Didier Pironi – Talent and Controversy (Part II)

Even today, among motorsport fans, talking about Didier Pironi raises controversy. The French pilot is synonymous of betrayal, Imola 1982, and for being the cause of the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Unfortunately, this is an extremely narrow view of the events, and it covers with a black cloak someone who was amongst the greatest talents that left the French school of the 70s.

Pironi at Ferrari…. A champion to be??? (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

When he signed for Ferrari, Pironi knew he was far from having an easy task ahead of him. First, the Scuderia, having won the 1979 F1 World Championship with Scheckter in front of Villeneuve, had gone through an absolutely disastrous 1980 season, culminating in the South African’s withdrawal from the sport, as he confessed never to have the same motivation after fulfilling the dream of being World Champion. In 1981 Mauro Forghieri designed the first Ferrari with a turbocharged engine, but they were expecting a lot of teething troubles. At the same time, Didier moved to a team with a name deeply established into their structure and, admittedly, one of the fastest drivers ever – although the speed was often accompanied by excesses – of the history of the sport, the Canadian Gilles Villeneuve.

Pironi (289 leading Piquet (5) and Villeneuve (27) during the USA-Long Beach Grand Prix (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In 1979, Villeneuve had always been very close to his teammate Scheckter and, at Monza, when Ferrari gave orders to maintain positions, the Canadian religiously obeyed the team, aware that he would have more time to be a champion and that his teammate had, indeed, been the most complete driver of the season. However, with the disastrous car of 1980, the Canadian had vulgarised the South African and was, in matter of fact, the leader of the Scuderia in 1981. However, with his usual sincere and kind character, Gilles welcomed the new team-mate as if it was a friend. Soon this courtesy resulted in a strong friendship, often ending up with a lot of fun and peril, like some spectacular street racing and risky flights – both men had a passion for helicopters and airplanes – and, once, they decided to endure a Transatlantic flight with the gas on the limits, eventually having to perform and emergency landing in Greenland!!!!! Any current team manager would have a heart attack if this happened…

1981 Monaco Grand Prix (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

And, on the circuits, they didn’t give in to an unbridled rivalry. In fact, the new Ferrari 126CK, the first with turbo engine and ground effect, was very powerful but extremely heavy and hard to drive, which left the drivers far from being able to fight for top positions. In addition, reliability wasn’t, as expected, the best, and both Pironi and Villeneuve were penalized throughout the season with a car which the Canadian described a “fast red Cadillac”. However, both in qualifying and racing, Pironi was unable to keep up with his team-mate since, while Gilles managed to win in Spain and Monaco, the best that Pironi did was a fourth place on the winding Monegasque circuit, having started from the bottom of the grid. This discrepancy which occurred during 1981 gave voice to those who considered the French as a driver who hadn’t enough ability to be a champion, unlike Villeneuve that would soon take the title, only needing to moderate even more his driving’s excesses. However, it is necessary to look carefully to the different ways both men approached the adversity. Like Peterson, Villeneuve had the natural ability to bypass the car’s lack of quality with natural exuberance and a style of driving with “the knife in his teeth”, maximizing the potential of the machine when there were occasions for such, having an inventive ability to bypass the problems. Pironi, with his very cerebral and applied approach, hadn’t developed the same capacities, thus preferring to work on the car to tune it and extract the best results from it, but he couldn’t immediately establish this rapport with Ferrari.

1982 season promised to be great, as Ferrari had a great car, with the strongest turbo engine (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

