Didier Pironi: Driven to destruction

Blamed for an act of treachery that eventually led Gilles Villeneuve to crash to his death, Didier Pironi's successful career is often forgotten. Mark Hughes profiles the life of an often complex, always political, character

Dider Pironi exits the chicane during the 1982 German Grand Prix

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Rene Arnoux stood in the Dijon pit lane, listening. Listening to the throttle applications and braking points of an old friend performing a secret test in Rene’s Ligier. What he heard made him sad. He knew then that his friend would not be returning to Formula One not now, not ever. Just four years earlier he’d been on course to be France’s first world champion. Today he climbed out of the car and limped over to Arnoux. They talked about anything other than how he’d fared: they both knew the answer to that.

From the outside Didier Pironi was a man touched by the ice god, displaying cool, measured detachment which sent a shiver through those who didn’t know him. But that was merely the lid over a spitting cauldron of desire so intense that in the end it devoured him.

As a racing driver, nature had equipped him adequately, but without the special blessings it grants the favoured few. The shortfall made little difference to a man driven by such intense ambition, directed by that icy logic. No physical barrier was going to come between him and his goal. He habitually ventured into realms of risk unusual even by the standards of a racing driver, but in a spookily deliberate and measured way. “He pushed himself harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says his former team-mate Jacques Laffite. “He had huge balls.”

This chilling intensity, the refusal to acknowledge the limits of possibilities pre-dated Senna, and the 1982 World Championship that he seemed to be heading towards could have been the first of many. But before that came to be, the laws of karma caught up with him and ended his driving career. Five years later, with his ambition re-directed, they also ended his life, in a powerboat race.

Intelligence and drive were traits inherited from his father, a successful businessman with a construction company employing several hundred. He also inherited from him the same Parisian outlook on women; both led mind-bogglingly complicated love lives. His father, though, had no interest in motorsport. That came from Didier’s half-brother (on his father’s side), Jose Dolhem. Eight years older than Didier, Dolhem attended the Winfield Racing School winning the Volant Shell award in 1969 and Pironi came to watch. Three years later, at 18, Pironi entered the same competition, now backed by Elf, and also won, guaranteeing himself a Formula Renault prize drive for 1973.

“I started with a single objective – to push myself to the limit of my abilities”

Danny Hindenhoch, a former Ligier team manager, knew both brothers. “Part of Didier was very much influenced by Jose, who was a crazy guy. The pair of them ran out of fuel flying from America to Europe once, and had to land in Greenland. Jose was attracted to risk and challenge and at that young age Didier was impressed by that.”

But there was a distinction between them. “Dolhem was very quick,” recalls Winfield’s Mike Knight, “but we were always concerned about wealthy guys like him and whether they were going to make a go of it. He was the classic lad-about-town, in too much of a hurry and not really committed. Naturally, when Didier came along we had similar concerns, but he was different. He really buckled down to it and later we came to see that this was very much in character; he’d decide to do something and that would be it. He had phenomenal grit”

“He could have been President of France if he’d decided he wanted to be,” adds Knight’s partner Simon de la Tour.

Gerard Bade was one of the finalists in the competition alongside Pironi in 72 and recalls, “He had a baby face and was from a wealthy family, so the first impression was that he wasn’t to be taken too seriously. But he soon asserted himself in the car. He wasn’t head and shoulders above the rest of us in the selection programme but when we went to the final phase, on the full Grand Prix track at Ricard, he coped much better than us with the stress. He was by far the most serene and mature, even though he was just 18 and most of us were in our mid-20s. He totally dominated himself and the event.”

Didier Pironi & Jean-Pierre Jaussaud Alpine Renault leads at Le Mans in 1978

Pironi enjoyed Renault support when he won Le Mans in 1978. He tried to break his Tyrrell F1 contract to drive for the Regie

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Success brought yet further commitment from Pironi, never one to be without a plan. He later said: “I started with a single objective to push myself to the limit of my abilities. If, when I raced in Formula Renault, I had thought myself without the necessary qualities to be a professional driver, I would have stopped there. And no regrets.”

