Legend records it as a race where Gilles Villeneuve was robbed of a rightful victory by a duplicitous Didier Pironi. There is no doubt that Gilles was sincere in his belief that he’d been tricked by a team-mate he’d trusted. But perhaps the story wasn’t as black and white as the Gillesfavouring press at the time believed — and reported.
Pironi was interviewed by Tony Dodgins for Autosport in 1986. He stated: “When I passed Villeneuve for the first time [after leader Amoux had retired] it was because he had made a mistake and gone off the circuit. The first ‘slow’ sign we got was a few laps after that, and I was leading.
“Gilles overtook me after that, and by then we knew we had a lot of fuel left because of the way we’d driven the first half. You’ll remember this was the race where the FOCA teams carried out a boycott. Well, I’ve never said this before, but we had a meeting before the race — Amoux, Prost, Gilles and me in my motorhome. We agreed to make a spectacle for the first half so long as our positions on the lap after half-distance were the same as on the grid. Only then would we start the real race. So I had plenty of fuel…” Today, Amoux confirms these details.
Gilles’ take — famously recorded by Nigel Roebuck in Autosport at the time — was: “Imola was going to be my race because I was in front of Pironi when Amoux dropped out. As soon as the Renault was out, I relaxed, slowed the pace. The only thing that was in my head was making the fuel last; Pironi had dropped back and that let him catch up. I made a mistake coming out of a corner, and he passed me. I wasn’t worried; I figured he would lead a couple of laps then give it back.”
The Ferrari pits were orchestrated by Marco Piccinini. Today, he says: “We know exactly what happened, but it doesn’t correspond with the general belief. It was a genuine misunderstanding triggered by Gilles making a mistake. He went off the circuit slightly and Didier passed. The ‘slow’ sign may have come before or after that — I can’t recall after 20 years. But I don’t think this is so important as it might seem. The sign was hung out because we were 1-2, not because we favoured one driver over the other. We didn’t favour either because it was at an early stage of the championship. We just wanted to maintain 1-2.
“It was complicated by the private agreement between the drivels. They had an agreement, but it wasn’t so detailed that it said what would happen if one made a mistake.”
Mauro Forghieri wasn’t there that weekend, “for personal reasons. I wished I could have been there to manage the situation in a more clear and right way.” Such as a sign that might have read: ‘1 — GV, 2— DP’ rather than simply ‘slow’. “Gilles was an innocent believer. He had a right to be after sacrificing his chances over the years for the team.”
Villeneuve thought the race was his because he was in front when Amoux went out — and had outpaced Pironi all weekend. Pironi believed he was entitled to fight because Gilles made a mistake. When combined with ambiguous pit signalling, it was a situation open to interpretation. In his innocence and naivety, Villeneuve didn’t expect Pironi’s interpretation to differ from his own.