Dreams and nightmares - The Ferrari years

In October 1980 Didier was welcomed by Enzo Ferrari and Mauro Forghieri and he had the chance to do some laps on Ferrari's racetrack at Fiorano in an old T5. Why had he gone to Ferrari although his star had risen at Ligier ?

"At Ferrari there won't be a number one driver but two drivers with identical preconditions."

Didier had already signed an option in March, thus at a time when the Ligiers were absolute front-runners. Why ?

"Well, it was only an option and not a contract. The final decision was taken much later and that's the truth. Last year Ligier gave me a fantastic car. What with aerodynamics and the chassis probably the best one. Moreover there's no doubt that Ligier was one of the best teams anyway. But what about 1981 ?

Moreover Didier didn't always have an easy time with Guy Ligier, at the British Grand Prix, for example. Rims had broken on both Ligiers, Laffite had mowed down several safety fences, Didier stopped with a flat tyre.

"When I came back to the pits" Didier describes the situation "Guy Ligier stood in the middle of a crowd of French journalists and he told them that one of his drivers would have won if they had more brains, if they'd drive more cautiously and not go over the kerbs so heavily and treat the car better. What should I have done ? I just went on. But at that time I started thinking about my future..."

In November 1980 Ferrari went testing the new turbo at Imola. Didier's and Villeneuve's lap-times balanced one another. In January Ferrari tested the comprex-charger instead of the KKK-turbocharger at Le Castellet. Didier was more than one second per lap faster with the comprex-charger than with the turbo.

The season started at Kyalami. The race wasn't a round of the championship so the teams of Ferrari, Renault, Talbot, Osella and Toleman didn't take part. At last Ferrari started the season with the turbo-engine but wasn't able to convert the additional tests into countable results. At Long Beach there was a total loss of result, Didier suffered an engine breakdown, Villeneuve was stopped by a broken driveshaft. Zero points also in Brazil, this time due to a defective turbocharger in Villeneuve's car while Didier had to give up the race after a collision with Alain Prost's Renault. Another frustrating round at Buenos Aires followed. Didier dropped out with another engine failure. Villeneuve destroyed his 126 CK as he had already done in the warm-up. In Italy they highly regarded Villeneuve's speed, his fighting spirit and his commitment but more and more people said that if Villeneuve would ever be World Champion he'd surely be the most expensive one. A glimmer of hope at Imola - Villeneuve was on pole, but Didier collected the first two point, while Gilles ruined his chances by speculation with his tyres. Didier might have won but he skidded over a kerb and damaged a skirt.

Then came the Black Weekend of Zolder 1981. On Friday in the totally overcrowded pit-lane Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo had been hit and seriously injured by Carlos Reutemann's Williams. This accident lead the mechanics to a demonstration against the unreasonable conditions of their job. They delayed the start by lining up at the start/finish line. Most drivers climbed out of their cars to show solidarity with their mechanics. After five minutes the demonstration ended and now the race organizers made a severe mistake - the cars were sent into the warm-up lap although not all drivers had returned from the demonstration. Everything was in utter chaos, some drivers started others were on their way to their cars.

As the first cars returned from their information lap and the drivers stalled the engines because of the danger of overheating, Derek Ongaro, the FISA-man who started every GP suddenly started the race. At this time not even all the cars had arrived at their positions on the grid, several helpers were on the track. One of them was Dave Luckett, an Arrows mechanic who tried to start up Patrese's car. Some drivers managed to get around the standing Arrows but not Patrese's teammate Siegfried Stohr. He crashed fully accelerated into Patreses rear and into the mechanic who laid seriously injured on the floor.

Although there were soon dozens of helpers, ambulances and recovery vehicles on the track the race was not stopped, at least not by the race organizers. But as they watched the chaos on the straight after having finished the first lap Didier Pironi and Alan Jones pointedly slowed down and so enforced the abortion of the race and the spectators and mechanics applauded.
By the way, Piquet and Reutemann were leading the race. After the second start Didier went into the lead but due to brake problems he wasn't able to stay there and he finished a disappointing eighth.