Arnoux comments: “When he decided to do something, he would progress very quickly, in a straight line. He would always find a solution.” After his prize drive season, Pironi moved to Magny-Cours, because that was where Formula Renault constructor Martini was based. Their assistance evolved into a full partnership, and Pironi won the 74 French title. He moved on to the more powerful Super Renault class, dominating the ’76 season, after which Martini took him into its F2 team as number two to Arnoux. He finished third in the European championship – Arnoux won it – but more importantly Didier won the Monaco F3 race with a one-off appearance. The move was classic Pironi evaluating what was necessary then going all-out to achieve it and it catapulted him straight into F1 with Tyrrell for 1978.

From the archive

Tico Martini has fond memories of the man not everyone warmed to. “Unlike some French drivers, he didn’t talk a lot. But he was a very nice boy very honest and straight.” Ken Tyrrell, too, remembers him as “a nice guy. As a driver he used to put an enormous amount of effort in. Whenever he got out the car he would be soaked in sweat. I don’t think it was completely natural for him.” Nice guy or not, there was some friction between driver and boss when, after he had won Le Mans with Renault, the French manufacturer tried to sign him for its ’79 F1 team but Tyrrell refused to release him. “There was a period of unease,” Tyrrell admits, “but when he realised it wasn’t going to happen, he got stuck in again.”

In his first F1 season, as well as crashing a lot, he usually lagged well behind experienced team-leader Patrick Depailler. The following year’s Tyrrell 009 was no great shakes but Pironi looked far more convincing in it and his form led to an invitation to join Ligier.

With Gerard Ducarouge’s superb JS11/15 beneath him, Pironi, confidence sky-high and with a point to prove, was awesome in 1980. He instantly out-paced team-mate Laffite and had he suffered fewer mechanical niggles, his tally would have included far more than just his start-to-finish demonstration in Belgium.

“He was the toughest team-mate I ever had,” says Laffite. “Better even than Keke [Rosberg], I think.”

Didier Pironi sprays champagne at Imola in 1982 as Gilles Villeneuve looks away

Imola 1982 and that fateful race: A disbelieving Gilles Villeneuve cannot bring himself to watch Pironi celebrate his outrageous victory

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Early in the year an old man sitting in front of his TV at his Maranello factory had been deeply impressed by the oversteering progress of the number 25 Ligier through the fast, bumpy curves of Interlagos. Within a matter of weeks Pironi had signed a two-year Ferrari deal.

This was truly stepping into the lion’s den, not only because of the usual Ferrari pressures, but because the incumbent driver, Gilles Villeneuve, was reckoned the fastest in the business. In ’81 the pair drove Mauro Forghieri’s first attempt at a turbo car, the powerful but agricultural 126C, and while Villeneuve was dazzling in his virtuosity, Pironi struggled badly. It was the first real check in his career path.

Marco Piccinini was Ferrari’s sporting director then and remembers the contrast in the two styles: “Gilles was maybe the biggest talent around and he would just invent a way of driving a corner — very spontaneous, very creative. Didier, though, would assess the risk in a very cool manner, build himself up and start the lap with the sure intention of staying flat through a corner.”

Off-circuit the two got on famously, though their games together sometimes had a worrying edge. Once they played on the autostrada, for instance, saw them driving flat-out for as long as possible while the other had to sit impassive in the passenger seat, regardless of looming trucks and hard-shoulder passing manoeuvres. Of course, neither one of them ever allowed a furrow of concern to cross their brow.

“I’m deeply interested in politics. It’s the only thing that makes things happen”

Though Villeneuve liked his new play-mate, his wife Joann was not so sure, wondering if he might not have a hidden agenda. Certainly, he was going out of his way to forge close alliances in the team, even away from the track. Gilles’ close friend Patrick Tambay, who even then had known Pironi for a long time, comments: “It was just part of how Didier operated — he was very smart. Gilles, on the other hand, just did his stuff. Unlike Pironi, he didn’t go on holiday with Piccinini or ask him to be god-father to his children or be best man at his wedding. He wasn’t a political animal like Didier.”

