"It's war. Absolutely war."

That’s what Gilles Villeneuve said of his rivalry with team-mate Didier Pironi, who he felt had betrayed him in winning the San Marino Grand Prix. Then they all went to Zolder for the Belgian GP. Paul Fearnley unravels the miserable, muddled story of the last days of Formula 1’s most charismatic driver 

A tenth. A lifetime. Ferrari tech chief Mauro Forghieri leaned in, shouted. Something. But his ‘innocent believer’ was in another, altogether darker place. Bad-news ticker tape discarded, arms folded, jaw clenched, his mind was whirring. All that crap at Imola – the who did what, when; the whys and wherefores; the grandees versus garagistes – for him boiled down to one thing: betrayal. And now the poison in Gilles Villeneuve’s soul had been crystallised into a single tenth: Villeneuve – 1min16.616sec; Didier Pironi, his team-mate – 1min16.501sec. Stark. And about to get starker.

“The whole atmosphere at Zolder was poisonous,” says Nigel Roebuck, Autosport’s GP correspondent. “The British teams were still angry at what we’d written about their boycott of Imola.” [In the heat of the FISA/FOCA war they refused to race after Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg had been excluded from the Brazilian GP results.] “I sat next to Charlie Crichton-Stuart [of Williams] on the flight to Brussels. We were friends, but we didn’t say a word. He just stared out of the window. When I eventually asked him what was wrong, he let verbal rip in the passport queue. At the track on Saturday, McLaren’s Teddy Mayer, with no holding back, accused me of being bought by Renault. I stalked off, trembling with anger, to watch the final session from the Ferrari pit: the coffee was good there – and I was closer to Gilles than any other driver. 

“After the first session [on Friday] he got out of the car and shook my hand. At which point Didier Pironi arrived. Gilles said, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here!’ He didn’t even want to stay in the pits with him. Now, though, he seemed calm as he sat in the car waiting for his last run.”

The scramble of scribblers and snappers hampered the mechanics as they cooled the past-their-best Goodyear one-lap qualifiers using watering cans, but wisely parted to let the scarlet car roar away. They’d been hovering all weekend for their story: a slanging match or, even better, a scuffle. Roebuck, of course, had already got his: ‘Bad blood at Maranello’, a hold-the-presses Fifth Column article for Autosport.

“I’d rung Gilles on the Tuesday after Imola,” he says. “He wasn’t yelling or screaming, but he wasn’t his charming self either. It made my blood run cold. He said he felt stupid. He had backed off by 2sec per lap because the Ferraris were marginal on fuel, only for Pironi to step up the pace every time he took the lead. He said he thought they were friends, thought he knew the guy. Now, he said, ‘It’s war. Absolutely war’.”

Villeneuve planned to do his fighting on the track, of course. He’d back himself to beat anyone, to ‘make gaps’, to go right out-there – and back. But he was up against it here. For Zolder and Pironi got on just dandy: sixth as an F1 rookie in a Tyrrell in 1978; third from mid-grid in 1979; a victory with Ligier in 1980; and a rare ‘winning round’ against Villeneuve in 1981. Gilles in contrast had out-qualified his various team-mates here just once in four attempts and had finished no higher than fourth (twice).

Pironi, a well-connected and well-educated Parisian, had joined Ferrari convinced he was the world’s fastest driver and destined to become world champion. And to be fair, it wasn’t an unimaginable stretch. But he was to get a shock. Two major shocks, in fact. The first was the giant leap from lithe, lissom and lovely Ligier JS11/15 to fat, fearsome and fugly Ferrari 126CK. The second was Villeneuve’s masterful whip hand over this turbocharged horse and cart. Five times the little Quebecker put more than a second – it was 2.48sec at Monaco! – between himself and Pironi in the acid test of qualifying. Their average grid gap over the season’s 15 GPs was 0.62sec. Pironi never once made it onto the front row or podium; Villeneuve’s respective tallies were twice and thrice, among them perhaps F1’s most bewitching back-to-back victories: the camel-and-needle of Monaco and the truck-and-trailer of Jarama. And all of this was achieved with that disarming – or maddening – out-of-the-cockpit shrug and grin. Cool, calm, calculating Pironi, meanwhile, sweated for France, sent his pulse into 207bpm orbit at Monaco while charging to a season’s best, but still overshadowed, fourth. Barring Zolder, where he was 0.47sec faster in qualifying and led until his brakes wilted, and some impressive lappery of the quicker tracks, he was definitely the arse end of this Prancing Horse. The world’s second-fastest driver clearly needed a Plan B.

