Dreams and nightmares - The Ferrari years
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 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.
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.
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
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
Giovanni Amadeo, the injured Osella mechanic, died the Monday
after the race.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Didier:"SLOW means to be careful not to crash but there was
no restriction on overtaking."
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
Alain Prost: "He hit my rear and took the air over my right
rear wheel. The Ferrari overtook me standing vertically in the
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
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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