It must have been hard to take. Prior to joining Ferrari, Pironi had driven for Ligier, and in 1980 the JS11/15 was sometimes fearsomely quick. As always with Ligier, no one really knew why it was sensational one weekend and not the next, but on song it was a match even for the redoubtable Williams FW07.
On reliability, though, the Ligier fell short, and Pironi won only once, at Zolder, although he also crossed the line first in Montreal, only to be docked a draconian minute for a jumped start. At Monaco and Brands Hatch, he started from the pole, and blitzed everyone until his car failed him.
Having Jacques Laffite as a team-mate was one thing, however; Villeneuve quite another. The laidback Jacques was indeed a formidable driver, but no Gilles, as he freely acknowledged.
“Look at him,” he said, on a treacherously wet afternoon of practice at Watkins Glen in 1979 (in which Villeneuve was eleven seconds faster than anyone else!). “He’s not like the rest of us. He’s on a separate level…”
This Pironi was to discover for himself, and it can’t have been easy. “When Gilles was alive,” said Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari’s technical director, “he was so obviously the best that we perhaps underestimated Didier. Perhaps all along he was the second-best, but we didn’t realise it because he was usually beaten by a man with the same car…” That view was echoed by Alan Jones.
As 1982 approached, Ferrari – now with a chassis designed by Harvey Postlethwaite – looked in good shape. In the first race, at Kyalami, neither car finished, but Villeneuve led much of the Brazilian Grand Prix, again conclusively faster than Pironi.
After qualifying in Rio, Villeneuve asked me if he could have a word. It was about Didier, who had recently had an enormous testing accident. “He’s still a bit shaken up,” said Gilles, “but he’ll be fine by the next race. Please… can you ask your colleagues to go easy on him this weekend?”
“Villeneuve demonstrated a selflessness almost unknown among drivers”
This demonstrated a selflessness almost unknown among grand prix drivers, who rarely pass up an opportunity to capitalise on a team-mate’s weaknesses, and in the aftermath of Villeneuve’s death, a few weeks later, I wondered if Pironi had any idea of the friendship he had tossed away.
Shortly before the Imola weekend Didier married Catherine, his longtime girlfriend, and while Ferrari’s team director, Marco Piccinini, was present as best man, Gilles and his wife Joann were not so much as invited. He thought that strange, and mentioned it during the practice days. “Joann says I shouldn’t be surprised,” he shrugged. “She says he’s just trying to get ‘in’ with Piccinini. She’s never trusted Didier…”