Teams Didier Joseph-Lovis Pironi
101Didier Pironi: Reputation Overshadows AbilityBy Jeremy McMullen
The error in judgment in Imola would turn tragic at Zolder. The result would be a ruined reputation for Didier Pironi, a man that did not, and still does not, deserve all the acrimony. But unfortunately, it will be that apparent reputation that will be remembered far and above his ability.
Yes, Pironi's teammate would be the much-loved and talented Gilles Villeneuve, but to think Pironi didn't deserve a drive with Scuderia Ferrari is a terrible falsehood. French Formula Renault champion in 1974 and the French Formula Super Renault champion in 1976, Pironi's early racing career would be filled with nothing but success.
Born in Villecresnes, France in March of 1952, Didier would be just 20 years of age when he earned Pilot Elf sponsorship following his enrollment in the Paul Ricard driving school. Though not a racer from the earliest of ages, he would show his skills at each and every level and would prove he had the talent to drive amongst the best. Furthermore, Didier had the kind of mind that enabled him to compete amongst the best.
Coming from an engineering family, he would initially look to a career in engineering earning a degree in science. However, he would be bitten by the racing bug and his enjoyment of machines that travelled very fast. One of the youngest, if not the youngest, licensed pilots in all of France, it was clear Pironi had a technical mind and an understanding of such things. And, while he may never be considered among those truly great technical drivers in motor racing history, there would be no disputing that he was technical and fast.
From the time of his earning the Elf sponsorship in 1972 just six years would pass before he would find himself behind the wheel of a Formula One car. Quickly rising through the ranks, Pironi would compete in Formula 2 for just a single season before he would capture the attention of one Ken Tyrrell.
Tyrrell had discovered Jackie Stewart. He had also discovered Francois Cevert and a whole number of other talented drivers. And so, to earn a spot with Tyrrell's team in 1978, Pironi had to be considered someone to watch. And, he would prove that point in his very first season in Formula One.
In the Brazilian Grand Prix, just his second race in Formula One, Didier would come through to finish in 6th place, a points-paying result. This would be followed up with another 6th place in the South African Grand Prix. At Monaco, Didier would come through to finish 5th. Belgium would follow Monaco and it would see him finish in the points once again. In his first six races in Formula One, Pironi would come away with points in four of them.
But if the start in Formula One wasn't impressive enough, then the result in Le Mans in the early part of June in 1978 would certainly help. Using his steady, but fast, approach, Didier would combine with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud to give Renault its only overall victory at Le Mans. It would be a remarkable performance by the Frenchman as he would help the number 2 Renault A442B come through to victory with more than 5 laps in hand over two of the dominant factory Porsches.
Pironi was causing people to sit up and take notice. A move to Ligier in 1980 would cause them to have to think seriously about whether or not he was championship material.
Joining Ligier in 1980 would prove to be one of the best things for Didier. His time in Tyrrell had been successful with him earning two 3rd place finishes in 1979, one coming in the Belgium Grand Prix and the second coming at Watkins Glen at the end of the season. He had stood on the podium a couple of times with Tyrrell. Coming to Ligier would take him to the higher steps.
Throughout Ligier's history there has really only been one time in which it has been competitive with the other top teams within the sport, and, that period would come when Pironi joined the team.
The success would start out almost immediately. A 4th place in the Brazilian Grand Prix would be followed up with a 3rd place in South Africa. Then, at Zolder, the site of his first podium finish the year before, Pironi would come through with something better securing his first Formula One victory beating-out the two Williams of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann. It would be a demonstrative win as he would enjoy more than 47 seconds over Jones and would have more than a lap advantage over one Gilles Villeneuve. As a result of that maiden victory, Pironi would be amongst the top five in the fight for the championship.
Unfortunately, the middle part of the 1980 season would be marred by early retirements. In spite of a 2nd place finish in his home grand prix, Didier would suffer five retirements out of six races. Still, he would recover and would stand on the podium in the final two races of the season. The end result would be Didier would finish the season 5th place in the championship that year, well ahead of any of the drivers from the team he would choose to join the following season.
Scuderia Ferrari was well off the pace in 1980. The ground effects chassis were really beginning to come into their own and would be the source of much contention throughout the season. The 1980 season seemed to a hold a lot of promise for Ferrari following 1979, but it would prove to be the exact opposite. The Maranello outfit was putting much of its attentions toward a six-cylinder turbocharged design, the 126C believing the 312T5 to still be a very capable competitor. As it would turn out, the 126C could not come soon enough.
Jody Scheckter would leave Ferrari at the end of the difficult '80 season. Enzo Ferrari and the team leaders knew they had a great driver in Gilles Villeneuve. There was really only one weakness with the Canadian. His no-hold-barred-style of driving was certainly popular with the spectators and those watching on television, but it did make the hard-charger susceptible to accidents. This was fine for those that didn't have to pay to repair a car, but in Ferrari's case, they needed the Constructors' Championship prize to help offset the costs. Therefore, the team needed another driver like Scheckter. They needed somebody who was talented, who could win, but that could keep his head about him a bit better than Gilles.