However, in 1982, with Harvey Postlethwaite at the helm of the design of the new 126 C2, Ferrari could hope, in all fairness, to have one of the best cars on the field. Of the four teams that used turbo engines, it was soon obvious that Ferrari, although not the most powerful, was the most reliable, and the men from Maranello had the most complete package, so both Villeneuve and Pironi started the season with legitimate ambitions for the title. Once again, on the first races of the season, Villeneuve beat Pironi and managed (although in a somewhat slender way) to better convert his performances in results. Arriving at Imola on a race boycotted by FOCA drivers, Ferrari and Renault were in a separate championship, and when the French turbos failed (again), the two Ferrari men were isolated in front, only needing to finish the race to get a double in front of their enthusiastic audience. Hence the order to slow down, given from the pitlane… From then on, everyone knows the story. Villeneuve led when the order was given and although both drivers overtook each other more than once (even because the turbo pressure of the Ferrari sometimes shot up, which made one of the cars much faster than the teammate), the Canadian entered the last lap on the front and thought the order was to keep positions, so he felt safe he could win, but Pironi passed him at Tosa and crossed the finish first, to Gilles’ great disbelief!!! Feeling betrayed, mainly by his beloved team, Villeneuve also vowed never to speak to Pironi again and, a fortnight later in Zolder, when he tried to improve his qualifying time, Gilles collided with Jochen Mass on his slowdown lap, suffering an extremely violent accident that caused his death a few hours later. Worse than being considered by most of the press as a traitor, Pironi was now seen by the vast majority of fans as guilty from Villeneuve’s death, the hero idolized by thousands. However, things were not that simple, and it’s a horrible injustice to the memory of a great man and driver (an article about Imola 1982 will be released later).

The moment everything changed… forever (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In mourning, Ferrari didn’t race in Belgium, but then Pironi realized that all expectations from the team rested on him and took the lead of the operations, focusing more and more on the conquest of the title. Many considered him colder and arrogant at this stage, but the truth is that, beyond the media pressure, Didier was plunged into a very troubled sentimental spiral. Having married just before G.P. of San Marino with his long-time girlfriend Catherine Bleynie, the relationship quickly suffered a heavy blow when, while filming a television ad, Pironi met TV presenter Véronique Jeannot, getting involved with her shortly thereafter. No wonder, then, that Didier was a transfigured man on that troubled summer.

Pironi took a second place in Monaco and a third in the USA-Detroit but, in Canada he was involved on an horrific accident. This time it all happened when the Frenchman, who started from pole, let the car stall on the start and he was subsequently hit with great violence by the rookie Riccardo Paletti, who started from the bottom of the grid and reached the Ferrari ate considerable speed. The impact was so hard that Paletti suffered thoracic injuries that led to his almost immediate death. After the restart, distressed by mechanical problems and deconcentrated by the horrific events, Pironi didn’t go further than ninth. However, in Netherlands, the Frenchman appeared to be once again absolutely focused on the title and got an overwhelming win at Zandvoort, followed by a second place in England and a third in France, leaving him nine points clear of John Watson at the start of the German G.P. Given that both the Renaults and the Brabhams, due to the unreliability of their turbochargers, wouldn’t be able to compete regularly enough for the title, and that the closest atmospheric rivals – John Watson and Keke Rosberg – would have serious difficulties fighting the Ferrari and the other turbos on the fast tracks that would follow, it was perfectly justifiable, including to Pironi himself, to seriously dream with the title.

Great (and last) win at Zandvoort (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Unfortunately, everything would come to a tragic end on the German G.P. Pironi had already secured the pole when he decided to leave the pitlane on the last practice session, under torrential rain. Why did the French risk so much, no one knows, but everyone says that, in those days, he seemed a man more and more distant and tormented. On one of his laps, Pironi was approaching Derek Daly at high speed on the road to the Stadium, when the Irishman from Williams moved away to let pass the Ferrari. Unfortunately, the truth was that Daly was just overtaking Prost, who was on his slowing lap, and Pironi fully hit the rear of the Renault, being throwed in the air just like Villeneuve, landing with his front on the track. Didier survived the scary accident, but was horribly injured on his legs and feet, which left Professor Syd Watkins equating an amputation. The venerable Formula 1 doctor told in his book and on several other occasions that Pironi, amidst the horrible pain he was suffering, asked not have his legs cut and Watkins assured that he would do everything that was possible to avoid it. Hitherto, Didier became embroiled in controversy because he would later say that Syd Watkins had favoured the amputation as the most practical measure to take. The Professor would say that Pironi would be one of the few people to whom he would always harbour grudges.

