After our uplifting Johnny Herbert tale recently, this is a more dark and disturbing insight into the life of a genius F1 driver.
You’ve probably not heard of Didier Pironi and that’s because his F1 career was brief.
But in the early ’80s he was one of the emerging superstars of the sport, alongside Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost, and Nelson Piquet.
The Tragic Tale of Didier Pironi
Born in 1952, Pironi grew up in Villecresnes, Val-de-Marne—a Parisian suburb. He earned a degree in science and intended to join his family’s construction business.
But the allure of a Paul Ricard driving school won him over. In the early 1970s he earned Pilot Elf sponsorship (a French initiative to support national racing talent) and he blasted to titles in the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup in 1974 and 1976.
He was so impressive he was snapped up by the Tyrell team in 1978 and scored points in his second race.
Towards the end of the year he was also lucky to escape unhurt from a horrible accident with Riccardo Patrese.
You can see this incident below and the terrifying safety standards of the sport at the time.
This was no one-off, the sport was just regularly this shambolic in the ’70s.
Pironi had to wait a while before success came his way. But he bagged his first podium finishes later in 1979 with Tyrell.
Ligier took him on in 1980, where he could challenge for race wins and won his first at the Belgium GP at Zolder.
Team boss Enzo Ferrari was impressed. He was so keen he wasted no time in signing Pironi for 1981 alongside the fearsome Gilles Villeneuve.
Despite a lot of promise, the 1981 Ferrari was a disaster of a car and only Villeneuve’s genius bagged it two famous wins.
Pironi struggled in comparison and didn’t claim a podium. Here he is at Zolder, a year before the first of several life-changing incidents.
The 1982 Ferrari was the best on the grid. After a slow start, Pironi and Villeneuve stamped their authority on the season at the fourth race of the reason at Imola.
Despite Ferrari scoring a blitzing 1-2, the race is one of the most controversial in F1 history.
Towards the end of the race Villeneuve was out in front, but the team issued him with a “slow” pit order. Pironi duly caught up to his teammate and put on a bit of a show for the lead.
The French-Canadian driver then made a mistake and Pironi took the lead, which resulted in a heated battle for the victory.
After the race, Villeneuve was livid and felt he’d been cheated.
The French-Canadian was very big on trust and honour. Even basically handing over the 1979 title to his Ferrari teammate Jody Scheckter on team orders.
Imola was a tough deal for him. And he refused to speak to Pironi in the immediate aftermath.
Then 13 days later, during qualifying at Zolder, Villeneuve was killed in a terrible accident.
Many drivers stopped at the scene of the crash to try and help, as Villeneuve was thrown from his Ferrari and was up against catch fencing.
Professor Sid Watkins in Life at the Limit (1994) later recalled Pironi hovering over the doctor’s shoulder as Watkins tried to help Villeneuve.
Watkins also noted the forces involved in the accident had ripped Villeneuve’s helmet, shoes, and socks off.
Conveying little outward emotion, Pironi picked up Villeneuve’s helmet and returned to the pits.
This has become a hotly discussed topic between F1 fans, with Pironi generally labelled the villain of the story.
Imola being the root cause of that issue. Some even argue Pironi’s actions led Villeneuve to take risks at Zolder, resulting in the accident.
But the situation was more complex than that. Villeneuve was a risk-taker, beloved by fans for his dramatic style.
His death was devastating for the sport, but many had also seen it coming. He’d been lucky to survive various other massive accidents earlier in his F1 career.
These days many F1 fans, and media publications, generally pitch the Villeneuve/Pironi rivalry as a volatile and tense one and exaggerate the situation.
There are plenty of pictures of them from 1981 and 1982 happy and smiling together, or deep in discussion.
So we’d like to think these two would have eventually made up after the Imola incident—if they’d had the time to.
Ferrari withdrew from the race at Zolder as a mark of respect, but continued on with Pironi as team leader from Monaco onward.
But the poor bloke was just plagued by tragedy.
Only three races after Zolder, at the Canadian GP in Montreal, Pironi took pole. But he stalled on the line.
23-year-old Riccardo Paletti, starting from last in his second ever race, came storming from the back and violently rammed into the back of Pironi’s Ferrari.
Pironi climbed from his car and attempted to help Paletti, but soon Professor Sid Watkins arrived with his medical team.
Paletti’s car actually caught fire on the track, delaying the extrication, but the Italian was already dead.
We don’t know what Pironi’s state of mind must have been after the 1982 season he’d had, but this was an emotional battering like few other F1 drivers have ever had to deal with.
Ferrari mechanics noted changes to his behaviour. Under severe stress, his first marriage had also collapsed weeks after the death of Villeneuve.
Despite these personal disasters, his career was well on track. The 1982 title was his for the taking when the F1 circus went off to Hockenheim.
There, on 7th August, he had a career-ending crash during the qualifying session. He actually took pole, but would never race in the sport again.
Hockenheim 1982 and the Aftermath
There’s no footage of his accident, merely the aftermath. But, apparently, it had disturbing similarities with Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash.
Pironi was pushing hard when he collided with Alain Prost’s Renault in terrible rainy conditions.
The car vaulted down the circuit and broke apart with Pironi suffering awful leg injuries. This was, unfortunately, a very common occurrence at this point in F1.
The damage to his legs was so extensive he eventually had to undergo over 30 operations to try and aid his recovery.
In the remaining four races of the 1982 season, Williams’ Keke Rosberg was able to overhaul Pironi’s points total to win the title by only five points.
A year after the crash he returned to Hockenheim as a guest.
After this he did test an F1 car again. By 1986 he was able to walk about unaided and was mulling over a return to F1 at age 34 for the French AGS team.
He also tested for the Ligier team at Paul Ricard.
He was quick in the tests, but his injuries were too severe to warrant an F1 return.
Craving his competitive speed fix, he turned his attention to offshore powerboat racing. And it was during a race he was killed whilst off the Isle of Wight.
He hit the wake of an oil tanker and his boat flipped over—23rd August 1987. He was 35.
Weeks later his girlfriend gave birth to twins whom she named Didier and Gilles.
It’s difficult what to make of Pironi’s life story—just absolutely haunted by tragedy and bad luck.
Here you’ve got this good looking, highly talented young bloke at the prime of his life battling crippling injuries and emotional scars.
His legs remained in such a state they would often create an unpleasant smell, leaving Pironi upset. His main emotional outlet remained with racing.
Neither of his sons became racing drivers, despite dabbling in karting as kids. Gilles Pironi is now actually an engineer working with the Mercedes F1 team.
He even joined Lewis Hamilton on the podium in Silverstone in August 2020—the winning team is allowed a representative mechanic to join the three drivers.
Later he told La Gazzetta dello Sport:
“For me it was a great privilege. But it was also a surprise to be on the podium. There are more than a thousand of us in the racing department and only a few get an experience like that. I don’t feel special, I only represented my colleagues.
My brother and I have always loved racing and we competed in karts, but my mother and grandmother were not enthusiastic.
We studied instead and I think it was the right decision. As a racing enthusiast I naturally love Ferrari, but the atmosphere here is good and I am in the best team in the world. I think my father would have raced for this team if he could have.”
It marked the first occasion a Pironi stood on the podium since 25th July, 1982.