On the podium at Imola in late-April of 1982, the look on Gilles Villeneuve's face would speak volumes. Then there would be the tragic events at Zolder just a couple of weeks later. But while many would want to point fingers at Villeneuve's teammate, the sad fact of the matter is that Didier Pironi and Gilles would compliment each other in so many ways that it would be inevitable there would be friction, perhaps even a collision. In fact, they were so connected, so complimentary of each other, they would also nearly share the same fate.
Enzo Ferrari's first thoughts of Villeneuve were of the great Tazio Nuvolari. They were similar, in his mind, in that both were energetic and on edge like a great thoroughbred. This, in Ferrari's estimation, was Gilles' weakness. In a championship fight for the manufacturer's title, Enzo would need both energy and level-headedness. This is where Didier Pironi came into the equation.
Pironi started out life looking toward a career in engineering. He was, therefore, a technically-minded individual. But, he would be one of those rare individuals that could combine the technical mind with sheer speed. This would help the Frenchman rise through the junior ranks very quickly. It would also help him to earn a place driving for Renault in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he would promptly win.
Enzo's first reaction to Pironi was that of admiration. He would impress Mr. Ferrari in how he went about things, even in his first meeting with him in Maranello. Therefore, unlike Gilles, Didier was more of a cool head, methodical instead of raw. This methodical approach would help Pironi to earn a strong 4th place result in Sao Paulo when he had to make a pit stop and lost a lot of time. So it was clear Pironi had the talent. Enzo never hired anybody he felt couldn't make the grade and help his beloved name rise to the top in Formula One.
However, the pairing would be able to do little to help Ferrari in 1981 as their car struggled mightily. Gilles would come away with a couple of victories, but that would be about it for the team's highlights in '81. In 1982, and with an improved turbocharged engine, Ferrari was certainly amongst the top teams to watch.
The first couple of races could not have been more political and it would play heavily on the San Marino Grand Prix. The starting grid would be relatively empty with many teams boycotting the race. This depressing situation would only get worse, in hindsight, over the course of the weekend, especially when the race headed into those now infamous last moments.
What would be lost to history would be the fact Pironi would challenge and would often be ahead of Villeneuve with some spectacular wheel-to-wheel action. But, the last 15 laps of the race would be an intriguing story and likely remain the most scrutinized of Formula One's history as everyone, not involved, tries to dissect and determine just what exactly happened, what each participant was actually thinking and who was disobeying, back-stabbing who. Putting personal likes and dislikes out of the way in able to honestly hear, Pironi would explain his position as the 'slow' sign having meant, at least to him, that both drivers were to take it easy racing each other with a one-two finish in front of the Italian crowd all but ensured. There was no declaration of a number one driver within the team, and therefore, the sign meant nothing as to who should follow who. Furthermore, the enthusiastic response from the crowd would have suggested they didn't necessarily care which one of the Ferrari drivers crossed the line first, just as long as one of them did.
Unfortunately for Pironi, his viewpoint of being allowed to race into the final lap for the win as long as both men took care not to ruin the race for the Scuderia would fall on deaf ears. Whether other drivers, and especially those ardently in favor of Gilles, Pironi would draw the ire of the Formula One public heading into the next race of the season. Most unfortunate, his actions would be pointed at as reason for the tragic events to follow.
Villeneuve was well known for his no-holds-barred approach to driving. Though he was showing much more control and patience in 1982 than what he had in previous seasons, he was still down in the final moments of qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. It would just happen to be the man he was trailing behind was his own teammate, the man he firmly believed stole victory from him at Imola.
It is pure speculation what was passing through Gilles mind at the moment he took off around Zolder in those final moments, but what isn't speculation is that he and Jochen Mass would have the same idea at one of the fastest points on the circuit. The result would be a Ferrari absolutely destroyed and Gilles twisted up against some catch-fencing breathing his last few breaths.
Pironi would go on to win the race. At the same time he would become public enemy number one. There had to be someone to blame. And no matter the sequence of events, the potential of it having happened with Pironi having been faster, a good deal of blame would be laid at Pironi's feet though it wasn't him Gilles had the run in with at that moment.
