Patrick Gaillard – One Wrong Decision

There are some defining occasions in life. Vital decisions, job changes, unique opportunities, a special invitation… Like any other ‘job’ in the world, motor racing faces all these circumstances and, generally, career success depends on a multitude of factors. But what happens when, in different periods of your life, one of these countless factors has a tiny, little problem? It may have no consequences, hold back your progress, open another door, or… slowly erode your chances to be among the very great. Proof of it is a rather unknown Frenchman, Patrick Gaillard.

Patrick Gaillard (Google Images)

Patrick Gaillard was born in Paris on the 12th of February, 1952, and soon experienced the smell of petrol and rubber since his father had a garage to host his van and truck rental dealership. Perhaps that environment sparked the interest in mechanical sports, and in his early teens Gaillard made his debut on the thriving motorcycle racing scene, even reaching the French National Championship, where he occasionally rode a 350cc Honda. Young Patrick was a gifted driver and his parents didn’t quite disapprove of his career choice, but motorcycle racing was far more dangerous than four-wheeled racing, so they took the opportunity of his forced career interruption for military service to persuade him that, if he was to be a racing driver, at least he should switch to cars. Thus, in 1974, Gaillard enrolled at the Volant Winfield at Magny-Cours – precisely the year when support switched from Shell to Elf – he finished as a semi-finalist. It was a good way to start, above all because, unlike most of his opponents, he had no karting or any kind of other four-wheel background.

Gaillard was 22 already but had displayed enough talent, and in 1975 he got his first opportunity to be a proper racing driver when Jacques Brussel – the boss of the car importing business Danielson, based in Auxerre – decided to import Marches for a campaign in the European Formula Renault Championship. It was a huge step to start right at European level but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He would be paired with the far more experienced Alain Cudini, who had won the aforementioned championship back in 1972 and had also become increasingly renowned on the small prototype scene. However, results failed to materialise and money was tight, and so Gaillard switched to a very small squad, finishing the season at the wheel of a Hampe. With just one point, it may be easy to say that skipping the first steps on the single-seater ladder was a huge mistake, but he would soon prove any doubters wrong.

At the start of the 1975 Nogaro Formula Renault race, we may see a lot of French promises and some seasones specialists: Ragnotti, Pironi, Cudini, Arnoux, Dallest, Schlesser, Couderc, Sourd, Snobeck, Tambay, Gaillard….

In 1976 Gaillard bought the Martini Mk15 René Arnoux had used previously and found some sponsoring from UFP, so he again entered the European Formula Renault Championship, this time with his own operation. Obviously, it was underfunded and consisted of just on the driver and a mechanic, but Patrick had moved to Saint-Parize-le-Châtel, near Magny-Cours, where he loaned a garage. His lodging there was the Jeannette Theuriot residential, a place that would become known for its association with drivers as well as the old student residences near the Universities. From there, he could practice at the circuit, back then just a national venue and smaller than the one we were used to see in F1 and other high-profile series since 1991, but it was a must for young drivers and the headquarters of a few renowned racing schools. On his own, Gaillard had a tougher job but he never gave up, finishing the season with fourteen points. That wasn’t enough to match fully-budgeted drivers such as Cudini, Snobeck, Pironi, Sourd and others, and Gaillard remarked that “Unless we were with Elf, it was impossible to be noticed in France” [Echappement Classic, nº71, p. 21]. Just as a curiosity, Gaillard’s younger brother Christian also did some races in the same championship with an older Martini, under the pseudonym of “Kelson”, ending the season in 20th place, with four points.

It was then that Gaillard’s career took the ultimate different step as he, unlike most of the French drivers, decided to cross the Channel and try his luck in England. At the end of the season Patrick took notice of a test organised by the works Chevron squad and travelled there, soon beating the reference time established by works driver Geoff Lees with the brand new B38. Thus Derek Bennett, Chevron’s founder and boss, proposed a deal to Gaillard: the Frenchman would buy a chassis and an engine, and in return would be allowed to be based at the factory and have some spares and assistance to contest both British F3 Championships in 1977. Even though some of his mates and mentors at the Winfield Racing School – where Patrick used to work as an instructor to get some money – advised him against it, while he also didn’t speak a word of English, Gaillard and his girlfriend (and future wife) decided to take the challenge and move to England, loaning a house near Snetterton.

