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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.