Pironi – The man who should have been France’s first F1 champ

David Malsher-Lopez

Didier Pironi was made for Formula 1’s ground effect era. His bravery was as boundless as the grip offered by his cars’ shaped underbodies and sliding skirts – which is to say, there was a limit, but it was exceedingly high. Plus he was able to continually improve himself, so that his rough-around-the-edges skills were constantly honed from year to year. Was he an absolute genius? No… and yet in 1982 he seemed destined to become France’s first ever Formula 1 World Champion until fate – some would call it karma – flicked the opportunity from his grasp.

In marked contrast to his traditionally ice-cold composed demeanor outside a racecar, Pironi would step from his car puce, sweaty and apparently spent – hardly unusual in the days of ground effects, when it was necessary for teams to run rock-hard suspension to maintain their cars’ ride-height. Yet with the adrenalin pumping, Didier could always suppress the fatigue in these monstrously brutal cars and, like Alan Jones, he could take a ground-effect car to the very edge and still feel the limit of its adhesion, despite the numbed feedback.

There is an argument to be made for Pironi perhaps becoming champion in 1981, had he chosen to stay at Ligier rather than move to Ferrari. Instead, a solitary season at Guy Ligier’s squad, in 1980, was the one that confirmed Pironi as a top-rank talent. Partnered with the solid, experienced and occasionally very fast Jacques Laffite, yes, there were days when the younger man, in his third season of F1, would have to take a back seat to the veteran. But on his best days, Pironi was on another level – in fact, on another level to pretty much everyone except Gilles Villeneuve, who in that year was steering the Ferrari 312T5 ball-n-chain, and the two men fighting for the crown – Jones (Williams FW07B) and Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49).

Winning the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours for Renault, with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud as co-driver.

Winning the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours for Renault, with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud as co-driver. D.R.


Such was his talent, had Pironi partnered either Jones or Piquet, one wouldn’t like to bet which of them would have emerged as de facto team leader, since Didier seemed to combine the best traits of each – the race-long determination and pace of eventual ’80 champion Jonesy, and the pizazz and flair of ’81 (and ’83 and ’87) title winner Nelson.For the sake of Formula 1 fans in general, however, even better would have been Ligier coming up with a consistent car in 1980 that could have turned the championship fight into a three-way affair, but that was not the way of the équipe, even in its stronger years. In ’79, the team’s JS11 had won three of the first five races, and taken four poles but after one-third of the season, had lost its edge, possessing neither the pace of Williams nor the consistency of Ferrari. Come 1980, you can substitute Ferrari for Brabham to get a picture of just what Pironi was up against with the updated car, the JS11/15. Designer Gerard Ducarouge had improved the car’s aerodynamic properties but such was its downforce it was putting increasing strain on suspension components.

Pironi also suffered more than his fair share of bad luck, too. Despite the elevation of Interlagos putting the turbo cars at an advantage, Didier was able to put the Cosworth DFV-powered Ligier on the front row for the Brazilian Grand Prix but on race day he picked up a puncture necessitating a stirring drive through the field for fourth place. Zolder he dominated, leading from start to finish and winning by 47sec, on this day 40 years ago. Any hope of doing the same at Monaco were dashed when, after taking pole and dominating three-quarters of the race, Pironi had his car jump out of gear just after rain had spattered over the track and he was busy catching a slide on slippery Casino Square. He clouted a barrier with his left-front and was forced to retire.

There should have been the chance for reparation in the team’s home GP at Paul Ricard, but Pironi wasn’t quite able to beat Jones. Some sign of the breadth of his ambition was the fact that he had duped his teammate and polesitter Jacques Laffite before the race, telling him the larger tires he’d recently tested made no difference. Laffite took him at his word, then spotted that both the Williams cars and teammate Pironi were running the bigger tires. Less-than-Happy Jacques understeered his way to oblivion, finishing half a minute off Jones’ winning Williams and 25sec down on Pironi.

A week later, it was Pironi’s turn to land pole and here was another race that should have gone his way. Instead, having led until Lap 19, he suffered a tire deflation and after a long limping in-lap, fell to last. His storming comeback drive saw him set a new lap record that couldn’t even be beaten three years later by an F1 grid largely comprising turbocharged cars, but it gave Pironi only fifth.

Another chance was squandered at the season finale in Montreal, when Pironi jumped the start. It looked barely worse than clutch creep, the sort regularly seen at the start of Grands Prix in those days, and one wonders if the motive behind him being penalized 60sec was that he had the temerity to get in between title contenders Jones and Piquet. Whatever, the outcome was that although Ligier #25 crossed the line with a 40sec lead, it was classified only third.