Enzo liked what he saw in Pironi, especially when he had the opportunity to meet the Frenchman in person. Ferrari liked him not only 'for his gifts as an athlete, but also for his way of doing things.'
Didier would jump from Ligier to drive with the Scuderia and he would prove throughout the '81 season why he had been hired by the team. The team would field its turbo-charged 126C. The car showed promise, but it also had its weaknesses. The very thing a driver did not want to do was add mistakes to the car's inherent weaknesses.
Over the course of the '81 season, Villeneuve would prove the stronger of the two in sheer pace. Not only would Gilles out-qualify Pironi all throughout the season, but he would also come away with a couple of victories compared to none at all for Didier. However, while Gilles would be faster in qualifying, he would seem much more erratic during the races than Pironi. And though the results wouldn't necessarily tell the story, there was a bit more consistency with Pironi than with Gilles. Still, at the end of the day, Gilles was certainly more flamboyant and was able to take what he had been given and earn more than what it was capable of achieving.
Usually it takes some time to feel comfortable with a new team, especially when its car struggles with unreliability and some undesirable handling, as the 126C certainly did. Villeneuve was the leader within the team. He saw '81 as one of his seasons in which to earn the World Championship. Perhaps what he wouldn't expect the following season was a much stronger Pironi also looking to secure a World Championship.
Heading into 1982, it wasn't as if Didier wasn't accustomed to success. He had been a champion in nearly every level of motorsport prior to coming to Formula One. And, in a year when the Ferrari was nowhere to be found, Pironi would find himself amongst the top five in the '80 championship. Being hired by Enzo to drive for his beloved Scuderia Ferrari, it was clear Didier was not just to be some back-up plan.
Unfortunately, as history would record, Scuderia Ferrari would be one of the strongest teams of the '82 season. What's more, Pironi would be finding the updated 126C2 much more to his liking. The engine reliability was much better and both drivers felt they could push. Known for his consistency more than for his speed, Didier would have many opportunities to show the kind of speed he was capable of behind the wheel of the updated Ferrari.
Both men would struggle in the first race of the season. Then, at Brazil, Pironi would earn his first point of the season while Villeneuve suffered an accident. Gilles would have a podium result all sown up until being disqualified and Pironi would suffer an accident of his own. Then there was the infamous San Marino Grand Prix.
Literally right down the highway from Maranello, the Imola circuit could not have been more of a home race for Ferrari than if the race had been held at its own Fiorano circuit. Grandstands filled with ardent, passionate tifosi, this was Ferrari's chance to get its season heading in the right direction. Furthermore, for Gilles, it was his opportunity to get what should be his championship season on track as well.
Everyone just seemed to discount Pironi heading into the fourth round of the '82 World Championship. Everyone assumed Gilles was Ferrari's number one driver, though there was no such declaration from the team itself. All of this would mix together to form a truly wonderful battle that would result in the greatest amount of animosity.
Pironi was very much in the fight for the championship. He was in the fight every bit as much as Gilles. On top of that, it was a race in front of the home fans. If ever there was a time to impress it was on that 25th of April.
Didier was not some upstart overreaching. He had come to Ferrari on his merits. He had fought for a championship in 1980 with Ligier, but he would be going up against the allure of Gilles Villeneuve and Ferrari.
But right from the very beginning of the race, the Frenchman would try and show all that he needed to be considered as viable as his deified teammate. Lap after lap, Pironi and Villeneuve would battle for position with no sign being given to hold position on the circuit. To say that Gilles dominated Pironi throughout the race would be expressing a deep affinity for the Canadian as many times throughout Pironi would get the better of his teammate. They were allowed to race, no team orders were shown.
In a race in which Didier had shown himself more than capable of staying with and getting ahead of Gilles, and, when Pironi still had the lead in the championship and had fought for the championship before, just what would the signal 'slow' actually mean?
While Gilles' mood and determination never to speak to Didier would be understandable, especially in light of the fact he had had a 3rd place taken away from him at Long Beach the round before, it would be wrong not take to heart Pironi's understanding of the events that would transpire.
The Ferrari drivers were left out front all by themselves. And, while Villeneuve would believe 'slow' meant they were to hold position, Pironi would take it as they were to be careful and not throw away a one-two finish in the very important race. Didier had been battling with Gilles all throughout the race and could have been justified in having such a view.
In the early part of the final lap, Gilles would slow believing the result to be certain. Pironi would race to the end, and therefore, would take advantage of an open door. Once by Gilles, there was really no chance for the Canadian to get the position back before the end of the lap. Pironi would take his second victory and would add to his championship point scored earlier in the year. Gilles would be left with nothing but animosity toward the Frenchman.
The debate over who, or what, was right would continue to rage by the time the Formula One circus showed up at Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, Pironi, historically, had always gone well at the circuit. In the final moments of practice, Pironi would be a tenth of a second up on his angry teammate. Historically, this gap would be given as the reason for Villeneuve pushing himself and finding himself in that terribly tragic moment when he collided with Jochen Mass' March.
