about his F1 career is for another time.
As well as a full season of Grand Prix racing he scored one of the two prized works March F2 seats in 1974 having finished third in 1973 in an Elf 2/Alpine A367 Hart.
He and Hans Stuck in the other works March 742 BMW slugged it out all year with Hans taking the first two wins of the season and Patrick the better results from then on winning at Pau, Mugello, Karlskoga, Hockemheim, Vallelunga and with it the title.
Patrick Depailler was a personal favourite of the era; he was one of those guys who loved racing for its own sake, raced for the love of it, if championships came along then well and good but it was all about being a professional driver, racing and enjoying life with all of its elements.
Ken Tyrrell had this to say of the Frenchman;’ In a lot of ways Patrick was like a little boy all of his life. He was always wanting to go skiing or motorcycling or hang gliding. And he had this trusting belief in the end that everything would be alright; when he was driving for me full-time i had it written into his contract that he had to keep away from dangerous toys.’
A driver of another era perhaps, an incredibly talented and charismatic one at that…
Etcetera: Tyrrell 007 Ford, Nurburgring 1976…
Mike Fairholme, Rainer Schlegelmilch
Tailpiece: Renault Alpine Ad circa 1969