Driver Spotlight: Didier Pironi

What goes on in the mind of another? We can see actions, hear words — but one’s thoughts are always one’s own. Didier Pironi’s first victory for Ferrari deemed it likely that he would be France’s first world champion, yet it ended his friendship with Gilles Villeneuve, for the victory had come in an inexplicable act of betrayal — its reasoning obscured for us — and neither Pironi or Villeneuve would ever fully fulfil their talent to become Formula 1’s world champion.

Didier Joseph Louis Pironi was born in 1952, in the outskirts of Paris, to a rich family of immigrants from Italy. In his teens he got into competitive swimming and started studying engineering, but soon his attention turned to racing. While he did finish his degree in science, much to the persistence of his parents, he was absorbed by racing, and joined the Paul Ricard driving school.

Pironi always traveled to the circuit in his blue Ford Capri 2600 RS; “With this car I can satisfy my need for speed on the road, at least a bit.” On track, Pironi showed a natural kind of talent and raced lightweight single-seaters of French makes. While some labelled him as a humourless fanatic, Pironi was timid and constantly busy analysing his driving and the mechanics of the car, aided by the knowledge from his study.

Mike Knight, an instructor from the racing school, remarked; “Pironi was different. He really buckled down to it and later we came to see that this was very much in character. He’d decide to do something and that would be it. He had phenomenal grit.”

In 1972, at the age of twenty, he won the Volant Elf award, enlisting him to the talent programme of the French petroleum giant Elf. After Patrick Tambay, Pironi was only the second driver in the programme, but over the next decade, Elf was singlehandedly responsible for the flood of French drivers who got into F1 in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, namely Alain Prost, René Arnoux, Pascal Fabre, Olivier Grouillard, Paul Belmondo, Éric Bernard, Érik Comas and Olivier Panis.

Like all French drivers, Pironi started racing in the French Formula Renault cup, and with Elf’s backing, he clinched the title in 1974, followed by the Super Renault title in 1976. In 1977, Pironi raced in the international Formula 2 championship, which was a proper stepping stone to grand prix racing. In fact, the whole top ten of the 1977 Formula 2 season would land seats in Formula 1. Pironi himself took one victory and ended up third in the standings.

Pironi was signed by the team of Ken Tyrrell for the 1978 Formula 1 season. Despite being British, the Tyrell team had strong ties with Elf and featured French drivers more than any nationality, with Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, François Cevert, Patrick Depailler and Michel Leclère all driving full seasons for the team in the decade before Pironi.

That same year, Pironi was also part of the huge fleet of drivers that Elf had send to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, tasked with bringing victory to France. Pironi partnered Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, and in the Renault A442B with its quirky-looking canopy, the two duly won the race, five laps ahead of the nearest Porsche.

Pironi in the Ligier, 1980 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
Meanwhile in Formula 1, Pironi impressed in his debut season with five scoring finishes, followed by more points and two podiums in 1979. When Tyrell lost Elf’s sponsorship, Pironi was signed by Ligier in 1980, which did feature the petroleom empire’s sticker on their car. Pironi collected five podiums and impressively finished the 1980 season in fifth place. At the circuit of Zolder, which would play another big role in his career, Pironi won his first grand prix.

Pironi clinching his first win, in Belgium, 1980 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
Enzo Ferrari was impressed and approached Pironi to drive for the Scuderia in the 1981 season. As the Maranello outfit were sponsored and fuelled by Agip, it meant Pironi had to break all ties with Elf, which he did.

Through years of racing, Pironi had matured greatly as a driver, though he still brought the same analytical approach as he had in those days of youth at Paul Ricard. Enzo Ferrari said, “As soon as Pironi arrived at Maranello, he won everyone’s admiration and affection, not only for his gifts as an athlete, but also for his way of doing things.”

Pironi partnered with Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, who had already won four races with the team. Enzo Ferrari treated the two as equals, and Didier and Gilles quickly became friends. There’s a story of the two playing games at the Italian Autostrada, taking turns in driving flat-out and dodging traffic for as long as possible, while the other would have to sit in the passenger seat without flinching or raising a brow.