1977 Croix-en-Ternois European F3 race: Elio de Angelis leads Beppe Gabbiani and Patrick Gaillard (S. Le Bozec)

Back then Great Britain had two successful F3 championships – the BARC BP Super Visco and the BRDC Vandervell – organised by respectively the British Automobile Racing Club and the British Racing Drivers Club, two long-time established motorsport associations with immense prestige, which made both championships able to compete with the European F3 title as the best series. So Patrick Gaillard was now on the big scene, with a privately-entered Chevron and an almost total lack of knowledge of the circuits. It would never be an easy task. The team was composed of himself, his now wife Christine (who acted as timekeeper), his faithful mechanic, known for his big moustache and an ever-present woollen cap, and a Mercedes van from the family enterprise. However, it turned into a season of meaningful education against considerable opposition – Derek Daly, Stephen South, Eje Elgh, Geoff Lees, Derek Warwick, Geoff Brabham, Nelson Piquet, Tiff Needell, Beppe Gabbiani, Brett Riley, etc. – and Patrick grabbed points in both championships, his best being 13th place in the BRDC one with 21 points and his best placing a lower step on the podium at Silverstone. To help fund his British operation, Gaillard on occasion entered the European Championship in order to gather some starting money, and he got two points from a fifth at Croix-en-Ternois. Undoubtedly, Gaillard proved to be fast and consistent, and his fast learning abilities convinced Derek Bennett that he was one of the men to watch in the future. And being one of the few ‘Frenchies’ driving in the British series, he got the funny nickname of ‘Super Frog’, which promptly led him to add a frog to his helmet and name on the car!

European F3 round at Zeltweg, 1977: Piquet leads Daly, Olofsson, Siller, Svensson, Gaillard, Schöch, Kennedy, Royer, Jorge, Fritz and Conrad (Getty Images)

Even if both British series were contested by some of the best young drivers and biggest F3 manufacturers, the European title had a bigger reputation and so, after years of providing chassis to powerful clients, Chevron decided to enter its own two-car team for 1978. It needed a lot of money and Gaillard didn’t have any proper sponsors. Hence the management engaged Dutch promise Michael Bleekemolen, who arrived with huge sponsorship. Michael had already tried F1 the previous season with a RAM-entered March in which he never managed to qualify, and wanted to complete his learning curve. He wasn’t in the same league as the future champions, but he was far from being just a pay driver and immediately showed his abilities, which further pushed Gaillard to show his best. During the course of the season it began to appear that the Frenchman was the superior driver.

“Superfrog” on his office… (Facebook)

The new Chevron-Toyota B43 was on par with the established Ralt RT1 and the new March 783, so it wasn’t by any means strange to see Bleekemolen take the second step on the podium at his home track of Zandvoort while Gaillard started the season in fifth. Then both cars made the podium in Austria, again with the Dutchman in second and Gaillard now in third, but the tide would turn Patrick’s way when the circus arrived at Monte Carlo. Strangely, the event was eligible for BARC British and French Championship points, and not for the European Championship, yet in pre-Macau days this was the most coveted win a Formula 3 driver could grab, all under the watchful eye of every F1 team boss and countless sponsors who never missed the glamourous Monaco Grand Prix! After the sieve that was pre-qualifying and then the qualifying sessions, both Chevrons easily made the cut and were seeded for Heat 2. It rained throughout the day and the first heat was raced on a wet track, with Teo Fabi winning ahead of Warwick and De Angelis. However, the deluge stopped when the cars aligned for the second heat. The track was drying fast and Gaillard gambled on on slicks! It soon proved to be the right choice and Patrick easily took the lead a few laps into the race and won in overwhelming style, 28 seconds ahead of Daniele Albertin, while also taking fastest lap in the process!