Giovanni Amadeo, the injured Osella mechanic, died the Monday after the race.

At the Grand Prix of Monaco the comprex-charged Ferrari-V6 was supposed to be used for the first time in a race but in the end they relied on the turbo. Didier's qualifying sessions were marked by two accidents so that he had to start from the penultimate row on the grid. Still he secured an excellent fourth place but this was put in the shade by Villeneuve's triumphant drive to victory.

So Ferrari had a problem. They thought about a teamorder to preserve the minimal chance to gain the championship because the victory at Monte Carlo had suddenly lifted Villeneuve to fourth place in the championship's rankings.

Then Villeneuve also won the race in Spain while Didier had a problematic race after some problematic qualifying sessions and finally came home only fifteenth. Anyway Villeneuve's victories weren't able to hide the fact that the 126 CK was basically a disastrous car.

At Dijon the Ferraris were nowhere, at least Didier collected another two points for his fifth place while at Silverstone the two Ferraris once again failed to reach the finish line. Didier had another engine failure while Villeneuve fell victim of a mass-collision that he himself was to blame for.

Moreover it was remarkable that Didier managed to qualify ahead of Villeneuve for the first time. He managed to repeat this at Hockenheim but was subsequently kicked out of the race by another engine breakdown. In Austria, Zeltweg, Didier drove an impressive race but was rewarded with a ninth place only.

The Ferrari was strong as an ox on the straight but in the corners the Ferraris behaved incredibly bad although the chassis had already been shortened. Very early in the race Villeneuve got off the track like he had already done at Zandvoort when he was obviously frustrated about being qualified behind his teammate and tried to drive to the front impetuously. He flew across Patrese's Arrows and had to give up the race. Didier on the other hand got under Tambay’s feet and stopped at the pits.

At Monza, Ferrari’s home Grand Prix, the team had taken on a lot and Didier qualified ahead of Villeneuve once again. This time it was Villeneuve’s turn to fall victim of the obligatory engine failure while Didier accomplished another fifth place. Then in Canada it was again Didier who’s race was ruined by a blown engine and Gilles drove to a third place, in a car that had been heavily damaged in a collision with Arnoux and that would have been taken out of the race with the black flag in any race except Montreal.

The season ended at Las Vegas with a convincing victory of Alan Jones and the first World Championship title for Nelson Piquet. The Ferraris didn’t collect any points once more. Didier reached a ninth place but, unlike Villeneuve who retired with an accident due to resolving tyres, he was able to keep the car on the road.

Both of them had already signed their contracts for the following season, it could only get better, it had to.

Already in early 1982 the Formula 1 world got shocked by lap-times that Gilles Villeneuve accomplished at Fiorano with the new Ferrari 126 C2 that was designed by Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite. Thereupon Ferrari changed their plans in view to the first championship battle on January 23th and sent Didier to Kyalami for pre-race testing.

Indeed the beginning of the season was primarily marked by politics. Cause of the renewed differences between the drivers and FISA was the surprising introduction of a so-called 'super-license' on several conditions. The driver had to be under contract with a team and he had to announce the duration of the contract. Moreover the license was for the team and not for the driver and the drivers had to commit themselves not to make a claim for any damages on any of the persons and institutions involved. Some drivers refused to sign this, among them Didier Pironi, Niki Lauda and Gilles Villeneuve. Under the leadership of Lauda and Didier, the chairman of the drivers' union GPDA, the drivers left out the free practice on Thursday. Because of the fact that it wasn't possible to find enough 'spare-drivers' to fill up the places of the renegades, the FISA postponed the decision to the F1-commission's next meeting at Paris and rescued Friday's qualifying session and the race.