The remains of the Ferrari are in almost the same state as Villeneuve’s. Pironi survived, but his career was over (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).

Obviously, Didier’s career was over, and title hopes were severely diminished, as Ferrari had again only one driver, Patrick Tambay, to defend their colours and steal points from their opponents. Unfortunately, Tambay also had health problems – the spine was suffering from the effects of ground-effect cars – and he had to be absent on two races, and not even the late call to Mario Andretti was enough for the title to be decided between Keke Rosberg and John Watson, being conquered by the Finn, which only won one race at Dijon.

Pironi never stopped dreaming of a return to the sport, having returned to the paddock precisely at Hockenheim during the 1983 season, still on crutches, and aware that it would take several surgeries to give him back his physical abilities to drive and, although Enzo Ferrari said he was ready to hire the Frenchman as soon as he was recovered, it was too obvious for all that the probabilities were extremely small. Pironi would undergo dozens of surgeries to recover the best use of his legs as much as possible, and it was not until the end of 1986 that he effectively managed to test a Formula 1 again, an AGS prototype that would debut the following season (without great results). He was later invited by Guy Ligier to test in Dijon (Ligier had lost Laffite after the 1986 British Grand Prix, when the veteran broke his legs on a start pile-up) and was not far from the chronos of the other driver of the team, his old colleague and rival René Arnoux. However, in addition to being unsure of being competitive enough during a full weekend even more on a complete season, Pironi had problems with his insurer, who had paid him the end-of-career amount after the accident so, had he returned, Didier would have to give back a huge load of money.

After his AGS experience, Pironi tested for Ligier at Dijon. He was in good condition, and an offer would come… (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Thus, Pironi realized that he would never return to Formula 1 and, in 1987 he dedicated himself to powerboats, especially the offshore events, at the wheel of his Colibri 4. Like José Dolhem, Pironi was attracted to everything that was radical, and at the wheel of his boat he seemed to release all the energy contained by his interrupted motoring career, always taking a lot of risks. Unfortunately, on 23 August 1987, Pironi and his crew, Bernard Giroux and Jean-Claude Guénard, were at full speed on the second place in a race off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, when the Colibri crossed the waves caused by the passage of an imposing tanker. Being in maximum attack, Pironi could not avoid them like the preceding team and the boat took off and flew, striking the water with brutal violence, instantly killing all its occupants. Didier had 35 years old. By this time, he had already rebuilt his personal life and lived for quite some time with his girlfriend Catherine Goux, who was pregnant with twins – when they were born, Catherine called them Didier and Gilles. As for Formula One, it appears that Professor Letournel’s work had finally taken effect, and Pironi had reached an agreement with his insurer to return in 1988, having a pre-contract with the Larrousse team. But all was over on the English coast that day …

Glory and tragedy aboard the Colibri (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Didier Pironi always suffered with a little problem, which was far less common back then, his approach to the Formula 1 “Piranha Club”. Pironi was a politician – he confessed that, even though he was not the noblest of the men’s professions, he loved it – and someone who worked a lot on the backstage. This isn’t implying he was a false and covert person, everyone who lived with Didier did not characterize him in that way. But under the cloak of a very direct but apparently shy and secretive person, there was a man who fought to the utmost for success and who put all dedication in his work. And the dedication also implied being close to the sponsors and the right people to get their way. In this way, as it was common and, on our days, generalised, it implied at all costs to obtain for himself some beenefits within the team. It was the opposite of Villeneuve, who limited his profession to the work behind the wheel and to promotional commitments related to the marque. For the Canadian, that was the duty of a Formula 1 driver. For Pironi, being with influential people and sponsors was just as important as tuning the car. Thus, by the way he won in Imola and the subsequent tragic death of his friend and teammate, Didier became, in a completely undeserved way, in the archetype of the traitor, fuelled by a ruthless press. Looking further, didn’t Arnoux deliberately ignore the team orders aimed to help Prost in the title fight in France that season? Or has not Lauda used his three-year influence at Ferrari to secure his primacy over Reutemann in 1977? Backstage manoeuvres have always existed and won’t cease ever and, in this case, such orders weren’t so clear, which adds to the huge injustice with which Pironi is regarded for so many people.