Monaco was his race… (Facebook)

The final took place on a dry track, and De Angelis started from pole, but Gaillard took the lead from the start and gained a good advantage. However, according to him “In the final, I took the lead but a few laps from the finish my rear anti-roll bar broke. From then one, I had super traction, but also major understeer in corner entries. So Elio was right back on me” [Echappement Classic, nº71, p. 23]. The gifted Italian tried and tried, but couldn’t pass the newer Chevron (De Angelis used a B38 from Scuderia Everest) until the 16th lap when he tried a desperate attempt in Loews hairpin… “I made a beginners’ mistake by not having closed the door, so he sent me to the guardrails and I was lucky not to roll over. The mass was said!” [Echappement Classic, nº71, p. 23]. And so De Angelis won ahead of an enraged Gaillard, and a lot of people criticized the Italian for the blunt fashion in which he forced his way past to take this prestigious win. This was further exacerbated by the fact that Elio was from a wealthy family, with parents fully committed to providing him with the best to pursue his career. However, it would be one of the rare occasions in which the Latino blood of De Angelis got the better of his usually rational approach and gentleman-like education for which he would be remembered by the fans and most of his peers and motor racing personalities. It is interesting to read Gaillard’s current opinion: “On the spot, I would have exploded! I was close to doing it as I was a little hot-blooded at the time. But looking back I think I would have done the same. He came back from F2, just as Pironi the year before. In his situation, I understand his attitude, because he had to win. But it made me angry!” [Echappement Classic, nº71, p. 23]. As a matter of fact, even with all his wealth, De Angelis always tried to prove himself for his skills, and no one was able to forget the way Gaillard had driven the whole weekend, undoubtedly calling on the attention of some men in the F1 paddock.

… until de Angelis forced his way and put Patrick on the barriers (Facebook)

The season progressed and Gaillard compensated his moral win at Monaco with a real win in the fifth round at Imola, and then put in a dominant performance at the Nürburgring, a track he was driving on for the second time, which left him right in contention for the title. Chevron was at the top of its power but tragedy touched them from the sky when Derek Bennett died in a hand-gliding accident earlier in March. Dave Wilson and the remaining associates secured the future of the team and had the budget for the season, even hiring Tony Southgate as a consultant, but a natural degree of instability ensued and the team gradually couldn’t match Ralt’s subsequent evolutions in the second half of the season. Even in these difficult circumstances Gaillard put in a superb performance in heavy rain at Monza to finish second behind Jan Lammers. Then Bleekemolen and Gaillard took a 1-2 at Enna and “Super Frog” was again second to Lammers at Magny-Cours. But at Knutstorp it was all Gaillard’s fault when, starting from the second row of the grid, he tried an impossible move for the lead and caused a huge pile-up that eliminated nine cars, including his own. After that, it was obvious that there was no way to match the Ralts, and Lammers and Olofsson soon turned the title chase into a two-way fight while Gaillard just managed to score a few points in the final four races. Nevertheless, he finished a respectable third in the final standings, with 48 points, well ahead of teammate Bleekemolen and other stars in the field, such as Fabi, Warwick, Kennedy and Prost.

Zandvoort 1978 (Google Images)

Gaillard being one of the brightest prospects of 1978, Chevron was keen to retain Patrick’s services and there were high hopes for the brand new B48 F2 car designed by Tony Southgate. But ahead of the extensive off-season testing period, Gaillard had his first opportunity to drive a Formula 2 car from the Japanese championship, for privileged client Le Mans Company, which entered their Chevron-BMW B42 under the Team Phoenix banner. These Japanese ventures were among the best ways for European drivers to boost their income and gain experience, and Gaillard duly did both, adapting very well to finish fourth as the second-best Chevron in a race at Suzuka. But the big problem now was money. Derek Bennett had died, Dave Wilson had fallen ill and the costs of designing and testing the team’s first ground-effect F2 car strained their finances completely, so they needed drivers with a lot of money… which was by no means Gaillard’s strongest point. Chevron couldn’t promise him a seat, just a chassis, and so Patrick’s career was dangling on a rope…