Unfortunately the Ferraris' promising testing results couldn't be converted in the race. Due to a burst turbo-charger Villeneuve retired early and Didier dropped back from second to the end of the field with a sudden misfiring problem. Directly after the race FISA-president Jean-Marie Balestre withdrew the licences of all 29 drivers. Didier Pironi, Prost, Laffite, Giacomelli , Patrese and Villeneuve were fined $10000 because they also took part in the blockade at Zolder 1981, the others had to pay $5000. Only Jochen Mass and Teo Fabi (Lauda: "A characterless dog") went unpunished because they distanced themselves from the strike. Thereupon Didier informed the FISA that the drivers see themselves as partners with equal rights and demand correct negotiations instead of a notice of payment due. The refusal of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari und Renault to hire other drivers strengthened their position. Eventually Didier disbanded the GPDA and founded PRDA that should bring more influence for the drivers as a 'Professional Race Drivers Association'. But suddenly several teams (the British ones) started paying for their drivers. The remaining drivers, except for de Angelis, Guerrero, Reutemann and Serra, went to court of appeal but only accomplished a partial success. The FISA was reprimanded for their behaviour and the fines were fixed to $5000. The PRDA accepted the judgement and so helped Formula One to get a complete starter list again.

The Argentinian Grand Prix was cancelled for political and financial reasons. As a result the teams had the possibility to squeeze in some additional testing sessions at Le Castellet. In the course of this Didier had a spectacular accident but he was lucky to escape with no more than slight injury of a knee.
Nevertheless he was all but fit at the Brazilian Grand Prix and only managed to come home eighth.

At Long Beach he once again suffered from Ferrari's bad luck - this time it was a defective drive-shaft. Villeneuve on the other hand accomplished a third place but the pleasure was short-lived. The Ferrari had competed with a sensational double-wing but the Tyrrell team appealed against it and won. Gilles' third place was disallowed. Anyway the Ferraris' time was yet to come.

On Wednesday before the Grand Prix of San Marino at Imola Didier married his 29-year-old girlfriend Catherine and already on Thursday he was faster than Villeneuve.

Well, finally there was Imola.

Only 14 cars were at the start, the FOCA-teams refused to start due to different interpretations of the cars' minimum weight and the disqualification of Piquet and Rosberg involved. Through this Didier had belatedly received his first point of the 1982 season from a bureaucratic ivory tower. At Imola nine more point were about to be added. After the two Renaults of Prost and Arnoux had retired on lap 6 resp. lap 44, the race developed into a duel between the two Ferrari drivers.

Although the sign 'SLOW' had been shown from the Ferrari pit several times the both of them hunted each other around the circuit as if there was no tomorrow. Eventually Didier won the race. Villeneuve was furious, refused the lap of honour and on the rostrum he displayed an apocalyptic mood.

Didier:"SLOW means to be careful not to crash but there was no restriction on overtaking."
In fact both Ferraris had technical problems, especially misfiring to contend with and therefore they overtook each other several times. Gilles was not willing to accept the defeat that he considered deceit. He was wildly determined to re-establish the old pecking-order at Zolder but near the end of the qualifying session he was a tenth behind Didier and had only one set of qualifiers left. On his last quick lap he met Jochen Mass' much slower March between Chicane and Terlaemen. Tragically both drivers tried to get out of the way by going to the same side. The two cars collided, the Ferrari climbed the March' rear wheel, was thrown into the embankment and the driver was hurled out of the car.

Gilles Villeneuve died shortly before midnight.

As a result the second Ferrari was withdrawn from the race.

Gilles was dead, he fell victim to an accident but many of his fans indirectly made Didier Pironi responsible for what had happened. This accusation is probably one of the must unfair things that ever happened in motorsport. If anyone was to blame for Gilles' death it was Gilles. His driving-style combined with the unability to accept that there was someone who was often faster, were the reasons for how his life came to an end.

Next was Monaco. Ferrari put on only one car and in the race its driver had two problems: Elio de Angelis and the fuel injection. Elio cost him the car's nose while the latter let him strand in the tunnel on the penultimate lap, leading the race. Nevertheless he scored the points for second place and now he was only two points behind the championship leader, Alain Prost. Another third place in the concrete gorge of Detroit even lifted him up to second place in the overall rankings.

As a successor of Villeneuve Ferrari announced Frenchman Patrick Tambay who had said goodbye to F1 earlier in the season.

The Grand Prix of Canada should have been Didier's day but instead another tragedy took place. Didier was on pole but "my clutch started skidding, I had to brake not to make a jump-start. On the second attempt the clutch burnt and immediately I lifted my arm."

