Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry
© Getty Images

Villeneuve vs Pironi: F1’s most tragic rivalry

When Ferrari drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi fell out during the 1982 season, it sparked a deadly intra-team battle.
Written by James Roberts
5 min readPublished on
If Steven Spielberg had storyboarded the 1982 Formula One World Championship, it still wouldn’t have done justice to the tragedy and drama that unfolded.
Politics threatened to rip the sport apart, the cars were approaching warp speed, and at the centre of it all sat one of the F1’s most captivating and star-crossed rivalries – Gilles Villeneuve versus Didier Pironi.
Before this, our relationship had always been good and I trusted him – but I won’t make that fucking mistake again
Gilles Villeneuve after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix

F1's most brutally fast era

For 1982, turbos had become reliable and crucial to winning races. Solid suspension and ridiculous levels of downforce were permitted via the use of ground effect designs, meaning that brutal cornering speeds – and little warning or feel for where the limit was – became the norm.
When we go to places like Long Beach and Monaco, where the g forces will be less, it’ll be forgotten. But Brands Hatch and Austria will be awful, and Zolder, I guess, will be a killer
Gilles Villeneuve
That year’s Ferrari, the new and improved 126-C2, impressed in pre-season testing, with 1981’s reliability issues seemingly ironed out. Short odds would be on the Constructors’ title heading to Maranello, with the Drivers’ championship being handed to one of Ferrari’s dashing duo, Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi.
Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry

Pironi and Villeneuve in their Ferraris

© Getty Images

By 1982, Gilles Villeneuve was established as a living legend, and was entering his fifth full season with Ferrari. Believed by many to be the fastest driver of all time, the fan favourite would more often than not bin it rather than win it, a philosophy encapsulated in his otherworldly battle with Rene Arnoux at the 1979 French Grand Prix – one of F1’s most enduring spectacles.
Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry

Villeneuve and Arnoux duke it out at Dijon

© Press

Didier Pironi had risen through F1’s ranks with style, starring with Tyrell and Ligier, as well as winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1978. In 1980, Enzo Ferrari signed him up, and with his smooth, calculating style, Pironi was clearly one of the favourites for the title in 1982.
The season kicked off with political wrangling. There was the dramatic Niki Lauda-led driver’s strike against new ‘Superlicence’ rules in South Africa, while in Brazil and Long Beach, teams squabbled over rule interpretations.
Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry

Driving Ferraris like this made Villeneuve a hero

© Ferrari

Imola: The beginning of the end

By the time the circus got to Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, Renault's Alain Prost led the Drivers’ championship. However, both Ferraris had started the season miserably – Pironi had only managed a point from the opening fly-away races, his teammate Villeneuve zero after being disqualified from third at the US West Grand Prix. And the political infighting continued…
Most teams belonging to the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) boycotted the San Marino race after Brabham and Williams had cars disqualified from the Brazilian result, meaning only 14 cars would start at Imola.
This didn’t stop a huge partisan crowd turning up to see Pironi and Villeneuve take on the fast but unreliable Renaults of Arnoux and Prost. They would witness Ferrari glory, but also the seeds of disaster.
Didier Pironi Ferrari

Didier Pironi at Ferrari's Fiorano test track

© Ferrari

Prost’s engine gave up after six laps, handing teammate Arnoux the lead. During the first half of the race, the two Ferrari drivers duked it out, pulling each other along and catching the yellow and white Renault of Arnoux.
The three francophone drivers engaged in a thrilling battle, reminding a jaded fanbase what the sport was supposed to be about.
Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry

Villeneuve keeps an eye on his teammate

© Divulgação

By lap 44, both Renaults had retired. To the delight of the crowd, this meant unchallenged formation flying for Ferrari. Villeneuve led Pironi, the hard work had been done and finally it seemed the scarlet cars had a chance to register a championship challenge and bag some points. After some thrilling drafting and position swapping, it was time to hold station. The pit board ordered them to ‘SLOW’.
Villeneuve took the team orders to mean hold station, but Pironi did not – he charged past Villeneuve on the final lap approaching the Tosa hairpin.
You get a ‘SLOW’ sign and that means hold position. That has been the case ever since I’ve been at Ferrari
Gilles Villeneuve
‘SLOW’ means to be careful not to crash – but there was no restriction on overtaking
Didier Pironi
Pironi won. Villeneuve was incensed, making no attempt to hide his anger on the podium. The French-Canadian believed that Pironi had disobeyed orders.
I have declared war. I’ll do my own thing in future
Gilles Villeneuve
Villeneuve & Pironi: The story of their tragic rivalry

Pironi's betrayal disgusted Villeneuve

© Ercole Colombo

Tragedy at Zolder

The next race was the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. In the closing 10 minutes of qualifying, Pironi was on pole. Striving for top slot on the grid, Villeneuve swooped upon Jochen Mass' slow-moving March at the Terlamenbocht corner.
Mass moved to the right to give the Ferrari driver passing room, but Villeneuve went the same way as the German. The two cars touched wheels, launching the Ferrari into the air. Villeneuve’s car smashed into the ground, disintegrating as it cartwheeled and throwing its driver from the cockpit and into the catch fencing.
The week before he died, Gilles called me several times and all the time he was talking about Pironi. He was so angry, I couldn’t believe it. When the accident happened, I knew exactly why
Alain Prost
For nearly 35 years, fans have speculated on what drove Villeneuve to risk it all in Zolder. Was it because of Pironi’s perceived betrayal, or was it just Villeneuve being Villeneuve – working without a safety net?
Many believe Villeneuve's anger cost him his life

Many believe Villeneuve's anger cost him his life

© Press

Three races later at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix, an event already shrouded in mourning, Pironi stalled and was smashed into at tremendous speed by unsighted rookie Ricardo Paletti. Paletti would become the second fatality of 1982.
Back in Europe, Pironi became detached and even more focussed on the championship he now led. At Hockenheim for the German Grand Prix, despite setting pole in dry conditions, he went out at full chat in the wet, hit Alain Prost’s Renault in the spray and suffered an eerily similar accident to Villeneuve. He survived, but with his legs smashed, he would never race in Formula One again.
In a few months of unimaginable farce, drama and tragedy, what could have been the greatest rivalry in F1 was snuffed out. Didier Pironi would not become France’s maiden world champion, and Gilles Villeneuve in death would become almost saintly in the eyes of fans across the globe.