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 – 1min 16.616sec; Didier Pironi, his team-mate – 1min 16.501sec. 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.
“Villeneuve planned to do his fighting on the track, of course. He’d back himself to beat anyone”
“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’.”
Pironi sprays champagne after his divisive win at the 1982 San Marino GP
Hoch Zwei/Ronco via Getty Images
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 leads Pironi during that fateful 1982 San Marino GP
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.
Ferrari’s Imola team orders
Grand Prix Photo
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.”
Villeneuve fettles his Agusta helicopter
Grand Prix Photo
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.