Perhaps the friendship between the two was mere politics for Pironi. Villeneuve’s wife Joann was worried about such a hidden agenda. Friend and fellow driver Patrick Tambay remarked; “It was just part of how Didier operated — he was very smart. Gilles, on the other hand, just did his stuff. Unlike Pironi, he didn’t go on holiday with Ferrari’s team manager, or ask him to be godfather to his children, or be best man at his wedding. He wasn’t a political animal like Didier.”

Pironi himself said; “I’m deeply interested in politics. It’s not a particularly noble area of life, but it’s the only thing that makes things actually happen, in motorsport as elsewhere.”

Perhaps the friendship was aided by the fact that there wasn’t a championship at stake in their first season together. The 1981 Ferrari, the cumbersome 126CK, was a poor-performer. While it yielded the most powerful engine of the field, its reliability and handling were terrible, and Villeneuve labelled the car “a big red Cadillac”. Despite this, Villeneuve won two races in brilliant fashion, at the narrow tracks of Monaco and Jarama, where passing was virtually impossible. Pironi only collected nine points. The two ended in the season in 7th and 13th places respectively.

Harvey Postlethwaite was selected by Enzo Ferrari to improve the car for the following season, and he did; the 1982 Ferrari was smaller, nimbler and had vastly improved aerodynamics.

From early season testing Villeneuve and Pironi showed great speed, but reliability issues, driver mistakes, and an illegal rear-wing in Long Beach meant that Ferrari had scored only a single point in the opening three rounds of the 1982 season. But the Scuderia got their act together at the start of the European season, in that now infamous grand prix at Imola.

The Renault’s of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost locked the front-row, but both retired early on in the race. The Ferrari’s lead over Michele Alboreto in Tyrell was so big that the Scuderia, keen to finally score some good points, ordered the cars to hold position and to slow down to minimise any risks. The signs were shown at the start/finish line, and there was no mistake that both drivers had seen it. Villeneuve led Pironi and the two slowed down, but with two laps to the finish, Pironi inexplicably pulled down the inside of Villeneuve at the hairpin. With the fans and members of the team astonished by what was happening, Villeneuve fought back. The Ferraris had run conservative laps, but suddenly the pace had elevated to nearly two seconds a lap quicker. The two battled wheel to wheel, and Villeneuve started the final lap ahead, but Pironi passed him in the Tosa hairpin, and the Frenchman went on to win the race.

Villeneuve trailing Pironi, Imola, 1982 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
Pironi’s first win for the Scuderia had come in the darkest of acts; he never felt needed to explain why he had disobeyed the team order, neither did the team punish Pironi for it. Villeneuve felt betrayed, and realised Joann had been right all along. Villeneuve spend his last days tormented, realising that Pironi was trying to take control over the team and famously saying the words that he’d never speak to Pironi again. It turned out to be prophetic just two weeks later.

Pironi’s and Villeneuves’s 126C2 in the pitlane at Zolder, 1982 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
With eight minutes to go in the final qualifying session for the race at Zolder, Villeneuve was trying to improve his time, which was just one tenth slower than Pironi’s. The Ferrari encountered the slow driving March of Jochen Mass, who was known as a safe driver. Mass moved to the right to give the racing line to Villeneuve, who, at the same instant, moved to the right to pass Mass. The speed difference was huge – the Ferrari launched into the air over the back of March, flipped over and landed nose-first into the soft ground – with enough force to tear Villeneuve’s helmet from his head and throw him, still strapped to his seat, into the catch fence fifty meters from the wreckage.

The session was stopped and the medics arrived. Pironi was in the pits when the accident happened and rushed to the scene, on foot. Realising he could do nothing, he walked back with his and Villeneuve’s helmet, expressionless, but no doubt trying to fathom what had just happened.

Villeneuve was brought to a hospital, where he died that evening. Grand Prix racing had lost one of its biggest stars. The Ferrari team withdrew from Sunday’s race, while Villeneuve’s Augusta helicopter was poignantly left parked in the paddock.

Yet the season went on, and Patrick Tambay replaced Villeneuve at Ferrari. Pironi finished second in the Monaco Grand Prix, and third in Detroit.