Donington 1979 (Facebook)

It was renowned weekly AUTOHebdo that saved Gaillard’s career, when they started a campaign to raise funds from their readers to help sponsoring Patrick’s career. Being extremely popular in France and abroad, all those small amounts summed up allowed the journal to do its part (while every donating reader received an answer from Patrick!), and they also managed to get help from the specialized import/export company Promotor, allowing Gaillard to buy a Hart engine and enter his Chevron chassis as a factory car alongside Bobby Rahal in the fourth round on the daunting Nürburgring. The money just allowed occasional entries and Patrick did his best to justify all the trust and the donations by finishing fifth in the rain at Pau, and then fourth at Hockenheim, losing a place on the podium when he ran out of fuel on the finishing line. Meanwhile Patrick Depailler had his hand-gliding accident in June and, as the Ligier driver had befriended and helped Patrick, there were hopes that Gaillard could take his drive alongside Jacques Laffite, but Guy Ligier promptly chose Ickx. A second opportunity came through Dave Wilson, who recommended him to Ensign’s Mo Nunn when Derek Daly decided to leave the team after a string of hapless modifications to the delicate N179.

Sweepin’ through Woodcote (Getty Images)

In fact, Nunn’s first choice for the French GP was Tiff Needell but the Englishman was denied a superlicense, so Ensign called Gaillard who promptly had his documents ready – rumours of French favoritism by Balestre abounded, as usual – but even with its new nose design the N179 was neither reliable nor fast, so Patrick failed to qualify for his home event. However, at Silverstone the Frenchman put the ill-handling car on the last row of the grid, finishing 13th and last. Elf gave Gaillard a little help which secured his seat for a few more races, but at Hockenheim he failed to qualify by nine hundredths of a second, but he took his revenge in Austria. Starting from last, he profited from retirements and the fast, flowing circuit which mitigated the handling difficulties of the Ensign to give off a superb performance that allowed him to be in a fight with some of the midfield runners. He was running 12th when the suspension snapped. By then, the money had run out and after again failing to qualify at Zandvoort when his engine broke, Mo Nunn replaced Gaillard by Marc Surer until the end of the season. The 1979 season finished with mixed feelings as, spending all season on a financial tightrope, Patrick proved to be able to extract the best from his F2 car to grab five points in four races, and finally achieving the dream of driving an F1 car in which he was no worse than Daly and Surer, despite the Ensign being a plainly bad car. On the other hand, his perspectives were close to none…

German G.P. 1979 (Facebook)

However, a brand new opportunity appeared when he was invited to drive a Can-Am at Laguna Seca… The car was a Schkee, basically a Lola-Chevrolet T332 with a highly modified bodywork made by entrant Tom Spalding. Spalding found Sony sponsorship and called Gaillard to drive the car, which featured an onboard camera – one of the first experiences in the area – giving superb footage to the spectators. Patrick started from the back of the grid and had no chance of finishing high up. Nevertheless, he did a superb job to recover to 11th, which – apart from the spectators’ delight – drew the attention of several American squads. A new path in his career could have taken off from here since he received several invitations from Can-Am and CART teams for the following season, including a proposal by Gurney’s All American Racers team! Gaillard could have been a pioneer among European drivers switching to CART but he desperately wanted to be in F1. So instead he elected to find a new F2 deal for 1980. In hindsight, it was this decision that ruined his career. In his interview with Echappement Classic Gaillard fully acknowledged this and confessed that his wife always told him he had been a fool for not moving to the States in 1980…

The beautiful and exotic Schkee (Facebook)