Villeneuve would be gone. Didier would not have the opportunity to vindicate himself with the person it mattered most. After Gilles' death, the adoring public and those in the media would take over the campaign against Pironi. Suddenly, a man that had been praised for his driving talents was now overshadowed by one moment in the sun in front of the tifosi in Imola.
In spite of all the pressure, Pironi would show his quality by earning strong results in the races that followed. After withdrawing from the Belgian Grand Prix, in which he likely would have added to his championship tally, Pironi would come through to finish in 2nd place at Monaco and then 3rd at Detroit.
More tragedy found Didier in Canada when Riccardo Paletti crashed head-on into his stalled Ferrari on the grid. Paletti would be killed. The already overwhelming pressure would only get worse after that event. But it wasn't any better away from the track either.
A short time after Villeneuve's death, Pironi's marriage to Catherine Beynie began to suffer. A terrible weight would be pressing down on the Frenchman. Yet, in spite of it all, Pironi would shoulder all of the pressure and would come through to take an indomitable victory in the Dutch Grand Prix. When he managed to come through to finish in 2nd place at the British Grand Prix, and then 3rd in his home grand prix, the championship seemed well within his reach.
Leading up to the German Grand Prix, Pironi was enjoying a 9 point lead in the championship over John Watson. The much maligned Frenchman was seemingly just hitting his stride, proving his abilities. This view would be seemingly supported by his taking the pole for the 12th round of the 1982 Formula One World Championship.
Pironi appeared well on his way as he took to the circuit for Saturday practice. He was heading out to test some new rain tires from Goodyear. Sadly, as he took to the circuit, the rain would make for some very difficult conditions. Nevertheless, the new tires would be impressive as Pironi would set some truly fast lap times. Streaking along setting some rather remarkable times in the wet conditions, Didier was preparing to make an easy pass around Derek Daly's Williams when he would be caught off guard by the presence of Alain Prost's Renault, which had been veiled from all of the spray and mist caused by the ground effects chassis. Cruising at full speed, Pironi would sock the Renault square in the back launching the Ferrari high into the air. The Ferrari would come crashing back down to earth and would end up overturning more than a couple of times before coming to a rest. The car would be terribly crumpled with Pironi's legs taking the brunt of the terrible exchange. It would all look eerily-similar to the accident that claimed Villeneuve's life.
The Ferrari would come to a halt off the side of the track. Rescue crews, including Dr. Sid Watkins, would arrive to tend to the Ferrari driver. Time was of the essence. A couple of minutes longer and Didier would have gone into shock. But Didier would not be in shock. Instead, he would be more concerned with the fact he would have to turn to the spare car for the race. There would be no race.
The spectacular crash would be the last high-flying Pironi would do in Formula One, though he would attempt a comeback four years after his crash at Hockenheim. In 1986, Pironi would be at Paul Ricard attempting a test with AGS. Didier would complete the test and would claim he had not 'lost anything'. Pironi would back this up with another test at Dijon-Prenois, this time at the wheel of a Ligier-Renault. But even though he would get as close as a second from Rene Arnoux's best with the team, there would be no offers from other teams to entertain. Furthermore, the insurance money he had received would have had to be paid back if he attempted a comeback. Pironi's Formula One days were over before anyone really had the opportunity to see what he was capable of. He would have to look elsewhere if he wanted to keep his racing blood coursing.
Powerboating seemed like the next-best option. The powerboat would have two engines with each pushing 780hp. It was a serious watercraft, and a dangerous one at that. Tragically, while competing in a race off the Isle of Wight, Pironi's boat would hit the wake of an oil tanker at around 90knots. The results would be terrible. The boat would crash heavily. Pironi, and his two other crewmen, would be killed instantly. Only a few weeks after the tragic accident near the Isle of Wight, Didier's girlfriend would give birth to two sons. She would name them Didier and Gilles.
The death off the Isle of Wight would be a truly sad ending to a career marked by sadness and undeserved ire. What had started out as a career bent upon becoming World Champion would somehow take on a legend unwarranted, and unfortunately, unable to be cleared, and all from that one day at Imola in 1982. How tragically wrong.Sources:
Nyberg, Rainer. 'Pironi's Inconspicuous Return to F1', (http://8w.forix.com/pironi.html). 8W: The Stories Behind Motor Racing Facts and Fiction. http://8w.forix.com/pironi.html. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
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'Drivers: Didier Pironi', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-pirdid.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-pirdid.html. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
'Complete Archive of Didier Pironi', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Didier-Pironi-F.html). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Didier-Pironi-F.html. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
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'Dreams and Nightmares—The Ferrari Years', (http://www.didierpironi.net/formula1_ferrari.html). Didier Pironi. http://www.didierpironi.net/formula1_ferrari.html. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
'Cars: 126C2', (http://formula1.ferrari.com/cars/126-c2). Scuderia Ferrari. http://formula1.ferrari.com/cars/126-c2. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
'Cars: 1980 312 T5', (http://www.ferrari.com/English/Formula1/History/Singleseaters/Pages/312T5.aspx). Scuderia Ferrari. http://www.ferrari.com/English/Formula1/History/Singleseaters/Pages/312T5.aspx. Retrieved 4 March 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 4 March 2014