But again the perils of death came close. At Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Pironi qualified in pole position for the Canadian Grand Prix, yet stalled his car at the start. All the other cars flew passed except for Riccardo Paletti. From the back of the grid, his Osella was already traveling at 180kph as he slammed into the back of the Ferrari. As medics tried to recover the unconscious Italian – wedged against the steering wheel – from the car, the fuel tank erupted. After the fire was extinguished it took rescue workers another 25 minutes to get Paletti out of the car, with the sparks from the cutting equipment again re-igniting the petrol on the track. He died that evening, from the impact of the crash and inhalation of smoke and exhausting foam, just two days before his 24th birthday.

A week later, Pironi escaped major injuries himself, when he had a 280kph crash while testing at Paul Ricard, when the suspension of his Ferrari broke.

The Frenchman claimed victory in the Dutch Grand Prix, finished second in the British Grand Prix and third in the French Grand Prix. Come the German Grand Prix, Pironi was leading the championship with 39 points to John Watson’s 30 and Keke Rosberg’s 27, well on course to clinch the title.

Mark Huges wrote; “From the outside Pironi displayed a measured detachment which sent a shiver through those who didn’t know him. But that was merely the lid over a spitting cauldron of desire so intense that in the end it devoured him.”

Pironi at Paul Ricard, 1982 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
But the 1982 season had another sinister plot twist. The German Grand Prix was driven at the old Hockenheim circuit. Pironi had again qualified in pole, but in an untimed session, and in rainy conditions, started testing a new composition wet weather tyre from Goodyear.

The spray was immense on the long straights of Hockenheim, and as Pironi passed the Williams of Derek Daly, he had not sighted the slow driving Renault of Alain Prost, tiptoeing around the slippery track. Eerily similar to Villeneuve’s accident, Pironi’s Ferrari crawled over the back of the Renault, flew through the air and landed nose first, completely destroying the front of the Ferrari, and Pironi’s legs.

Years later, Prost said he was still haunted by the crash; “Every time I drive on a wet track, I look in my rear view mirror and see the Ferrari of Didier flying.”

Pironi survived the crash, but his legs were severely fractured. Unable to walk, let alone race, he watched the competition claw back his lead of the championship. Keke Rosberg finished second in the German race, second in Austria and won in Switzerland — thus taking over the lead with two races to go. Ferrari finished the season with Patrick Tambay and Mario Andretti as drivers, and clinched the constructors trophy, but Pironi eventually finished the season in second place, five points behind Rosberg, despite missing the final five races.

It took four years for the Frenchman to walk unaided, a time in which he received over thirty surgeries. But, in 1986, a return to racing beckoned. Pironi tested an AGS at Paul Ricard and proved to still have his earlier pace. He then tested for Ligier, and in the silly season ahead of 1987 there was a rumour of him joining McLaren alongside Prost, but it never happened, perhaps because Pironi would have been forced to pay back some insurance money if he returned to competitive racing again.

Pironi had been tantalisingly close to becoming France’s first world champion in Formula 1, but when motorsport was no longer an option, he shifted his sights on becoming world champion in powerboats. In the years before his accident he was already involved in applying Formula 1 technology and the knowledge of his engineering study into powerboats with constructor Abbate, who powered their carbon powerboats with Lamborghini engines.

With his help and development, the revolutionary Colibri powerboat was constructed, which was the lightest among all competitors, due to its chassis being made completely out of carbon fibre. Elf brought sponsorship, as the crew consisted of Didier Pironi, Bernard Giroux – who was Ari Vatanen’s former navigator – and Jean Claude Guenard, a former engineer for Ligier.

In August of 1987, with Pironi behind the steer, the Colibri clinched its first success, winning the Norwegian race for the World Offshore Powerboat Championship. The French team was seen as a the title favourite, and among the congratulations for the victory was a telegram from Enzo Ferrari.

The next race, only two weeks later, was in England near the Isle of Wight. Pironi had flirted with danger so many times before, but this is where fate awaited; the Colibri was running in second place when it hit approached a wave caused by a nearby oil tanker ship. The Colibri hadn’t lift the throttle the slightest, hit the wave, flipped and crashed into the sea, travelling from 170kph to an abrupt standstill.

While the boat was only slightly damaged, the crew was instantly killed.

Pironi was buried in the South of France, with his gravestone yielding the French words ‘entre chiel et mer‘, meaning ‘between the heavens and the sea’.

At the time of Didier’s death, Pironi’s girlfriend was pregnant. She gave birth to twins, who, in honour of the two friends, she named Didier and Gilles.