Villeneuve, of course, only ever had one plan. The fastest are often inflexible, sometimes gullible and naive. Pironi wasn’t a rival, he was a respected (slower) team-mate. Villeneuve hadn’t crossed him off his ‘to beat’ list, but he wasn’t exactly atop it. The Frenchman may have signed as a joint number one, but that was sorted now. Indeed, the grid gap had widened to over a second in the first four GPs of 1982. Yet Joann, Villeneuve’s wife, the week before all that crap at Imola, had warned Gilles to be wary of Didier. This was hardly wifely intuition. Not being invited to your team-mate’s wedding and thus missing a best man’s speech given by your sporting director Marco Piccinini is not the most subtle of snubs. Even so, Villeneuve gave Pironi until the penultimate lap at Imola to prove Joann wrong. Even though Didier had banged wheels with him (twice), put him on the grass, ignored the ‘Slow’ signs from the pits and threatened an easy one-two with a frantic, Agip-guzzling pace, Gilles still couldn’t believe what was happening.

Pironi, of course, knew precisely what was happening: he was racing to win. Be it a cold, premeditated move or a heat-of-the-moment crime of passion, he snatched the victory to boost his battered self-esteem – and to unsettle Villeneuve within himself and the team. He knew there’d be fallout – but he surely got much, much more than he bargained for.

There were enough extenuating circumstances to build a case for it being a genuine misunderstanding: a pre-race agreement between the Ferrari and Renault drivers to showboat for the first half of this bizarre 14-car race (since confirmed by René Arnoux); a mistake by Villeneuve that meant Pironi was (probably) in the lead when they passed Ferrari’s first ‘Slow’ sign; the differing interpretations of the ‘hidden meanings’ of that sign; the misfires and/or sticking wastegates and fluctuating boost pressures on both Ferraris (mentioned post-race by Pironi, confirmed by the, tactically flawed on the day, but always politically astute Piccinini – but refuted by Villeneuve), etc. But, however you cut it, it’s a tough ask to paint Pironi as the white hat. He might have done enough to convince himself that his actions were professionally expedient and morally right, but few observers felt he deserved this ‘wedding present’ to himself. Yes, the governing body, teams, drivers and sponsors were all clumsily flexing their muscles to test the integrity of the nascent Concorde Agreement, but the F1 age of the anti-hero hadn’t arrived just yet. It was coming up fast, though. And some of his peers could/can see Pironi’s ‘point’.

“My first reaction was that it should have been Villeneuve’s victory,” says Derek Warwick, who watched from the sidelines after his Toleman’s electrics had fizzled on the final parade lap. “But if you ask me now, with 150-odd GPs behind me, if I’d have done the same thing – take a win in a Ferrari in Italy – I’d have to say yes.”

“Pironi was smart and intelligent, calculating and ruthless – but that’s not a crime,” says McLaren’s John Watson. “He realised there are ways of beating people other than being faster on the track. He wanted to beat Gilles in the head and he had the capability of doing that. If they had taken themselves off at Imola I would have laughed my head off.” 

Unsurprisingly, positions were still entrenched and forgiveness in short supply at Zolder a fortnight later. Villeneuve, in an interview with Italy’s Autosprint, said, “In this career you cannot always wait for tomorrow.” Chilling. His body language spoke volumes too, hustling about the paddock in staccato movements, brooding in the transporter and ‘hopping’ to and from his Liège hotel in his beloved Agusta helicopter.

“Niki Lauda was staying in the same hotel,” says Roebuck. “He heard a loud noise and looked out of the window. There was Gilles landing in the grounds in near darkness. It was a marginal manoeuvre – but he managed it.”

Was this a man with other things on his mind – or just Villeneuve being Villeneuve?

“He flew into the circuit and ran out of fuel two feet from the ground,” remembers Watson. “He got a buzz from that sort of thing – and Ferrari seemed to encourage it. He was like a naughty boy in a racing car.”

Warwick: “The journalists who thought Gilles walked on water didn’t see the nutcase we saw on the track, the road and in his helicopter. There were times when I thought he had a death wish. And I don’t think he was playing up to the tifosi, he was just being himself.”