The driver and the man (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Didier Pironi – Talent and Controversy (Part I)

Even today, among motorsport fans, talking about Didier Pironi raises controversy. The French pilot is synonymous of betrayal, Imola 1982, and for being the cause of the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Unfortunately, this is an extremely narrow view of the events, and it covers with a black cloak someone who was amongst the greatest talents that left the French school of the 70s.

Didier Pironi was born into a wealthy family on the outskirts of Paris, on the 26th of March, 1952, son of Louis Pironi, a former combatant on the French resistance during World War II who, during the immediate post-war years, established a construction company that had become highly regarded. Pironi had an older half-brother, Joseph Dolhem, born in 1944, and it is curious that their mothers were sisters. Despite this apparent familiar confusion, the brothers grew up together and Dolhem soon developed a keen interest in sports, in particular motor racing, and began his career late in the 1960s, winning the prestigious Volant Shell in 1969. However, for Dolhem, motor racing and flying were just a diversion, and he never cared much the same as his younger brother for his career, even though José was quite talented and even had occasional odd chances in Formula 1, before turning his back on 4-wheels and becoming an airplane pilot.

Pironi and his half-brother José Dolhem, two lovers of sport and high risk adventure, both skilled drivers, one completely dedicated pro, another that raced for fun (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

As for Didier, he seemed to be destined to pursue the family business and apllied for an engineering course. However, he caught the racing bug from Joseph, and entered his first local car racing in 1972 and, encouraged by his brother, decided to enrol at the Paul Ricard’s Winfield School, with the aim of obtaining the Volant Elf (which had replaced Shell on the promotion of the most respected French drivers’ school). From a very early stage, Didier proved to be a highly focused driver, concentrating on achieving success, and extremely sharp-eyed to the smallest detail, thus managing to win the famous prize at the end of 1972, which guaranteed him a place in the Ecurie Elf on the European Formula Renault Championship (F3 in France was, back then, much less valued than Formula Renault and Super Renault, the latter even serving occasionally as a supporting event for Grand Prix!) in 1973. Pironi would later say that if the first season wasn’t properly successful, he would quit the competition as, more than a passion, he only got involved in something to win. And, in fact, the first season evinced a very talented and totally dedicated driver, Didier’s finishing overall, which was an extremely positive result considering his youth and almost total lack of previous experience in motor racing.

Winning the Volant Elf, with Ken Tyrrell and Jackiw Stewart. (Didier Pironi Memorial website)

Elf only guaranteed sponsorship and support to the winner of the Volant on the first season, but they also rewarded the most talented drivers in France, and Pironi stood with Ecurie Elf in 1974, further showing his dedication by moving himself to Magny-Cours, where Tico Martini’s squad was based, as he drove for him. In matter of fact, the back then French small circuit was the base for many talented young drivers and Pironi, always looking to maximize his gify, decided that he would be better in the vicinity of the circuit, where he could rent a garage and a place on the pits and test. The results were immediate and, faced with a very powerful competition, Didier won the Formula Renault Championship in 1974, winning seven of the twenty races. Thus he kept his connection to Martini and Elf for 1975, now in the upper echelon, the Formula Super Renault, achieving immediately a third place in the championship, beaten only by the more experienced René Arnoux and … Jean Ragnotti! And, if the first year was to learn, the second was enough to emphasize young Pironi’s raw talent, as he simply destroyed all the opposition to win twelve of the seventeen rounds of the championship to secure the 1976 title.

