Alex Caffi – Gold over Red

Italy produced a generation of young and promising drivers from mid-80s to early 1990’s, which had everything to make Formula 1 go back to the glory days of Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, Luigi Fagioli, Giuseppe Campari, Nino Farina and so on. However, a set of circumstances made that none of these men ever came close to give Italy another World title, which has escaped them since Alberto Ascari in 1953!

Alex Caffi (unknown)

Alessandro Caffi was born in Rovato, near Brescia, on the 18th of March, 1964, and from an early age he became interested in motorsport, since both his father and uncle were well-known hillclimb drivers at local level, and this discipline enjoyed huge popularity in northern Italy back then. So, when he was old enough to do it, Alessandro made his debut in motocross and then moved to karts in 1980, with sixteen. In those days, it was common for drivers to start competing only in their late teens and, in the ultracompetitive Italian championship, amongst names such as Stefano Modena, Gabriele Tarquini, Pierluigi Martini, Ivan Capelli, Fabrizio Barbazza, Gianni Morbidelli and Nicola Larini, the young Alessandro soon stood out as one of the best, winning numerous races. Thus, in 1983, he finally jumped to single seaters, signing for Cevenini to compete in the Formula Fiat Abarth championship, the Formula Ford equivalent in Italy, immediately demonstrating an impeccable regularity and smooth driving style, which made him, even without victories, finish his first season outside karts as a runner-up.

Alex Caffi (#27) and Joe Sulentic (#28), Italian F3, Varano 1984

With these results, Caffi progressed through Italian Formula 3 in 1984, defending the colours of Euroteam, just confirming what he had done the previous year – an amazingly good series of regular performances, mingled with two wins – which gave him the second place in the championship, not far from the champion Alessandro Santin. Well, one year to learn, another to win, and in 1985 Alessandro signed for Coloni – precisely the reigning champions – to drive one of their Martini Mk45-Alfa Romeo. Unfortunately, that chassis was a little behind the Dallara’s and, in a championship so closely disputed, the difference quickly made some damage and Caffi lost ground on the title fight. However, in the middle of the season, Coloni decided to buy a Dallara 385 which, equipped by the almost ubiquitous Alfa Romeo engine, quickly proved to be much more effective, giving its driver a pretty good tool to fight for victories … It wasn’t enough for the title, obviously, this time won by Franco Forini, but Caffi managed to be runner-up again with two victories and eight podiums, winning at the end of the season the European Cup Formula 3, which had replaced the European Championship, abolished after 1984. Alessandro could be expected to take the next step to F3000 in 1986, but it wasn’t easy to get a budget for that series that, after replacing the ailing F2 in 1985, was growing incredibly, and Caffi opted for a third season in Italian F3, this time defending the colours of Venturini Racing. However, he proved to be wrong when he left Coloni, as their team was “in another league” and dominated the series with Nicola Larini and Marco Apicella, with Caffi ending third with two more victories, as well as a second place in the European Cup, beaten only by Stefano Modena, who would win the F3000 title in 1987.

Somewhere in 1985 (unknwon)

However, the young driver, known for his red helmet with two crossed gold lists, was already on another league in 1987. Over three years, his performances at the Italian F3 hadn’t gone unnoticed and, on the eve of the 1986 Italian Grand Prix, Osella invited him to drive the second car, replacing the Canadian Allen Berg (who was in great difficulty to find the necessary budget to compete in the last races of the season). With an uncompetitive car and no experience at all with the brutal turbocharged engines (as he didn’t even test the car before the race !!!), Caffi qualified last and finished the race in the same position, six laps adrift from the leader, so he wasn’t classified. However, the talent and analytical skills of the pilot convinced Osella’s managers to sign with him for 1987, reducing the operation to just one car for financial reasons. However, the new Osella FA11-Alfa Romeo was as “competitive” as its predecessor, and Alessandro rarely managed to escape the last places in qualifying – failing to qualify only twice in sixteen races – and, on the remaining races, he never finished, although he was classified in San Marino, after stopping very close to the end without gas. However, again, the consistency of the young driver, who never retired due to any mistake of his own, was noticed by the Italian tycoon Beppe Lucchini, who planned to enter Formula 1 in 1988 with a single-seater built by Dallara.

