Fatal friction

Overshadowed as Villeneuve’s team-mate, Didier Pironi was turning into a great driver. But his mind games against Gilles and the tragic outcome did not make him popular…

Twenty-five years have passed since the death of Gilles Villeneuve, the most beloved racing driver of his generation, and many words have lately been devoted to a man without whom, for many, motor racing has never been quite the same. Villeneuve, for all his salty humour and irreverence, was a guileless individual, and with his death, perhaps, came the end of the age of innocence in motor racing.

Intrinsic to Villeneuve’s accident at Zolder was the conduct of his Ferrari team-mate, Didier Pironi. At Imola, two weeks before, the red cars were cruising – low on fuel – to a one-two, Villeneuve ahead, but on the last lap, at the last overtaking point, Pironi suddenly whipped by his unsuspecting team-mate and, in Villeneuve’s words, ‘stole the victory’.

To that moment, Gilles had believed Pironi a friend, and this was the ultimate betrayal. Afterwards, he vowed never to speak to him again, and he never did. Thirteen days later, on a banzai lap at the end of qualifying, he crashed to his death.

Pironi would always profess innocence in the affair at Imola, claim that he had believed he and Villeneuve were fighting for the win. The facts – in the form of lap times – suggested otherwise, but when all was said and done, Villeneuve was gone, and Pironi master of all he surveyed at Ferrari.

An eminent man of the F1 paddock put it this way: “At Imola it was about more than stealing a win. Pironi knew what effect it would have on a driver of Gilles’ mentality, and in my opinion that was what it was all about – he was trying to undermine Gilles, to unsettle him. As far as I’m concerned, he killed Gilles as surely as if he’d put a gun to his head…”

Prior to Pironi’s arrival, for the 1981 season, Villeneuve’s team-mates had been Carlos Reutemann and Jody Scheckter, and with both he had got along well. In manner, Pironi was quiet, almost timid, and at first he seemed content to play the number two role at Ferrari.

In fact, he could do little else. While Villeneuve qualified his cumbersome 126CK on the front row at Monaco, then brilliantly won the race, Pironi started 17th (2.5sec slower), and was lapped in the course of the race.

Throughout that season, Pironi chose to play it humble, stressing his close relationship with Villeneuve, emphasising how much Gilles had helped him. In reality, the demons were alive inside him.

When, for 1986, Keke Rosberg left Williams for McLaren, he went to his new team in the belief that he was the fastest driver in the world, and not a few would have agreed with him. In McLarens, though, Rosberg was no match for Alain Prost, and admitted as much. Did he think Alain the best driver he had ever seen?  “No,” Keke smiled. “I know he is…”

Pironi, though, was a man of different cut – a more typical grand prix driver, if you like, in that he struggled to accept that it was possible, in equal cars, for another to beat him. He finished the season with only nine points; Villeneuve had won two grands prix.

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?”

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...”

Two weeks after Zolder, the clans gathered in sadness at Monaco, where Pironi was the only Ferrari driver, and finished second. There followed a third in Detroit, and then it was on to Montreal, where he took pole position at this circuit newly named for Villeneuve. “I want to dedicate it to Gilles,” he said over the PA, “because I think we all know that if he’d been here, he would have been on pole.”

At that moment I was talking to Rosberg. “If it hadn’t been for him,” he murmured, “Gilles would have been here...” Harsh, perhaps, but a reflection of what many people were feeling.

At the same time, though, they were beginning to see Pironi as the likely World Champion. He may not have been the equal of Villeneuve, but animosity towards the man did not colour judgement of the driver. In the car Didier was more than good; he was coming to be great.

On the grid, though, he stalled, and into the back of the Ferrari hurtled the Osella of rookie Riccardo Paletti, who suffered terrible injuries in the dreadfully deformed cockpit, and died an hour later. At Zandvoort Pironi won conclusively, and then took second at Brands Hatch, which was a landmark, for his six points put him in the lead of the World Championship for the first time. It was in a confident frame of mind that he went, the following weekend, to Paul Ricard.

 A very confident frame of mind. Harvey Postlethwaite put it more strongly than that. “Something very odd came over Didier,” he said. “He went very... strange.
He had big personal problems,
but they didn’t seem to concern him too much. He became incredibly arrogant and over-confident about everything – including the fact that he was going to be World Champion.”

Big personal problems he certainly had. For one thing, his marriage, just three months old, was effectively over, for he had become involved with an actress whom he had met during a photo shoot for a French magazine.

An hour before the start of the French Grand Prix, a Ferrari team member, somewhat agitated, asked me if I had seen Pironi. I said no, and left him to his search. It turned out that Didier was closeted in his own motorhome. He was not, as they say, ‘discussing race tactics’.

If the episode seemed to blow one of racing’s eternal cliches out of the water, Pironi was unable to run with the Renaults on this occasion, but still he finished third, and extended his points lead.

A fortnight later, on the Saturday morning at Hockenheim, I arrived a little late, and practice was already underway. The weather, baking the day before, was now wet and cool; as I buttoned up against the elements I chanced to look across to the end of the straight leading into the stadium section of the track.

There was a car – a Ferrari – in the air, 20-odd feet from the ground, its nose pointing skyward. It came down tail first, then began somersaulting, coming to rest finally at the trackside.

The rescue scene was from Hades. Pironi had suffered the appalling lower-leg injuries so common in an era when drivers sat virtually between the front wheels, and his bloodied face was a mask of agony as the doctors worked on him.

As Didier recovered over time, he began to speak of returning to Formula 1, and Enzo Ferrari said there would be a car for him. But no one took either man too seriously. Pironi had raced a car for the last time.

Five years on, now the father of twin sons (whom he named Didier and Gilles), Pironi had turned his competitive instincts to powerboat racing, and in August 1987 crashed in the Needles Trophy, off the Isle of Wight. 

Encountering heavy wash left by a sizeable ship, Didier declined to back off, and drowned when his boat flipped upside down. There was sorrow in the F1 paddock, but perhaps not as much grief as there might have been.