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The Cult: Didier Pironi

Didier Pironi's lasting place in F1 history is as chief villain in the Gilles Villeneuve story. Without his former friend and teammate, Didier is a ghost.
Illustration by Dan Evans

In the build up to the 2016 Formula One season we're inducting six grand prix stars into The Cult. Today it's Didier Pironi, the other man in the tragic drama that was the 1982 campaign. You can read past entries here.

Cult Grade: The Ghost

It is fair to say that Didier Pironi's legacy comes with some baggage. When a Formula One fan hears the Frenchman's name, it is inevitable that the ghost of Gilles Villeneuve lingers in the background, his face a mask of disgust after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. In the English-speaking world at least, Pironi does not seem to exist without Villeneuve. The Canadian's legend can comfortably stand alone – and cast quite a shadow, for Gilles is remembered as one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history – but Pironi is little more than a colourless outline without his former teammate and friend.

The closing laps at Imola that year have passed into F1 legend. Villeneuve led from Pironi when the Ferrari pitwall gave an order to slow down and protect the cars. Gilles believed this also meant they should hold station; Pironi interpreted it differently. The Frenchman took the lead, Villeneuve re-passed him, but on the final lap Pironi snatched the win. Villeneuve was furious at what he saw as a complete betrayal.


They never spoke again. Two weeks later, in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, Villeneuve was killed as he attempted to wrestle pole from Pironi.

Villeneuve has since become one of the sport's great icons, but Pironi is a largely forgotten character. Pironi, Jarier, Tambay, Laffite, Arnoux – ultimately, they're just French F1 drivers of that era who weren't Alain Prost.

Yet Pironi's legacy is a little more complex. He is seen as a man so driven by his desire to be world champion that he betrayed a friend. People do not think of Zolder in 1980, his first F1 win, 47 seconds clear of his nearest challenger. Instead, they picture Zolder 1982, Pironi a tenth up on Villeneuve in qualifying, the Canadian determined to snatch pole and coming upon a slowing car one moment, his body limp in the catch fencing the next. To his harshest critics, Pironi killed Gilles as surely as if he'd put a gun to his head.

READ MORE: The Cult – Gerhard Berger

By late August of 1982, Pironi lay in a hospital bed with his legs horrifically injured, Villeneuve in his grave. And so when you think of Pironi, you also think of destruction. Destructive acts, followed quickly by destructive outcomes. The end – five years later – was a natural continuation of this. Pironi, unable to resist danger and competition, killed in a World Championship Powerboat event off the Isle of White. Two crewmates gone with him.

History is written by the winners, but in the case of 1982 and Ferrari there were none. By the season's end there was simply wreckage left from perhaps the most destructive intra-team battle of all time.


Ultimately, we can only work with the version of history we have been left; in this, Pironi's place in the sport has been whittled down to a villain in the Gilles Villeneuve story. Without Gilles, it is Didier who becomes the ghost.

Point of Entry: Medium

Villeneuve was faster. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. The whole grand prix racing thing came easier to Gilles – he wasn't brave, it simply didn't scare him in the way it did others. Pironi had to work at it. The application required to do this suggests he was one of those loathsome people who could have succeeded at whatever they turned their mind to. There are tales of him climbing from the car covered in sweat, such was the exertion he put in behind the wheel. He toiled for his results; Villeneuve did his thing, let them come.

This was the opposite of their backgrounds. Pironi came from a wealthy family and possessed a haughty Parisian sophistication; he was well educated, blessed with an analytical brain, and was extremely ambitious. His was a complicated clan: his half-brother Jose, eight years Didier's senior, shared the same father, but their mothers were sisters (Jose introduced him to racing, and they later ran a business together). The old man was a wealthy businessman with a complex love life, something his son inherited. Pironi married in 1982 but within weeks the union was on the rocks, an affair having developed with an actress he had met during a photo-shoot.