Back in Europe, Gaillard was discussing a deal with AGS but, with no money, it was Dallest – another of the much cited unfulfilled promises from France – who took the seat. Gaillard finally received an invitation from Maurer to replace an injured Eje Elgh (the team was already at odds with the death of Markus Höttinger at Höckenheim) at Pau and showed no lack of pace after so many months on the sidelines. He took the lead early in the race to dominate it until a battery lead failed, giving him no choice but to visit the pits and, soon after, retire. Ironically, it was Dallest who inherited the lead and won the Pau F2 GP. Another invitation by Maurer in Silverstone led to nothing as the engine broke early but in between those two F2 opportunities he was given one more chance at F1, again with Ensign!

Pau 1980 (Christophe Holin)

After all the problems that had plagued the small squad in 1979, Mo Nunn had a better car and a solid sponsor (Unipart) for 1980 and completed this promising package by signing veteran Clay Regazzoni, who the year before at Silverstone had given Williams its first win. However, Regazzoni had a freak accident at Long Beach when he lost his brakes on Shoreline Drive at 280kph and went straight on into the escape road to crash heavily into Ricardo Zunino’s abandoned Brabham. Regazzoni suffered permanent spinal damage and was paralyzed from waist down. Ensign ran Tiff Needell in Belgium and Monaco, but Nunn called back Gaillard for the Spanish GP. This could have been the Frenchman’s great opportunity, but it was all spoilt by the FISA-FOCA war, as the FISA teams – Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – boycotted the event from second practice onwards. All negotiations failed and although the organisers, pushed by the FOCA, pursued with the event it was obvious that from the moment FISA had stated they weren’t sanctioning the race it would be a matter of time until the results would be stripped of their Championship status. Yet, at the moment, Gaillard was paid to drive and qualified the Ensign on the last row, and then wandered through the last few positions in a race of attrition to finish sixth as the last car running, giving him and Ensign a point. It’s worthy to note he was five laps behind the winner Alan Jones, but in between he had a collision with John Watson that made him finish the race in slow pace, without a rear wing and with severe bodywork damage! It could have been the turnaround that he expected, but the race was deemed illegal and the dream was soon over. Besides, from the French GP onwards, Jan Lammers was free after having been released by ATS and took the Ensign seat. What single-seaters concerned, it was practically the end of the road for Gaillard, save for two F2 races in Japan that he used to earn some prize money.

Spanish G.P. 1980… It could have been his day save for the FISA-FOCA war… (Facebook)

Meanwhile, Gaillard had ventured into the sportscar scene after accepting an invitation by the Chevalley brothers to drive their self-made ACR-Cosworth 80. André Chavalley had driven Inalteras until he decided to form his own squad, and Max Sardou designed the car based upon a Lola T380 but with a very aerodynamically effective bodywork made with the Hunaudières straight in mind. Although it was a very small squad, the car was well-built and had great straight-line speed which allowed Patrick to qualify in second place at Silverstone! Sharing the car with team owner André Chevalley and gentleman-driver François Trisconi, Gaillard soon fell back to earth when the clutch broke after just 25 laps, very early in a six-hour race. They went to Le Mans with the same car, and thirteenth on the grid was quite a good result. (It is said that neither Chevalley nor Trisconi managed lap times to qualify the car, so Gaillard did some laps with their helmets and overalls on to qualify on behalf of them.) The team had had no resources to develop the car and it suffered a lot of problems until retiring with a broken front wishbone early in the night. Gaillard didn’t have any interesting prospects for 1981, so Patrick resigned himself to waiting for occasional drives to appear, and in the meantime helped Chevalley to develop the B-version of his Cosworth-engined ACR 80 for his next attempt at Le Mans. Both shared the car with Bruno Sotty that year, but the new design was no better and they again retired by nightfall, a broken clutch the problem once more.

