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Villeneuve vs Pironi: Formula One's Most Tragic Rivalry?

Written by Ellie Nicholls, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Image Credits: Hoch Zwei/Getty Images

After the 1979 season ended with both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championship Trophies for Ferrari, and a World Championship for their driver Jody Scheckter, the Italian team looked set to continue their success the following year. However, 1980 proved to be a difficult season: The red team scored just eight points in total, and, sensing that he was no longer in a competitive car, Scheckter retired.

Losing their winning streak and more experienced driver was undoubtedly difficult for Ferrari, and their results in 1981 reflect this. The team introduced its own turbo-charged engine, one that was more powerful than previous designs, but this ultimately led to disappointment. The car was difficult to handle, and left a lot of room for improvement- a far cry from typical Ferrari success.

Although, while they may not have been earning titles in either seasons, the team gained valuable experience of the turbo engine, and in 1982- after two difficult seasons- Ferrari once again seemed to be in contention for championship glory.

Only one question remained: Which of their drivers would claim the title?

Would it be Gilles Villeneuve, who joined the team in 1978 after starting his motorsport career in snowmobile racing in Canada? In the few years he’d been with Ferrari, he had already established himself as a fan favourite, and was widely considered to be one of the fastest drivers of all time. Winning four races and finishing a close second to Scheckter in the 1979 championship, Villeneuve had shown serious pace, and proved to be a daring racer, albeit unreliable, retiring almost as many times as he crossed the finish line.

Would it be Didier Pironi, signed in 1981 after Enzo Ferrari himself took an interest in the Frenchman? He too had been in the sport since 1978, starting out with backmarker team Tyrell, before moving to Ligier, where he claimed his first victory and several podiums. Logical and calculated, Pironi fostered a good relationship with the team and his teammate right from the off, and despite being slower in qualifying than Villeneuve, his 1981 season was notably more consistent.

Understandably, Ferrari went into 1982 with high hopes. For the first time in a number of years, they had produced a car that was not only fast, but also more reliable than many other teams on the grid. Add to the mix, two young talents eager to prove themselves behind the wheel, their victory seemed almost certain.

Image Credits: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Although, three races in, things weren’t quite going as smoothly as they may have thought. Their two championship-contending drivers had only one point between them. To make matters worse, they had three retirements as well as one disqualification, due to an illegal rear wing. Villeneuve was yet to score a point.

As the caravan rolled into Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, the atmosphere at Ferrari was understandably tense. And they weren’t the only ones: the ‘war’ between the FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association) and the FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) had come to a head. Teams part of the FOCA, including McLaren and Williams, boycotted the race, while teams aligned with the FISA, including Ferrari and Renault, did not.

In the end, just 14 cars started the race, with Renault teammates Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost locking out the front row, with the two Ferraris just behind them. Much to the delight of the crowds, the victory was traded many times between the top four drivers, after an agreement was made between them to ‘put on a show’, but by lap 44, both of the Renault drivers had retired from the race.

With both of their main rivals out of the race, and their nearest challenger Michele Alboreto far behind, the stars looked to be aligning for Ferrari. They essentially had an unchallenged 1-2 formation, one that would finally put them in contention for the title: Villeneuve in first, and Pironi in second.

However, the race did not finish that way.

Since both Ferraris were significantly ahead of the rest of the field, the two drivers were told to slow down, in order to save fuel and avoid unnecessary retirements or incidents that could potentially cost them victory or points. While Villeneuve implied that they should maintain position, and his victory assured, Pironi did not see it this way. Instead, he passed Villeneuve on the final lap to claim first place.

Image Credits: Hoch Zwei/Getty Images

Villeneuve was furious. Believing that Pironi had deliberately and selfishly disobeyed team orders for his own gain, Villeneuve vowed that he would not speak to the Frenchman again for the rest of his life- a statement that would end up coming true, the pair still not on speaking terms by the Belgian Grand Prix.

It began to rain heavily during the final qualifying session at Belgium, and drivers all across the grid were struggling due to the wet conditions and limited visibility. Pironi had set a time 0.1s faster than Villeneuve, putting him in sixth place and Villeneuve an underwhelming 8th. Be it the bitterness caused by the results of the previous race, or viewing Pironi as a rival rather than a teammate or a friend, Villeneuve drove out into the heavy rain, eager to outqualify his teammate.

With just eight minutes left in the session, he started his final flying lap.

However, he didn’t complete it. A combination of terrible visibility, Villeneuve’s stubbornness, and miscommunication while attempting to pass the March of Jochen Mass caused him to collide with the slower car, launching the Ferrari into the air. It travelled for 100m at 200kmh (124mph), disintegrating as it crossed the track, and Villeneuve- now without his helmet- was flung a further 50m into the catch fencing at the confines of the track. He sustained a fatal fracture in the neck, passing away at 9:12 p.m. in the hospital.

Image Credits: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Villeneuve’s death sent shockwaves through the Formula One community- he was well loved not only within his team, but also by fans from all over the world. Ferrari pulled out of the race, and left the circuit after the accident. Although they returned to racing normalcy by Monaco, team members reported a noticeable change in Pironi’s behaviour post the incident.

Formula One is by nature, an extremely dangerous sport. At the time, drivers were no strangers to injuries and even casualties- and it was only a few months later when an incident uncannily similar to Villeneuve’s, saw the end of Pironi’s career as well.

Due to the near constant rain, the track conditions at the German Grand Prix were soaking wet, and the visibility next to zero. There was very little that could have been done to stop Pironi, on a quick lap, from colliding with the slow-moving Renault of Alain Prost. The crowds watched in shock as, for the second time in the season, a Ferrari somersaulted through the air, crashing into the fencing. Unlike Villeneuve, Pironi survived the incident, though multiple fractures in his legs meant he would never race in Formula One again.

Villeneuve vs Pironi is widely regarded as the most tragic rivalry in Formula One history- claiming the lives and careers of not one, but two of the greatest talents of their generation. One could always look back and think about the success the team could have received, had it not been for the animosity in the relationship between both drivers.



May 09, 2023

Its a good account Ellie - worth remembering that at Imola the arrangement regarding the 'battle' was made before the start, indeed I think it was made shortly after qualifying the previous day. Many many accounts of broken agreements exist (Arnoux and Prost at the French GP in 82 if I recall is also notorious). Either way, Villeneuve was naive and honour aside he felt betrayed and a bit foolish. It is worth searching for the footage on the Imola podium when you feel bold enough to see him mouth some truly terrible words to Pironi.... it is only silent but they are not words you would wish to hear Ellie.

After this is truly a tragedy and the poor…


May 09, 2023

An excellent read - truly enlightening.

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