San Marino Grand Prix 1987 (Vincenzo Zaccaria)

The BMS Scuderia Italia-Dallara project hadn’t the most auspicious beginnings, as in Brazil the new single-seater wasn’t ready, so the team resorted to a Dallara 3087-Cosworth from … F3000! It is unnecessary to say why Alessandro was the first victim of the return of pre-qualifications to F1. However, in San Marino, the Dallara 188 was ready, but it suffered with a lot of teething problems. Yet, in Monaco, Caffi was an excellent 17th in practice, only to (finally) miss it and crash alone on the first lap. Till the USA round, the season was similar to 1987, but from Detroit onwards the car began to perform much better both in qualifying and races, and Caffi was an amazing eighth on the States. The growing experience of the team was reflected in the following rounds, with a new eighth place in Spa and even better qualifying performances, not forgetting that, despite growing restrictions on turbochargers since 1986, in 1988 the long-awaited parity between atmospheric engines and turbocharged ones wasn’t even close, so these results showed how good Dallara and BMS prepared their entry into F1, as well as the talent of the driver, who would get his best classification of the season with a fantastic seventh place in Portugal, as well as a brilliant top-10 in qualifying in Hungary. And, if the season ended with some retirements, it was expected a huge performance boost in 1989. If there were doubts about Caffi’s talent and progression, it’s enough to know that Frank Williams closely followed him throughout the season and even made a proposal for Alessandro to sign for his squad in 1989, but the compensation Frank would have to pay to Lucchini was too high.

Belgium Grand Prix, 1988 (unknwon)

In fact, the ban on turbo engines at the end of 1988 acted as a performance equalizer, especially in the middle of the peloton, since at the top McLaren kept his supremacy, even if it wasn’t so obvious as the previous season. Now equipped with Pirelli tires, BMS Dallara featured the new 189 with a Ford engine, just as in the previous year, but expanded the operation to two cars, hiring the experienced Andrea de Cesaris to partner Caffi. However, this equilibrium in the middle of the pack resulted in some unpleasant surprises, since Dallara was not immune to the pre-qualifications, which were increasingly necessary due to the also increasing number of forces in presence, and Alex failed to beat this “sieve” in Brazil. However, the team quickly got on his ways, and in San Marino, Caffi qualified ninth and finished seventh. The points were there within reach and the Italian was ninth in qualifying for the G.P. of Monaco, finally achieving his first points with an excellent exhibition that culminated in a fourth place. And things were even better in the USA, in the insipid Phoenix circuit. Caffi was sixth in qualifying and, in an elimination event, was running second behind Alain Prost when, while lapping… Andrea de Cesaris, the latter decided not to collaborate, touching his teammate which left Caffi in the wall!!! It is said that, at the end of this event, BMS Dallara’s manager Patrizio Cantú said that the ideal end on that day was to have one of his drivers on the podium and another on the gaol…

Monaco Grand Prix, 1989 (unknown)

Caffi was sixth in Canada, but the second half of the season – already without pre-qualifying due to the points scored – represented a reversal in the team and the driver’s fortunes. Although the qualifying performances remained excellent with a spectacular third place in Hungary for instance – thanks to the special Pirelli qualifying tires – these results couldn’t be reached on race day, precisely because the race tires weren’t as effective as the qualifiers, and both results and performances never again approached the astounding displays of the first half of the season, with Caffi to commit – something that was rare in him, as has been said – several mistakes, getting involved in accidents or crashing himself, strongly implying that the driver was trying to compensate with extra aggressiveness the lack of development of the car. Yet, the season ended on a positive note, and Caffi signed with Arrows for two seasons. Jackie Oliver’s team came from three particularly successful seasons thanks to the experienced and seasoned duo Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever, and with the strong financial support of the Japanese company Footwork, had already signed an engine supply contract with Porsche for 1991. Thus, in 1990, Oliver wanted a balanced pair, and the departures of Warwick (to Lotus) and Cheever (who moved to the CART championship) were replaced by the hiring of Caffi and the experienced Michele Alboreto… In fact, it was a true dream for Alessandro, who had grown admiring Alboreto, and both would become great friends on and off the circuits.