24h Le Mans 1981 (Paul Kooyman)

Earlier in 1981, during the off-season, Gaillard was contacted by Günther Richter, a German entrepreneur who was planning to enter F2 with his own marque, the GRS. The team would field two cars, with Jochen Dauer partnering Gaillard, but soon after the first test it became obvious there were too many structural problems with the John Thompson-designed GRS-BMW TC001, and after two failed attempts to enter Dauer early in the season the team retired to go back to testing. Gaillard would return to the car in a desperate attempt to develop it into a useful proposition, but to no avail. However, when Dallest was injured in an accident during the Thruxton F2 round, AGS called in Gaillard to drive at the Nürburgring, certainly hoping to profit from his expertise on this daunting circuit that had led to the memorable win back in his glory days of 1978. However, the AGS JH17 was basically the same car from the previous season and if in 1980 it had showed potential, it was now completely outdated. Gaillard drove anonymously until he retired from the race. Dallest was back at Vallelunga, and Gaillard would bid his farewell to single-seaters at Spa-Francorchamps, driving a March-BMW 802 for the small German WRT outfit. It ended in another race to forget. Without money, it was impossible to mount any successful campaign and Patrick understood he had no more future in motor racing. However, in 1982, he was called by Yves Courage to drive their brand new Group C Cougar-Cosworth 01 in the Nürburgring 1000kms alongside the boss himself and Jean-Philippe Grand, but the car sadly broke its suspension on the very first lap. He wasn’t called up for Le Mans, but his second chance of the year, at Brands Hatch, finished in practice when the team gave up after severe engine problems. His last race would be the 1983 Le Mans 24 Hours for which Gaillard was invited by the Kremer brothers to drive their special bodywork Porsche CK5/83 alongside Derek Warwick and Frank Jelinski. It wasn’t the opportunity that would save his career, as the car was unable to match the true Group C cars in overall performance. They retired early on with a head gasket failure. It truly finished there and then, even if it was rumoured two years later that Gaillard would return driving a works WM.

Gaillard’s swansong at the 1983 24h Le Mans, driving the special Kremer Porsche (Google Images)

Just 31 years old, Gaillard had just ended what had promised to be a great career. It can’t be said that Gaillard was a future star of F1 but he had talent and determination enough to have a place on the F1 grid or in a top sports-prototype team. But then there is so much more than raw talent… Looking back, we can see a lot of French F1 drivers in the late 70s and early 80s and almost all, if not all, had some kind of connection to Elf. Gaillard hadn’t. His decision to go abroad to pursue his career opened a few doors, but in some way this alienated him from the traditional French sponsors. When he chose to pursue his F1 dream without any secure personal sponsors instead of trying his luck in the United States, it all collapsed in months. It is often said that Gaillard, Dallest and other French youngsters failed to progress any further because of their lack of tough negotiating skills, an art any professional driver has to master to thrive in the F1 “Piranha Club”, and Patrick acknowledges that if he had had a manager things could have been very different…

When faced with no other option than retiring, Gaillard returned to the family garage and car and truck renting enterprise, managing it together with his brother until 1995. In between, around 1987, he had a brief involvement as a driver and a mechanic with Space Racing, a Franco-Canadian firm that built F3000 replicas for a few low-key TV series. In 1995, a real opportunity came up to return to the racing scene by turning into a driving instructor for ORECA at Paul Ricard. Soon he went to AGS which after selling their F1 team (which didn’t survive for long) kept on a renowned racing school at Le Luc aimed at rich clients wanting to taste a few laps in a single-seater. He would become the chief instructor until his retirement in 2014. However, it didn’t mean that Gaillard left racing for good as, after doing some engine and fuel technologies consultancy work in Saudi Arabia, he came back to France to work with a VHC driver, although he admits to not yet having tasted the pleasures of historic racing.

Patrick Gaillard (Facebook)

One thought on “Patrick Gaillard – One Wrong Decision

  1. Great but not unusual story….his wife was right Patrick should moved to the US.
    Everybody has a story, but definitely « Final Decisions » very often changed and runs a lot of futur great champions…

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