A similar picture emerges as Piccinini himself hints at Pironi’s relationship with Old Man Ferrari. “Although Mr Ferrari was very close to Gilles, in some ways Didier actually had a better communication with him.”

Pironi himself later commented: “I’m deeply interested in politics. It’s not a particularly noble area of life but it’s the only thing that makes things actually happen, in motorsport as elsewhere.”

It all passed Gilles by. Until, of course, the infamous afternoon at Imola in ’82. All evidence suggests that fate tempted Pironi that day with a short-cut to his goal, but with the price tag of his integrity. He didn’t have much time to make up his mind either — just eight laps between the Ferrari team hanging out the ‘slow’ sign and the end of the race. Villeneuve – ahead when the sign was shown — interpreted it as ‘hold position’ and assumed his victory was safe. Pironi chose to put a different slant on the request and stole the win on the final lap from a man who, perhaps naively, wasn’t even defending.

The incident triggered an anger in Villeneuve that was to prove fatal. He came to believe that Joann had been right all along. Gilles’ last days were tormented. As well as feeling tricked, he was paranoid that Pironi was trying to take over control of the team.

Didier Pironi in his Ligier Ford Cosworth in the 1980 US GP

On his day, Pironi was a match for anybody

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Ironically, Pironi was one of the first on the scene of Villeneuve’s Zolder accident. He was led away, distraught. A few days later he was told he would not be welcome at the funeral. Partly by his own actions, Pironi had brought enormous turbulence to his life at this time. Aside from Gilles’ death, there was the matter of his new bride Catherine Beynie. Within weeks of his marriage he’d left her after falling in love with TV presenter Vemnique Gannot. Then at Montreal, just three races after Zolder, Ricardo Paletti was killed after ploughing into the back of Pironi’s stationary car which had stalled at the lights.

Yet, armed with Harvey Posdethwaite’s 126C2 chassis, and with the colossus of Villeneuve no longer around, his professional life was coming into full bloom. As well as the Imola win, he dominated the Dutch Grand Prix, scored well everywhere and was handsomely leading the championship by the time of the German Grand Prix.

The late Postlethwaite later said that a strange aura had enveloped Pironi by this time — sadness but an arrogance about his forthcoming success too. “He didn’t seem a very happy soul,” adds Professor Sid Watkins, a man whose services he would soon need.

“His co-drivers were really frightened. He wouldn’t back off over big waves.”

At Hockenheim he’d set what would stand as pole, a second clear of the field, and really had no need to venture out into the rain of the untimed session that followed. In the gloom he was catching Derek Daly‘s Williams as it suddenly moved right. Pironi assumed it was making way for him but in fact it was pulling out to pass Prost‘s slow-moving Renault which Pironi then hit at full speed, launching him high in the air before crashing down nose-first. The feet and leg injuries he sustained at this moment ensured his driving career was over.

A year later he returned to the race track at Hockenheim on crutches. Away from prying eyes, behind the Ferrari garage doors, he lowered himself inside Arnoux’s Ferrari cockpit, pressed the pedals and dreamed of the day he would return. But that’s all it was — a dream as frail as his right tibia, even after 33 operations. Besides, his insurance policy had paid out a lot of money which would have to be re-imbursed for the sake of an attempted return he knew was doomed. The Ligier test at Dijon extinguished the last lingering hopes. He turned to power boating. Tico Martini knew those who co-drove with him. “They told me they were really frightened,” he says, “he just wouldn’t back off, even over big waves. He would argue with his throttle guy, shouting to him ‘don’t shut off’.”

They didn’t shut off as they caught a big wave off the Isle of Wight in August ’87. Pironi and his two crewmen drowned in the ensuing accident. He left a garage full of pictures of himself and Villeneuve together and Catherine Goux, his girlfriend, pregnant with twin boys. Now 12, they are called Didier and Gilles.

Didier Pironi next to Gilles Villeneuve in 1981

Before Imola, Villeneuve and Pironi were actually firm friends. Both F1 careers would end sadly, Pironi breaking his legs the same year

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