Belgian Grand Prix, 1989 (Carmelo Di Giannantonio)

The loss of a promising engineer called Ross Brawn to Jaguar in late 1989 and, probably, the focus on the promising 1991 package might have diverted the British team, as the 1990 car was no more than an evolution of the A11 designed by Brawn in 1989. With Ford engines, the A11B was a good car but, in an increasingly balanced intermediate peloton, it became extremely difficult to ride regularly on the points. At the same time, for Caffi, the season started badly due to a pre-season bicycle accident that left him out of the opening race in the USA. Returning to Brazil, he did not end with mechanical problems, and then didn’t qualify in San Marino, only to finish in a spectacular fifth place at Monaco. Unfortunately, these would be Caffi’s sole points of the season since, although he returned to his extremely regular performances, both in qualifying and races, it was clear that the car had no more performance to extract from, and there was no other alternative than waiting for 1991, not before an extremely violent crash in Portugal sidelined Caffi for one Grand Prix. Yet, Alex was clearly Arrows’ fastest rider throughout the season, beating Alboreto, although it should be said that Michele’s motivation wasn’t the same as those from his glory years at the Scuderia.

Monaco Grand Prix, 1990 (unknown)

Well, when the renamed Footwork Arrows introduced its new car for 1991, it quickly became clear that the new Porsche V12 engine was no more than a junction of two V6 engines derived from the Porsche 962C prototype from Group C since mid-eighties, which were yet widely used but too aged already, and it was an “ill-advised” solution developed by the renowned engineer Hans Mezger, who had to deal with the German brand recovering from a serious financial crisis and also with an R&D department with very few resources. Extremely heavy, underpowered and unreliable, the Porsche 3512 engine was truly disastrous and, to make matters worse, Footwork could not get its chassis ready for the first races of the season, forcing the team use an evolution of the evolution of the A11, named A11C. Two races, two non-qualifications for Caffi. The presentation of the brand new FA12 in San Marino didn’t bring many improvements, as with that engine neither a McLaren would get any results, and two more non-qualifications followed, as well as another brutal crash while practising in Monaco. Caffi was forced to rest but, shortly thereafter, he had a serious car accident – it was said he was coming from a night off – so he had to be miss four races. The atmosphere was never the same within the team, which quickly showed interest in keeping Alex’s replacement, the veteran Stefan Johansson, until the end of the season, and Caffi was only able to recover his place thanks to a lawsuit. Happily (or not), when he returned in Germany, Porsche had already retired in shame and Alan Jenkins had designed a new evolution of the chassis, the FA12C, equipped with Ford engine, trying to save the season. However, everything was done in a hurry, so the results were equally bad, and Caffi only qualified again on the last two races of the season. Alboreto did a little better, nevertheless it was a season to forget both for the drivers and the team, which signed with Mugen for 1992, and the new engine suppliers wanted Aguri Suzuki on the squad, thus leaving the door wide open to the younger Italian.

USA Grand Prix, 1991 (unknown)

Disgraced, Caffi couldn’t find a drive on a good team, and saw a unique opportunity to stay in the “Big Circus” on the new Andrea Moda squad, built from the remains of Coloni early in 1992 by the Italian shoe magnate Andrea Sassetti. Well, the plan was simple: drivers would be Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia, and the chassis would be an evolution of the dreadful Coloni C4 of 1991 who left poor Pedro Matos Chaves on the limits of his patience, but with Judd engines!!!! However, the FIA ​​understood that Andrea Moda was a new team, which meant they would have to pay a large registration fee, and Sassetti declined to do so, which resulted in the exclusion of both cars from the South African Grand Prix. The situation was apparently solved for Mexico, and the team would already have the new S921, designed by Nick Wirth’s Simtek studios, but the preparation and delivery of the single-seater was delayed and the pilots were left on cold. Caffi was fed up with the ridiculous situation – undoubtedly this was one of the most flamboyant adventures in F1 history – and told it to Sassetti, who dismissed him on the spot. Thus, it ended the career of Alex Caffi on the pinnacle of motor racing, without honour or glory.

