August 9, 1944 – August 1, 1980
Formula Two Champion – 1974
Monaco Grand Prix winner – 1978
Nearly every race fan has a favorite driver. But, with the nature of auto racing having multiple competitors and multiple series, a lot of us have several second-tier or third-tier drivers that we root for just as much as our favorite.
For me, as a young person in the 1970s, my “second-favorite” race car driver was a guy named Patrick Depailler. There was a driver named Mario that occupied the number one spot, but Depailler was right up there.
I started paying attention to Formula One in the late 1970s largely due to my uncle, Hugh Maloney. Hugh, who is a race car driver himself, had a large collection of hardbound racing books with color glossy pictures that chronicled Formula One and Sports Car Racing.
I got most of my information about racing through these books, and from a weekly publication called Competition Press. This newspaper eventually morphed into a magazine called AutoWeek.
It probably seems strange to the young generation, but information and coverage about Formula One wasn’t easy to come by in that era. There was no internet and we only had four TV channels. Competition Press was your best bet if you wanted to know about F-1 in the United States.
If there happened to be Formula One on television, it was generally shown tape-delayed, sometimes as much as two weeks later. Even then, the race was portioned into short highlight segments that might be shown on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, in-between coverage of other sporting events.
That began to change a little bit in 1978 when the aforementioned Mario Andretti had a shot at becoming the first American Formula One Champion since Phil Hill in 1961. With the American press paying a bit more attention, I finally got to see an entire Formula One race start-to-finish on television.
The event was the 1978 Grand Prix of Monaco, a beautiful race course, and the winner was a French Driver named Patrick Depailler driving the Tyrrell. This cemented my love of the sport and vaulted Depailler’s stock in my mind.
A little over two years later, Depailler was gone: another tragedy of one of the most dangerous eras in racing.
Patrick Depailler cut his racing teeth in European single-seaters in his native France. Splitting his time between Formula Two and Sports Cars, he drew the attention of Ken Tyrrell in 1972.
Tyrrell, the reigning Championship team of the time, put Depailler into his car for two 1972 Grands Prix, with the young Frenchman taking seventh place at Watkins Glen.
In 1973 the Tyrrell team had another Championship season, with Jackie Stewart locking up the title. Unbeknownst to the press at the time, Stewart had planned to retire at season’s end with Francois Cevert being groomed to be promoted to Number One driver. Jody Scheckter was pegged to replace the retiring Stewart.
Cevert was tragically killed at the season finale putting an abrupt end to those plans. It was Patrick Depailler who inherited the number two spot at Tyrrell for the 1974 season.
Unfortunately for Tyrrell, Scheckter, and Depailler this was the beginning of a decline in prominence for the Tyrrell Team, as the Lotus, McLaren, and later, Ferrari teams began to dominate the sport.
Derek Gardner, chief designer at Team Tyrrell, had a trick up his sleeve. In 1975 he began work on a revolutionary new Formula One design set to debut in the 1976 season. That design would become the Tyrrell P-34; commonly known as the six-wheeler.
The car featured four small front tires, with ten inch rims, that increased the front end grip while also reducing drag with the low-profile design.
Depailler praised the car as revolutionary, while Schecker declared it to be ‘total shit.’ In any event the car debuted with tremendous interest from the press.
The predominant headlines of the 1976 Formula One Season centered on the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and Lauda’s recovery from devastating injuries.
In the meantime Depailler and Sheckter took the P-34 to nine podium finishes between them with Scheckter giving the car its one and only victory in Sweden. Scheckter and Depallier took 3rd and 4th place in the Championship, behind Hunt and Lauda.
The 1977 version of the car was heavier, bulkier and not nearly as competitive. With Goodyear refusing to continue development of the ten-inch tires for just one team, the project was scrapped.
Depailler returned to Tyrrell for a fifth season in 1978 as the team entered a more traditional four-wheeled race car. With Team Lotus dominating the top of the standings with a new ground effects car, Depailler managed a respectable season. He took five podium finishes, along with that brilliant win on the streets of Monaco.
Looking to improve his fortunes in 1979, Depailler moved to the all-French Ligier team taking the Elf petroleum sponsorship with him. The team was improving from also-ran to serious contender at the time. His Ligier teammate, Jacques Laffite, scored victories in the first two Grands Prix of the season.
Depailler then beat Laffite to turn one and secured a flag-to-flag win at the Spanish Grand Prix. For the first time in his career, Depailler seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Depailler’s success was cut short when he broke both legs in a hang-gliding accident putting him out for several weeks. To make matters worse, during his recovery, he somehow managed to fall out of his hospital bed, re-breaking one of the legs, putting him out the entire season.
With his stock lowered, and precious few rides available for 1980, Depailler signed for the fledgling Alfa-Romeo Team, returning to Formula One for the first time since 1951. The car was decently competitive, but horribly unreliable. Depailler’s 1980 season was marked with a DNF nearly every race weekend.
In a private test session mid-season at Hockenheim, Depailler’s Alfa-Romeo suffered a suspension failure in the flat-out Ostkurve. The car overturned and skidded along the Armco for several hundred feet before grinding to a stop.
Depailler could not be saved, and he succumbed to severe head injuries on August 1, 1980. He was 35 years old.
In the wake of Depailler’s crash, the Ostkurve was redesigned with a chicane to slow the cars before the sweeping right hander.
In the scheme of things, Depailler had a career with results that never really matched his potential, falling into a category of largely forgotten drivers as time marches forward.
As far as I’m concerned, Depailler will always hold a special place amongst my racing memories.
Rest in Peace
Patrick Depailler 1944-1980