Gilles meanwhile had come from more humble beginnings, and honed his skills on snowmobiles and contesting drag races in his road car. He'd married young and had a wife and two kids to support away from the circuit. But in F1 it was Pironi who sweated, Gilles for whom everything came easy.

Pironi served his F1 apprenticeship with Tyrrell, switched to Ligier in 1980 and won his first race (he was always special at Zolder), then joined Ferrari in 1981. The car was a pig. Villeneuve won twice, Pironi couldn't even manage a podium. He out-qualified his teammate just once – Zolder, of course – but Villeneuve's superiority was clear.

READ MORE: Lessons From the Life and Death of Gilles Villeneuve

The 1982 car was a real improvement. Villeneuve had qualified well at the opening three races, but failed to finish any of them. Then came Imola, where the field was decimated by the FISA-FOCA war. It remains unclear what each man thought in those final exchanges, whether Pironi really did feel his last-lap overtake to be legitimate, or if he simply decided to show his ruthless side and get one over on his more gifted teammate. We can never know.

Had the next race not been at Zolder – Didier's circuit – perhaps things would have been different. Gilles would have been quicker just by being Gilles, as he had for the entirety of their time as teammates, and there would have been no last-minute push for pole that ended in tragedy. Again, we cannot know.


Rising to become Ferrari's clear number one in Gilles' absence, Pironi looked a good bet for the world title. But tragedy now seemed to stalk him: on pole in Canada – at a circuit already re-named in Villeneuve's honour – he stalled. The young Italian Riccardo Paletti slammed into the rear of the Ferrari, and remained trapped in his car as it burst into flames. The 23-year-old died that night.

By the German Grand Prix in August, Pironi led the standings by nine points and would start the race from pole. Then, in practice at a wet and misty Hockenheim, he came upon the Renault of Alain Prost at high speed in low visibility. A horrendous accident followed. Pironi was lucky to escape alive, luckier still to be attached to all four limbs, though both legs were horrifically injured. His season was clearly over, and so too was his career in F1.

Against the odds, Pironi made an excellent recovery, healing well enough to walk with barely any signs of the dreadful injuries he had suffered. Amputation was considered in the frantic moments after his crash; this outcome was a minor miracle. But of course he could not let the competitive urge go unsatisfied for long: he took up powerboat racing, and in 1987 it killed him.

The consensus on Pironi has always been that he was the villain to Villeneuve's hero. Arrogant and selfish, driven to destruction, a bad guy who spoiled F1's purest talent. But there are also stories of a shy and sensitive man, characteristics that – not least in a wealthy Frenchman – could be mistaken for coldness or arrogance.


READ MORE: The Cult – Juan Pablo Montoya

Was Imola 1982 an act of pure selfishness? Perhaps. To some in F1 that sort of behaviour is beyond the pale, though this is also a sport that idolises Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

There are also stories of how Enzo Ferrari never warmed to him. Yet, in the weeks that followed his Hockenheim crash, the old man sent a cup inscribed, "Didier Pironi – the true 1982 World Champion." It lay by his bedside while he recovered. And when he won his first Powerboat World Championship race, Ferrari sent a telegram of congratulation. Five years after the horrors of 1982, Pironi still existed to the old man. He still mattered.

The Moment: Watching the skies, Hockenheim, 1982

What did he think in those seconds? As the rear of the Renault emerged from the spray, at the moment of impact and, most of all, when he was staring straight up at the trees and the grey August skies above Hockenheim. Racing drivers often speak of everything slowing down in those moments, of the great clarity of thought they briefly possess. Did Didier think of his world championship hopes? Did he think of Gilles, or of Paletti? Or did he just think – in that frank Parisian way – 'Fuck me, this one's going to hurt'?

Closing Statements

Alain Prost, whose unseen Renault car Pironi struck in his fateful accident at Hockenheim: "Every time I drive on a wet track, I look in my rear view mirror and see the Ferrari of Didier flying."

A ghost.

Words: @jim_weeks / Illustration: @Dan_Draws