South African Grand Prix, 1992 (unknown)

After Andrea Moda’s massive failure, Caffi found shelter on the Endurance World Championship at the wheel of a works Mazda, often sharing it with another lost promise, Brazilian Maurizio Sandro Sala. However, not only the Mazda MXR-01 wasn’t a competitive car, but Group C was on the verge of his death so, apart from two points, the 1992 season was a disaster in terms of results and, with the effective end of the WSC at the end of the season, Alessandro was again driveless, prompting him to withdraw temporarily from motor sport.

Alex Caffi/Maurizio Sandro Sala, WSC Donington, 1992 (Jeremy Jackson)

However, Caffi was yet a young man and, at the end of 1994, Opel España invited him to test the new Opel Vectra GT and, despite two sabbatical years, he proved to be competitive. Alessandro couldn’t resist and chose to try his luck on touring cars – where many of those Italian stars I mentioned had took refuge – signing for the team to compete in the Spanish Supertouring Championship. Alex quickly gained rhythm and, even if he didn’t manage the same level of his team-mate Jordi Gené, Caffi again provided an impeccable regularity, finishing the year in a reasonable eighth place overall with a win and five podiums in a very competitive championship. However, in 1996, he thought he could return to Endurance and moved to USA, occasionally driving a Chevron B73-BMW in the IMSA championship and, in 1997, a Riley&Scott MkIII-Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the cars weren’t competitive and the IMSA championship was also ailing, after the division between them and the future Grand-Am series.

Alex Caffi/Fabio Montani/Gabrio Rosa/Ivan Capelli, 24 Hours of Daytona 1997 (Patrick Durand)

After testing a single-seater again, with a view on a drive on the 1998 IRL championship, Caffi chose to return to Europe to drive Prototypes in the ISRS series with a R&S MkIII-Chevrolet, achieving two podium finishes. In 1999, IMSA was replaced by ALMS, which gradually revitalized the American Endurance and created one of the best championships of the following fifteen years, and Caffi divided his season between the ISRS (with the Target 24 R&S) and the ALMS championship with a Ferrari 333SP, entered by Doyle-Risi Racing. Alessandro achieved two more podiums and quite a lot of points’ finishes in the European events, as well as a positive fifth place in his debut at Le Mans, while in America the Ferrari was a little bit outdated, but the team often managed the top-10. In 2000 he raced occasionally on both sides of the Atlantic, but in 2001 Caffi came back to Europe again, competing on the FIA ​​Sport-Prototype Championship (the ISRS substitute) with a works Riley & Scott MkIIIB-Judd, alongside ex-F1 driver Mauro Baldi. Thus, Caffi established his career pattern for the following years, gradually leaving the Prototypes for the growing GT scenario, running on both sides of the Atlantic, until settling definitively in Europe in 2005 on the Italian GT Championship, winning the GT2 title in 2006. Caffi was a regular contender in this competitive series until 2010, even managing a third place on GT2 in 1998.

Alex Caffi/Andrea Montermini/Domenico Schiattarella, 24h Le Mans 1999. Behind the LMP cars, it’s possible to see one of the beautiful – and prone to fly – Mercedes-Benz CLR (John Brooks)

However, after 2010, he gradually left GT’s to drive trucks for fun, as well as entering on historical events. In between, he founded his own team, Alex Caffi Motorsports, and entered the 2011 Monte Carlo Rally. On the recent years, his team focus on the NASCAR Euroseries, and Caffi drove on that championship occasionally, gradually driving less and less as the managing duties increased. He’s also an instructor at the official Subaru Italia safety driving and racing school.

Historic Monaco Grand Prix, 2018. Caffi is driving an Ensign N176-Cosworth (Facebook Alex Caffi)

Undoubtedly, Caffi had the potential to drive for bigger teams in Formula One, however, perhaps the monetary factor didn’t help, as well as signing with Arrows at the wrong time. Then he was caught by the end of Group C – and his style suited Endurance perfectly – and never invested too much on a touring car career. Trying to drive on Endurance when it was in a phase of reconstruction both in Europe and America never provided him with a stable drive, which explains why the second half of his career was a journey of immense ups and downs. But there remains no doubt that he was an extremely talented and underrated  driver, who could have forged a successful career both on F1 and the WSC/IMSA series.

Caffi’s iconic red with golden bands crassing at the top (unknwon)

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).