While that was a wholly unsatisfying conclusion to Pironi’s year with the French squad, he knew it had no impact on his future. His scintillating drive near the start of the season in Brazil had convinced Enzo Ferrari that here was the potential replacement for the retiring Jody Scheckter, and that summer a deal was struck. Pironi failed to tell Guy Ligier – the team owner only learned of the move when he read it in Autosport magazine! – but Didier’s pragmatic thought process was sound. A deeply ambitious and also perceptive man, he had decided he needed a turbocharged car in 1981 and knew the Scuderia, in finally ditching the large flat-12 normally aspirated engines, would finally be able to design a ground-effect chassis.

Two years at Tyrrell yielded a couple of podiums and a burgeoning reputation that led to the Ligier invite.

Two years at Tyrrell yielded a couple of podiums and a burgeoning reputation that led to the Ligier invite. David Phipps

David Phipps

As at Ligier in ’80 with Laffite, as at Tyrrell in ’78 with Depailler, Pironi was aware by joining Ferrari he was heading into the sanctuary of a much-beloved incumbent – in Maranello’s case, Villeneuve – but he felt ready to prove his mettle. He had never been a man intimidated by his surroundings.

After winning the Volant Elf championship at the famous Winfield Racing School in 1972, Pironi won the French Formula Renault title in ’74, and then Super Renault honors in ’76. Into Formula 2 as Rene Arnoux’s teammate in ’77, Pironi was beaten to the championship by his compatriot (Didier was third) but he stepped back to F3 to win the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix support race. That caught the eye of Ken Tyrrell, whose team was still sponsored by Elf, and he swiftly signed the 25-year-old.

In his rookie season, Pironi rarely looked a match for teammate Patrick Depailler who with the benefit of hindsight can be described as good but infrequently great. Still, Didier listened to Uncle Ken’s sage advice – even the admonishments whenever he bent his car – and he gathered a smattering of points (only given to the top six finishers back then). Pironi’s primary satisfaction in ’78 was winning Le Mans for Renault, along with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, and while the French car manufacturer wanted to sign the 26-year-old for its F1 team in ’79, there were no loopholes in Pironi’s two-year contract with Tyrrell.

If Pironi was annoyed by Ken’s refusal to release him, he didn’t let it affect his performances in the Tyrrell 009, and he not only earned his first two podium finishes but also gradually gained preeminence over teammate Jean-Pierre Jarier – a driver for whom the description ‘mercurial’ could have been invented, but who could always turn in a fast qualifying lap. Outpacing JPJ gave Pironi confidence as he jumped ship for Ligier, and apart from the occasional surprise from Laffite – they finished 8-7 in qualifying – his confidence was further boosted by his third year in F1.

First win (above and top) came in the Ligier JS11/15 at Zolder in 1980.

First win (above and top) came in the Ligier JS11/15 at Zolder in 1980. Sutton Images

Sutton Images

Villeneuve was a whole different matter, and there’s little doubt that the difficulty of the 1981 Ferrari 126CK exaggerated the difference between the pair. For the first time in his F1 career, Pironi had a genuinely tricky car that had nasty turbo lag and a chassis penned by an engineer, Mauro Forghieri. At a time when aero had become the predominant factor in a car’s competitiveness, this was perhaps not ideal; Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite, who would pen the F1 Ferraris for the next six years, said the 126CK had only a quarter of the downforce of a Williams or Brabham. Presumably this was an exaggeration, but still, the car was a beast, and while Villeneuve was confident enough to always make it dance to his tune, Pironi, desperate not to upset his new employer, was altogether more circumspect.

Pironi career trajectory paused in 1981, as he struggled with the Ferrari 126CK, especially in comparison with his teammate.

Pironi career trajectory paused in 1981, as he struggled with the Ferrari 126CK, especially in comparison with his teammate. Sutton Images

Sutton Images

Which is not to say he was hopeless: far from it. Five times – albeit three of which involved extenuating circumstances – Didier was able to outqualify Gilles in the 15-race 1981 season, and on race days he impressed at Imola, Zolder and Silverstone. But set against that were weekends like Monaco when he shunted trying to match Villeneuve in qualifying and, having started 17th, was lapped by his victorious teammate. Gilles would end the season with two classic victories and seventh in the championship, while Pironi’s high was that Monaco lowpoint which produced fourth.

Postlethwaite’s 126C2 for 1982 was a vast improvement over its predecessor, although still not an all-around match for a Renault – although far more reliable – and certainly nowhere near as nimble as the (overly) light Cosworth cars from Brabham and Williams. Still, Pironi and Villeneuve were encouraged by the chassis department’s huge progress since its first attempt, and were aware that Postlethwaite was going to be continually evolving the machine throughout the season.