At Zolder, though, Villeneuve was adamant that “he didn’t feel tense – but different”. Was this the ruthlessness many felt he lacked and needed to make maximum use of his talent? Or had F1’s little boy lost finally realised it was a big, bad world? 

Watson is not sure Villeneuve possessed the wherewithal to go head to head with Pironi and his mind games. And for once there was no Joann for support and advice or familiar paddock motorhome for retreat and reflection; Sunday was to have been daughter Melanie’s first communion and Joann had wanted to be with her. Gilles was alone with his thoughts. 

It was rare for an extra lap on quallies to bring an improvement, but Villeneuve wasn’t the first to attempt this ploy. And some unofficial clocks even had him ‘up’ as he shot behind the pits, about a third of the way round. But now he was approaching his Ferrari’s problem area. He felt its V6 turbo was losing out to its pacesetting Renault rivals on the uphill drag from the first chicane, while the 150mph left kink just beyond the crest, flat in every F1 car he’d driven before, had suddenly become an attention-grabber, especially on the occasions when his 126C2’s steering rack momentarily seized.

There was another problem looming too: he was fast catching Jochen Mass’s back-of-the-grid March 821. With eight minutes of the final session remaining, the personable German was looking for a gap in traffic; he was in fifth gear, not cruising, but not flat out. Nutcase or not, Villeneuve, who had almost hit a slow-moving March the previous day, was well aware that such situations were “bloody dangerous”. Indeed he was a vehement critic of one-lap qualifiers and their concomitant risks. To then limit drivers to just two sets per session was (almost) beyond the pale.

Mass decided to give Villeneuve the racing line into the first right-hander at Terlamenbocht, and so eased right – which was exactly where Villeneuve, perhaps unwilling, or unable, to take a tighter inside line because of stiffening steering, wanted to be. The crash was more plane than car.

“I squeezed past the Ferrari, stopped and ran back to help Gilles,” says Warwick. “I must admit that I paused for a split second to look at his car. Its front end had completely gone. I was amazed at the damage. As a fellow driver, that came as a massive shock.

“I then turned round and saw Gilles’ body cradled in the catch-fencing. His crash helmet had gone. His face was blue. ‘Wattie’ was with me and we pulled him out. At which point the emergency services arrived. When I looked back they were ‘beating the shit out of him’ trying to resuscitate him. When I returned to the pits I sobbed my eyes out. It had been my first experience of such things. That night we heard that Gilles had passed away. It came as no surprise to me.”

Watson dealt with the accident in a ‘more experienced’ way.

“No helmet. He was dead,” he says. “I got a bump-start and drove back to the pits, where I said, ‘There’s been a f***ing big accident. It’s Villeneuve. He’s dead.’ The faces of Teddy Mayer and John Hogan of Marlboro opened as if the world had stopped. I’d been very matter of fact, I suppose, but that’s a protection mechanism a racing driver has to use. 

“After François Cevert had been killed at Watkins Glen in 1973 – a grisly accident – I was standing by the pit wall when the circuit reopened. Bernie Ecclestone – I was driving a third Brabham for him – told me to get back out there, that Cevert had been killed in a millisecond doing something he loved. That was a hard but important lesson: F1 is a job you do professionally, not emotionally.”

Watson’s reaction – he was also disappointed that his eventual victory, the result of a smart tyre choice and clinical driving, was completely overshadowed by Villeneuve’s accident – is understandable in a racing driver’s world. He felt it then, feels it now and is brave enough to go on the record with it. But for those outside the bubble, the F1 tide had ebbed, from sport to business, at 1.52pm on Saturday May 8, 1982. What little innocence it still possessed had finally succumbed to the mortal blow it had received 13 days earlier at Imola.

The circuit was reopened for those last eight minutes. Nobody went faster. A dazed and bewildered Ferrari – Pironi had stopped at the crash site but been led away by Mass – went home, leaving a gap in the paddock and two on the grid – until the pack was, completely without sentiment, shunted up the line on Sunday. By Monday all that remained was swirling rubbish – and an Agusta helicopter.

Villeneuve might have kept his foot in and taken the same gamble had he and Pironi been best buddies: Watson reckons yes; Warwick thinks not. We’ll never know. But what’s sure is that the last two weeks of his life were spent in corrosive disillusionment: F1 had lost its sparkle. 

And despite all the subsequent glitz and glamour, it has never got it back.