Didier Pironi (#) on the front at the mythical Nouveau Monde corner, Rouen-les-Essarts (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

By the end of the year, Didier Pironi was hired by the works Tico Martini’s squad, supported by Elf and Renault, to run in the European Formula 2, having as teammate the more experienced Arnoux. Even though he was not the team’s first driver, Pironi showed all his usual dose of talent and dedication to finish the championship in third place, just two points away from the second, winning a race in Estoril, while his teammate guaranteed the title. That same year, aware of the strong image it provided both for the “big bosses” of F1 and the sponsors, Pironi made its debut in Formula 3 on the prestigious Monaco G.P. at the wheel of a Martini Mk21-Toyota supported by Elf, being able to dominate the race with a terrifying exhibition. Didier also drove for the second time in his career on the 24 Hours of Le Mans (he had made his debut with Kremer the previous year) at the wheel of a Renault Alpine A442 entered by Oreca, alongside René Arnoux and Guy Fréquelin, but he was the first victim of the Renault’s debacle in that edition of the French classic, retiring on the formation lap with the car on fire!

His sole season of F2 easily demonstrated why Pironi was one of the best prospects on the single-seater world (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

While René Arnoux remained with Martini, who was preparing to debut on the Formula 1 circus in 1978, Didier Pironi was immediately hired by another Elf-backed team, Tyrrell, alongside Patrick Depailler. After two years with the celebrated six-wheeled P34, which never had the desired effect, Tyrrell returned to the conventional designs with the 008 and, although it was no more on the plateau of the golden days of Stewart and Scheckter, when they could fight for the titles, it was always a hard-working squad which was often vying for the points and the occasional podiums and wins. Thrown to the “piranha club”, Pironi couldn’t yet be a competitor to Patrick, both in practice and racing, as Depailler was one of the most experienced and renowned drivers of the era, both aggressive and sensitive enough to test a lot and tune the car almost perfectly. Yet Didier got a very consistent first half of the season, which allowed him to get to the points on a regular basis. However, on the second half, trying to show some service in a car that, due to lack of funds, could not evolve in the same way as the top-tiers, the regularity was replaced by some accidents, typical of the driver who forces the machine beyond its capabilities. For many observers, it was on that season they began to realize that Pironi wasn’t perhaps one of the most natural talented drivers, even if he knew how to compensate this slight deficit that separates the excellent from the legends with a boundless dedication.

Here at Long Beach, Pironi proves on his first season he was more than prepared to become a F1 driver. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Anyway, Didier left his mark on the history of motor racing that year by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the new Renault Alpine A442B with the experienced Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, being able to handle a steady pace with a car whose gearbox was clearly crying his days out, collapsing from exhaustion after finishing the race. While working at Le Mans, Renault had made its debut in Formula One in 1977 with Jean-Pierre Jabouille and, although the experimental car was called the “yellow kettle” by the British press due to the usual custom of breaking the engine or the turbocharger, the gradual improvements made in 1978 turned the car as an odd fighter for points in 1978 and, unknowingly, showed the way to follow to all the teams of Formula 1 – Renault had just inaugurated the Turbo Era. After a year and a half of development, the team wanted to extend the team to two drivers and were looking for a quick and consistent youngster to partner the veteran Jabouille, whose car development faculties were absolutely indispensable. The choice fell on Pironi, but he had a contract with Ken Tyrrell for 1979, which led to some “frisson” between the parties. The Englishman claimed his rights and Pironi accepted, being the vacant place at Renault occupied by … René Arnoux, who had given everything with the Martini – Tico Martini soon realized that running a F1 team was far more complicated and expensive, and wisely chose to end its adventure after one year, dedicating himself to the blossoming business on the promotion formulas.

