August 1st, 1980: The day we lost Patrick Depailler

Thirty-five years ago today, French Formula 1 driver Patrick Depailler was killed in a testing crash at Hockenheim. Jean-Philippe Vennin reflects.

August 1st, 1980: The day we lost Patrick Depailler
Patrick Depailler
Patrick Depailler, Alfa Romeo T179
#8 Renault Sport Renault Alpine A442: Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite
1976 Tyrrell Cosworth P34 (Patrick Depailler): Joe Twyman

It was a warm day, and most were on the road to the summer holidays. On August 1st 1980, radios announced the sad news of the death of Patrick Depailler.

The French Formula 1 driver had crashed heavily at Hockenheim during a private testing session, in a time the track still featured its endlessly-long straights. That was exactly 35 years ago today.

The Frenchman's Alfa Romeo had violently impacted the barrier, leaving no chance for its driver’s survival. Just about to celebrate his 36th birthday, Depailler was considered the "Capitaine" of what was then informally called the F1 French National Team – among their number in 1980 was a rookie named Alain Prost and seven other drivers.

Bike-racing beginnings

Born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1944, Depailler started competing in motorcycles under the supervision of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, before switching to four wheels, like his mentor.

He won the 1970 Tour de France Automobile (with Beltoise) and was crowned French F3 Champion in 1971, before a first F1 appearance with Tyrrell in 1972 in the French GP that ran near his hometown, in Charade.

A pure product from the Elf fuel company’s ladder, Depailler joined the prestigious English team as a full-time driver two seasons later, replacing Francois Cevert, who was killed during a practice session in Watkins Glen.

It was also in 1973 that Depailler won the European F2 championship.

Title contender with Ligier

With Tyrrell, Depailler very quickly fought towards the front. He drove the radical six-wheeled Tyrrell P34, and finished fourth in the 1976 world championship. But the Frenchman had to pick up many second places before grabbing his first success, at the 1978 Monaco GP with a four-wheeled Tyrrell 008.

Depailler also took part several times in the Le Mans 24 Hours (including with Renault) before joining the Ligier F1 team in 1979, with Jacques Laffite as his teammate.

Winner in Jarama and leading the championship by mid-season, he severely injured himself in June, breaking his legs in a hang-gliding accident and putting his career in limbo.

A new gamble with Alfa Romeo

After refusing Guy Ligier's offer because it was said to be a number-two role, Depailler left to join Alfa Romeo, a young and ambitious team, in 1980.

Despite walking around with crutches and being barely able to hit the ground without feeling a terrible pain, Depailler qualified at the back of the grid of the first two races before putting the Alfa seventh on the grid in Kyalami, and then third at Long Beach.

He also managed to stay in the leading group in Monaco until a mechanical failure (of which this car had many) concluded his run.

With a year of recovery since his hang-glider crash, all his physiotherapy work looked like it was offering him greater confidence. But the story was cut short with the fatal private testing session accident in Hockenheim.

A few months later, his young teammate Bruno Giacomelli score a pole position on the last GP of the season in the very car that Depailler had spent so much time providing developing work.

After the race, which he failed to finish, Giacomelli gave the nicest tribute to his former teammate: "Unlike me, Patrick would have won with this car."

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