A huge shunt for Pironi in testing at Paul Ricard due to a suspension collapse would knock his confidence, and he still didn’t look a match for his teammate, but the turning point would come in the fourth round at Imola. Not in qualifying – Villeneuve was well over one second faster – but Didier duped his teammate into believing they were just playing for the crowd come race day.

At Ferrari, Villeneuve regarded Pironi as a friend until the Imola fallout.

At Ferrari, Villeneuve regarded Pironi as a friend until the Imola fallout. Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The traditional Ferrari agreement was to slow and hold position once assuming first and second places, and in this case it came when the Renaults capitulated, while Villeneuve ahead of Pironi. In light of Ferrari’s worries over making its fuel last on this high-consumption track, Villeneuve thereafter dialed down the boost, and started changing up 1000rpm early. He was fine with Didier putting on a show for the crowd by pretending to duel with him, but was alarmed by the Frenchman then upping the pace, obliging him to do likewise until he could regain P1, and slow the ‘race’ down. Still, heading into the final lap, Gilles was back in front and almost coasting when his teammate swept around him at Tosa corner to grab the lead and never gave it back. 

Not the way it should have been, but the way it was. Pironi leads Villeneuve, Imola ’82.

Not the way it should have been, but the way it was. Pironi leads Villeneuve, Imola ’82. Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

Villeneuve was furious, Pironi publicly protested his innocence, and during qualifying for the next race at Zolder, Gilles crashed to his death having never forgiven the man who he had previously considered a friend (despite his wife Joann’s warnings that Didier seemed like a political person who was ‘on the make’). Ferrari withdrew from that Belgian Grand Prix, then returned at Monaco with a single car for Pironi who was now operating without the inhibition of someone faster being in the sister car. (Villeneuve’s ride was eventually taken by Patrick Tambay).

In the farcical closing stages of the Monaco GP, Didier was one of many who seemed set to win, but in his case it was running out of fuel in the tunnel that killed his chances. Still, he was classified second, and he followed this with another podium finish in Detroit. Then in Canada, Pironi took pole position but stalled at the start, and the Osella of rookie Ricardo Paletti rammed the Ferrari, then caught light, and the young Italian died on the scene.

Pironi, who had tried to assist F1’s doctor, Prof. Sid Watkins at the scene, would rein in his emotions and take the restart in the spare Ferrari which required some adjustments mid-race, losing him three laps. But the Frenchman was sensationally fast, setting fastest lap, and at the following race at Zandvoort he won easily. At Brands Hatch and Paul Ricard, he again clocked podium finishes and with the heavily revised 126C2 it seemed as if Ferrari was going to take both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, as in 1979. It almost seemed too easy.

But then, during practice at Hockenheim, Ferrari’s world was turned upside down for the second time in four months. In the dry, Pironi had set what would prove to be pole position, but in a rain-soaked untimed session he was trying out his Goodyear ‘wets’. Heading toward the Stadium section of the original Hockenheim, Didier went to go around Derek Daly’s Williams thinking the Irishman was moving aside for him when in fact he had been skirting around the ball of spray in which lay Alain Prost’s Renault. In an accident eerily similar to Villeneuve’s fatal launch off the back of Jochen Mass’s March, Pironi struck Prost’s car and flew up in the air before landing with sickening force, mangling Didier’s legs.

As the Ferrari 126C2 evolved Pironi looked increasingly like the 1982 World Champion elect.

As the Ferrari 126C2 evolved Pironi looked increasingly like the 1982 World Champion elect. Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

Enzo Ferrari promised the 30-year-old Pironi he would keep a seat open for him when he was ready to return to the sport, but 33 operations later, he still wasn’t. Four years on from the accident, Pironi tried both an AGS and Ligier, and despite displaying all the signs of being ring rusty beyond redemption, he was supposedly on the brink of returning to F1 with the Larousse-Calmels team.

Instead, he turned to powerboat racing and, off the coast of Isle of Wight, UK, in August 1987, his craft hit the wake of a tanker and crashed, with the loss of all three onboard.

When compiling a list of greatest F1 drivers never to become World Champion, it’s common to leave out Pironi, despite the fact that it seemed so blindingly obvious in 1982 that he was going to achieve his ultimate goal. Maybe it’s because he won only three grands prix and four pole positions – he was in only his fifth season at the top of the sport and had a winning car for just three of those years. Maybe it’s because he fell short of Villeneuve’s performances … although heck, who wouldn’t?

But following Gilles’ death there were several drivers on roughly the same level at the top of the sport, albeit with different qualities: Prost, Niki Lauda, Rene Arnoux, Keke Rosberg and Piquet. It would be a brave man who suggested Pironi didn’t belong amongst them.