Following Villeneuve's death, Pironi would go on to score some great results, including a dominating performance in the Dutch Grand Prix. The result was that Pironi held onto the championship lead heading into the German Grand Prix.
The gulf between Pironi and Villeneuve, it would seem, couldn't get any wider. But though the gulf between Gilles and Didier would never have the opportunity of being bridged, Pironi would find himself inextricably linked to his teammate. The death of Gilles amplified the pressure surrounding Pironi. What would be the reaction if he won the championship in the wake of Gilles' death? Unfortunately, in the wake of Gilles' death people would lose all sense and would act as if Didier had killed his teammate with his own hands. It would be as if the circumstances only came about as a result of what Didier did in Imola. Ferrari race engineer, Mauro Forghieri, would even make a point that Villeneuve was to return to the pits on the very lap the accident happened.
Nonetheless, all of the events that would transpire within a couple of weeks would only build over the course of the season. The pressure was certainly mounting upon the Frenchman as he arrived in Hockenheim, and this would be something those within the team would note as the season wore on.
Taking to the circuit in preparation for the race on the 8th of August, Didier would set the fastest lap time in practice by nearly a full second over Alain Prost. In one of the practice sessions, it would be suggested Pironi take to the track to test a new type of Goodyear rain tire. The new tires were performing well as Pironi would be lapping quite a bit faster than his teammate Patrick Tambay.
As Pironi pulled out to pass the Williams of Derek Daly he undoubtedly did not see amidst the spray, and the fog caused by the spray, Alain Prost in the Renault cruising along at a much slower speed. Unable to do anything, Pironi would hit the Renault and would vault into the air much like Villeneuve at Zolder. Prost would comment to the fact the car would actually fly over top of him while vertical in the air!
The car would come to a rest mangled. The nose was tore off the car along with many other bits and pieces. The car looked, in many respects, similar to that of Gilles' car that tragic day in Zolder. It seemed like déjà vu, with one big exception. The much vilified Pironi was still alive in the car, but in a serious fight to keep from going into shock and saving his legs.
The damage to the nose of the car had ripped into the Frenchman's legs. He would lose a great deal of blood and would be on the verge of losing one, if not both, of his legs. Everybody believed it was a matter of time before Villeneuve became World Champion, and there would be more than a few opportunities when it would seem as though the title was taken from him, not including the 1982 season. But now, here was the man he would not speak to ever again after Imola fighting just to keep his limbs, having had the championship ripped from his hands as well.
When the season came to an end, Ferrari would get exactly what they had wanted from their two drivers. The team walked away with the manufacturer's crown. However, neither of its drivers would get what they so earnestly desired.
The future will likely see the debate rage on and the pointing fingers to continue, no doubt fueled by those who revered one driver over another. But, there can be no doubt as to the connection between these two protagonists. Two men driven to win, Pironi and Villeneuve would be like two atoms being slammed into each other. Unfortunately, the result of such a collision is a fall-out that leads to great loss, such as that which would be experienced by Ferrari in 1982.
And, while many would want to separate into pro-Gilles and pro-Didier camps, the two men could not have shared more similar fates. Accidents would take Gilles away from Formula One, as it would Pironi. Even the nature of the accidents would be similar.
Though different in their personalities, both would be driven and relentless in their effort to occupy the same space, that of World Champion. Therefore, it would only be fitting that Pironi's children's names would be none other than Didier and…Gilles.
'Drivers: Didier Pironi', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-pirdid.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-pirdid.html. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
'Season: 1982', (http://statsf1.com/en/1982.aspx). Stats F1. http://statsf1.com/en/1982.aspx. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
'Dreams and Nightmares—The Ferrari Years', (http://www.didierpironi.net/formula1_ferrari.html). DidierPironi. http://www.didierpironi.net/formula1_ferrari.html. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
Formula 1 1982 San Marino Grand Prix Highlights. Video. (1982). Retrieved 26 February 2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuJJKcChwH0.
'Grand Prix Results; German GP, 1982', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr369.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr369.html. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Didier Pironi', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 December 2013, 16:04 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Didier_Pironi&oldid=588080838 accessed 26 February 2014
Wikipedia contributors, 'Gilles Villeneuve', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 February 2014, 15:45 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gilles_Villeneuve&oldid=596926536 accessed 26 February 2014