Splendid win for Pironi/Jaussaud at Le Mans, after so many troubles for Renault they year before. After that, Renault’s focus turned entirely to their turbo programme in F1. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In 1979 Pironi had another very experienced team-mate behind the wheel of the new Tyrrell 009, Jean-Pierre Jarier, but Didier wasn’t (again) intimidated and, unlike the year before, quickly proved to be the fastest and most consistent of the team. The team from Ockham was gradually struggling to catch up with the front-runners, but that was no problem for Pironi, who often managed to make the car perform more than expected, finishing almost every race and often with very interesting performances, which earned him two third places in Belgium and USA-Watkins Glen. Thus he finished the season in tenth with fourteen points, twice as much as he had achieved in 1978. And, thanks to his excellent qualifying results, Pironi was able to enter three races on the fabulous Procar Series – a one-off trophy using BMW M1 that supported some Grand Prix, where the six-best drivers on the F1 qualifying earnt a place, so they could face the remaining habitués, mostly endurance and touring car drivers, but also some “young wolves” searching for a place among the top of the tops. Of those three events, Pironi finished two on the podium… A great talent was, definitely, emerging.

Even if Tyrrell wasn’t a top team since the failure of their P34-six wheel prohect, between 1968 (as Matra International) until 1979, the squad from Ockham only failed to win twice, in 1977 and 1979. However, it was obvious the team was going definitively to midfield, but it didn’t deterr Pironi to make another excellent season. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

The performances with Tyrrell convinced Guy Ligier to invite him to take the place of Patrick Depailler at Ligier in 1980. Since his debut in the highest category of motorsport in 1976, Ligier had been renowned by reliable cars capable of regularly finishing on the points, occasionally reaching victories, but the first half of the 1979 season had been absolutely brilliant, and Laffite fought for the championship until the last rounds. In matter of fact, what Ligier lacked was the ability to develop the car at the same pace as most of the teams in the second half of the season and, perhaps, a little more organization. Still, when switching to the French team, Didier Pironi was aware that he would have a potential winning car in hand and was quick to prove it. The first part of the season was very regular, and culminated with a spectacular victory in G.P. of Belgium in Zolder.

On the way to his first win, Pironi press hard with his Ligier. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).

Then, Pironi was pole on the Monaco G.P. and led more than half of the race, until an accident in the bend with René Arnoux left both out of the race. Second place in France, Pironi managed a spectacular pole at Brands Hatch and set off for an almost guaranteed domination of the race until, like his team-mate Jacques Laffite, he suffered a puncture and became hopelessly delayed, retiring shortly after. It turned out that the Ligier punctures were caused by broken rims due to some mistakes with ground effect tuning, which placed too heavy loads on the suspensions. After a sequence of three consecutive retirements, which left him out of the title contention, it was, nevertheless, worthy to say that, on the first half of the season, Pironi was frankly stronger than the star driver of the team, Jacques Laffite – who, despite not being the utmost genius at the wheel was, notwithstanding, an excellent driver – which caused quite a stir inside Ligier, since Laffite had led them since their arrival to F1 in 1976 (Laffite would even say that Pironi was the strongest teammate he had, even stronger than Rosberg, which partnered him at Williams in 1983 and 1984). At the same time, Guy Ligier’s bad temper was widely known, and some mistakes within the team led the blue cars to lose their pace on the second half of the season, which alerted Pironi to look for other marque for 1981. Yet, on the latest days of the season, Pironi managed to give more podiums to Ligier on the last two rounds of the year, losing his second win at the Canadian G.P. only because, in those days, the penalty for false start was one minute applied after crossing the finishing line. Pironi dominated most of the race and crossed the line first, but the penalty deprived him of a deserved victory, demoting him to third. Therefore, Didier was fifth in the F1 World Championship with 32 points, just two behind his colleague Laffite, less affected by mechanical failures. And, again, his spectacular qualifying results guaranteed him seven races in the Procar Series, and the Frenchman won once. However, his shows of brilliance caught the attention of several teams, in particular Scuderia Ferrari, who soon hired him for two seasons. Now, Pironi was sure he could achieve the title.

The season ended with some stellar performances, but also with a huge disappointment because Ligier lacked the organization to fight for more, even if in 1979 and 1981 they weren’t far from the title with Laffite, and the team won regularly between 1977 and 1981. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)
French dream team – Didier Pironi and Jacques Laffite. One of the best years for Ligier curtailed by several problems due to ground effect miinterpretation and the heavy loads it placed on wheels and suspensions. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).