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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.