The French driver had a short career in Formula 1, but his passage marked the history of motor racing.
He is not the most famous Frenchman in the discipline, but he participated in writing the history of the French in Formula 1. However, it was on two wheels that the native of Clermont-Ferrand began his career, before starting in Formula 2, on. the Charade circuit located at the height of the capital of Auvergne.
Along with one seat, the son of the architect Marcel Depailler, who among other things designed the University of Clermont, made freedom in local rallies and even won the Tour Auto in 1970, with Jean-Pierre Beltoise.
The following season, it was Formula 3 where Patrick Depailler won his first French championship title. That same year, he won the Monaco Grand Prix in this category, which opened the doors to Formula 1 in 1972.
With the help of his sponsor, Elf, Ken Tyrrell, director of the American team, participated in two races as the third driver. After this short experience, Clermontois moved to the lower category, showed some speed, climbed on several podiums, without winning a race.
Despite everything, he was called up by this same Ken Tyrrell for the 1974 season to replace his teammate, François Cevert, who had died some time earlier after going off the track at the Watkins Glen circuit.
June 8, 1974, in the history of France
The driver is in a hurry to show that he is at the level of the first category of motor sport. In his first race with a powerful single seater Ford, he scored his first point. The first of a long series. A few races later, during the Swedish Grand Prix, he got a pole position and entered the history of the French sport because he became the first tricolor to achieve this performance. Not even François Cevert or Maurice Trintignant could do the same.
Struggling throughout the race to win the race, he was eventually forced to bow out by three tenths to his fellow South African, Jody Scheckter. The rest of his first full season is more difficult as points are scarce.
In the fight for the title
The 1975 season is like the end of the previous one. Difficult. He registered only 12 sub-units, but he got on the podium, in Kyalami. But 1976 is something completely different. Already, his firm surprised the whole world with the P34 model which has six wheels. If many people are reluctant to see the technology presented by the American team, critics will bite their fingers.
The Frenchman’s first two podiums were achieved in one seat “traditional” and four wheels, but the following will be done by the wonderful machine that is the P34. In Monaco, then in Sweden or again in Japan, Patrick Depailler (together with Jody Scheckter) proves that this technology works. The two men even find themselves in a battle for the title of world champion. Some distance, of course, from Niki Lauda who dominates the entire start of the season, but the Frenchman remains in action.
In the last two races of the season, he saw his first victory, but James Hunt in Canada and Mario Andretti in Japan decided otherwise. For the whole season, the one who has a dental technician diploma in his pocket scored 39 points (seven podiums), which will remain his best season for points scored.
Victory comes at last
Unfortunately, after the epic of 1976, things were difficult for Auvergnat the following season. The Tyrrell P34 swaps its blue and white colors for those of the First National City. At the same time, the technology envisioned by the team’s engineers is no longer as effective. Podiums are no longer there, the car is slow and reliability is non-existent (nine retirements in the season).
His bad luck followed him to the 24 hours of Le Mans, where he took part in the Sarthe race with Jacques Laffite, but with less than four hours remaining, the two Frenchmen were forced to retire. The Alpine A442 of the two future teammates was in second place.
In 1978, Tyrrell returns to normal. The six wheels are left in the garage and the single seat takes on the usual looks of Formula 1. However, the credibility that was absent in the previous model is still there this year. But these technical difficulties do not prevent the Clermontois from signing the revolution.
In Monaco, he started from fifth place and found himself second at the exit of Sainte-Dévote, after a very good start. For more than 30 laps, the Tyrrell driver and Niki Lauda, 3, put pressure on John Watson, who failed to stop when exiting the tunnel. The Frenchman then finds himself in the lead, with the two-time world champion (third title won in 1984), hot on his heels. After the Austrian stopped, he was able to control his race further, before winning with a lead of around twenty seconds over the No. 1 Brabham. Austria before attempting a new journey.
1979 is a year of change. For the first time in his career, he will explore Formula 1 with a team other than Tyrrell. He signed with Ligier and teamed up with Jacques Laffite. A 100% French team will be terrifying.
If Ligier has little experience in the category, the adjustment was made without problems. The first pole and the first victory came very quickly. And this year, the duo will build on the momentum the team has built since its arrival in F1. The first two races are won by Laffite. After two retirements in South Africa and a fifth place in Long Beach (West USA), Patrick Depailler will make the Marseillaise sound again in Jarama (Spain). He gives his second victory in F1 and at the same time becomes the leader of the world championship.
But the happiness will be short-lived. During the summer holidays, this extreme sports fan goes to the slopes of Puy-de-Dôme, the famous volcano of Auvergne, to fly. Except that a bad gust of wind spoils the pilot’s flight, which breaks both of his legs.
“They think it’s normal to burn out in a car or have an accident, you’re not able to drive for six months or a year. That’s normal, but we’re not allowed to have normal activities outside of our game. A man has a different effect, you have to be free, you have to be myself. I needed to go motorcycling, scuba diving, lots of sports”explained Patrick Depailler during his visit to the hospital.
“In the curves, the cars are going very fast. We reached 3 G of cross acceleration, which puts a huge burden on the pilots. For me it’s very fast. It’s technically amazing, but I think we’ve come a long way. »
After a very long restoration, the two-time Grand Prix winner was able to convince Alfa Romeo to hire him for 1980. But the car was far from perfect. Trust and performance are lacking. Elimination is often more than a race to the finish.
During a private test at the Hockenheimring, he went off the track at around 300 km/h in one of the fastest corners of the German circuit. The shock caused him to fracture his skull and he died in hospital eight days before his 37th birthday.
Some time before this tragedy, the pilot told TF1 his concerns about the new seats. “In the curves, the cars are going very fast. We reached 3 G of cross acceleration, which puts a huge burden on the pilots. For me it’s very fast. It’s technically amazing, but I think we’ve come a long way. » When the journalist, Roger Gicquel, tells him that he has a feeling that he is not afraid of anything, the latter answers him. “he is very scared”.
Patrick Depailler has been resting for 42 years now in the cemetery of Crevant-Laveine, not far from Clermont-Ferrand and a monument in his honor has been built in Chamalières, a town bordering the capital of Auvergne.