Most drivers found a gap between the stationary Ferrari and the crash-barriers but not the unexperienced Osella-driver Riccardo Paletti. The Osella crashed into the rear of the No. 28 car with some 170 km/h. The impact was even worse than hitting a concrete wall. Suddenly the car caught fire. Didier jumped into the burning wreckage but there was nothing left to rescue. Nevertheless Didier took the lead at the restart in the spare-car but misfiring problems once again forced him to visit the pits several times. Thus he only managed to accomplish a disappointing ninth place.

Only one week later Didier once more had to take advantage of his guardian angel. Ferrari had gone testing at Paul Ricard when Didier crashed into the fences while braking for Beausset-Curve at 280 km/h. The Ferrari soared up and heavily fell to the ground. Luckily the monocoque didn't break and Didier got away with bruises. Later Ferrari announced that a broken suspension led to the accident.

At Zandvoort there were no opponents for Didier, just after the start he overtook Arnoux, a bit later he also fought down Prost and then won in a superior manner. He dedicated the victory to Villeneuve what appeared a bit strange because everybody knew how their relation had been after Imola.
Tenth round of the championship, Grand Prix of England, Brands Hatch, Didier ended up second behind Lauda while Watson retired.

For the first time in his F1 career Didier Pironi lead the F1 World Championship.

One week later in Le Castellet, France, he even managed to extend the lead to nine points with a third place behind his old rival René Arnoux who persistently ignored team-orders to win the race ahead of his teammate Alain Prost.

Finally the F1 trail went to Hockenheim. During Friday's qualifying
session a rather strange situation occurred:

Niki Lauda met Pironi out on the track and was extremely surprised as the Ferrari-driver signaled with two fingers: Hang on to me, I'll give you my slipstream. On the first lap it didn't work because Patrese got in between them and on the second lap Lauda could watch Pironi hit a kerb, oversteer and spin - directly into the carsh-barriers.

"Thanks for your help", Lauda said later,"but what have you done ?". "Nothing", Pironi grinned, "I just looked into the mirror to see if you're still there and so I missed the kerb..."

Heavy rains flooded the track on Saturday. Nevertheless Didier drove sensationally. Already on Friday he had taken pole-position and nobody would have been able to take it away from him in this weather. Anyway Didier reached unbelievable lap-times that let several critics conclude he had driven "like mad" but that was totally wrong as Mauro Forghieri stated. He was to try a new Good Year rain tyre.

"We knew they were about 2.5 seconds faster than the old rain-tyres. On the third lap Pironi reached 2.10,9 Tambay 2.13,4, that was not surprising for us."

When Didier saw Derek Daly's shadowy Williams and its spray fountain moving to the right side of the track between the second chicane and the Motodrom, he assumed the left side to be free. But there was Alain Prost's Renault on a warm-up lap.

Alain Prost: "He hit my rear and took the air over my right rear wheel. The Ferrari overtook me standing vertically in the air."

The Ferrari overturned three times on a distance of 250 meters and then broke into pieces like Villeneuve's car did at Zolder. Like in Villeneuve's the belts were torn as well. Alain Prost escaped uninjured. The rescue party came quickly, immediately the race doctor started fighting the shock.

"Two minutes later and Pironi would probably have died of his shock..."

Didier was squeezed in the wreck for 20 minutes, meanwhile lost much blood.

"He wept and then cried, first in French, then in English: Get me out of here !"

When Nelson Piquet had come to the place of the accident, he stopped and took Didier's helmet off but when he saw his severe injuries he wasn't able to stand it anymore and ran away. They brought him to Heidelberg's university hospital where they operated on him for about five hours. Despite of his injuries' severity he was able to leave the intensive care unit on Wednesday after the accident.

The race at Hockenheim was won by Villeneuve's replacement, Patrick Tambay. At this time Didier had 39 points in the championship, he lead Watson (30) and Rosberg (27). In the end it was Rosberg who became World Champion with 42 points although he had won only one race during the 1982 season.

Didier Pironi was not to be France's first F1 champion...

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