The highly anticipated documentary Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy launched on 18th March on Sky Documentaries.
It’s an excellent film, following on from tother emotional stories about the sport. Including Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) and the Williams (2017) F1 story.
Whether you like Formula 1 or not, this is essential viewing. A trip back to the early 1980s, when the sport was horrifically dangerous and the resulting outcome for two of its superstar drivers became the stuff of nightmare.
Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy
This is directed by Torquil Jones, who was only a casual follower of F1. He didn’t know this story before being presented with the opportunity to direct Villeneuve Pironi.
Its production was longer than many other modern films, due to the acrimonious nature of the story. It may be 40 years on, but for the family members involved it remains a contentious issue.
French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve and Frenchman Didier Pironi are dead, both losing their lives in the 1980s. They appear in the documentary through archival footage.
Initially, it was intended to be a Gilles Villeneuve documentary.
But a more unique angle with Pironi came about. To set the record straight and provide a more balanced side to what took place in 1982—something that hasn’t really been done before, leading to unfair assessments on Pironi’s character.
Generally, Pironi has been portrayed as the “villain”.
The documentary avoids apportioning blame on anyone, although Gilles Villeneuve tends to come across in more favourable terms as the much-loved F1 genius.
But this story is also about their families, who had to deal with the fallout following the drivers’ early deaths. Joann Villeneuve, Gilles’ wife, features extensively in the documentary, having led a life out of the limelight since the early 1980s.
If you know F1, this story will already be embedded in your psyche.
It’s one of the sports most notorious incidents in all of motorsport. Fans debate the 1982 season to this day, often with a lot of ire directed towards the actions of Pironi at the race in Imola.
The drivers had been teammates since 1981 at Ferrari. Villeneuve had wiped the floor with Pironi in their first year together, leaving Pironi startled by the French-Canadians spectacular genius.
But with a much better car in 1982, the pair went into the year expecting to win the title. After a slow start, they arrived at Imola with the sport’s political FISA/FOCA war leaving the grid heavily depleted (many teams didn’t compete that weekend).
The below clip isn’t from the film, incidentally, it’s from one of BBC commentator Murray Walker’s Magic Moments video in 1997. But it showcases the ending sections of the race.
Basically, it turned out there was a pre-race agreement that meant Pironi should have held station. And Ferrari held out pit board signals for both drivers to follow how as a 1-2.
However, Villeneuve made a mistake and Pironi nipped through into the lead. That slight mistake triggered off the catastrophic incidents ahead, as his teammate viewed it as an opportunity to fight for the win.
Villeneuve was furious and felt deeply betrayed. Fuelled by that anger, he went into the next race at Zolder hellbent on beating Pironi. That desire, alongside his swashbuckling and spectacular driving style, led to his fatal accident in qualifying.
Now, we’ve seen this accident numerous times before.
But the way it’s gradually built towards, including the footage of Villeneuve traversing a chicane seconds before his crash, is unnerving. The accident was appalling—the driver left prone against catch fencing by the side of the circuit.
What followed in the months ahead was just as bad, with Pironi caught up in a start line crash in Canada. This killed young driver Riccardo Paletti.
And then, in August 1982, Pironi’s accident followed. And it was disturbingly similar to Villeneuve’s.
“Even for those who think they know the topic well, the documentary is a must-watch.”
📝 Check out our review of Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy, a new documentary that tells the tale of one of #F1‘s most tragic rivalries.
— Autosport (@autosport) March 18, 2023
There’s no footage of the crash, but there are segments of the aftermath (Pironi is blocked from vision throughout this).
But it does show what Formula 1 used to be like. This awful situation which is incredibly rare now. The sport was just horrifically dangerous back then.
The extent of Pironi’s leg injuries were atrocious. It’s remarkable they weren’t amputated, but he did have to endure over 30 operations on them.
Around such horrendous incidents, Villeneuve Pironi weaves in the drivers’ passion for the sport. Their manic enthusiasm for Formula 1, which helps viewers understand why they would risk their lives for it.
But as Gilles Villeneuve’s son notes, his father was a selfish man.
For all the glowing testimonies about his personality (humble, loveable, a doting father figure), there’s no denying the selfish risk of having a young family whilst being a racing driver when the sport was as dangerous as it was.
This all caught up with Pironi, too, who died in a powerboat racing accident in August 1987. Weeks before his twin sons were born.
It’s 40 years ago now, but many family and Ferrari team members are present in the documentary to provide vivid testimonies. The result makes for a very emotional film.
Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy is an excellent documentary. Even if you’re not interested in F1, it’s a must watch.
It’s not cheerful viewing. But it’s poignant, with contributions from the normally media shy sons of Didier Pironi confirming they’re proud of their father’s accomplishments. Which rounds off the closing segment of an otherwise bitter sporting rivalry.
Their mother named the pair Didier and Gilles.
The Production of Villeneuve Pironi
One of our favourite F1 sites is the team over at The Race and Edd Straw did a special introduction to the film. You can listen to the podcast above, with interviews with the director and family members.
The F1 paddock also took considerable notice of the documentary. It’s only available on Sky Documentaries right now (a wider release will likely follow) and the team provided their feedback on the film.
To note, that’s 1996 F1 World Champion Damon Hill right there. He was Jacques Villeneuve’s teammates in 1996 when he won the title.
Both were sons of former F1 drivers. Of course, Hill’s father was killed in a plane crash back in November 1975.
His autobiography Watching the Wheels offers a candid look into the world of elite racing drivers, alongside how his family dealt with the impossible void left after the family’s figurehead passed.
As this is one theme throughout the documentary—dealing with such sudden, traumatic loss and the grieving process after.
Gilles’ wife notes the sudden, dramatic end her husband suffered left a gaping hole in her life. There were no goodbyes. And he promised her they’d grow old into their 80s together.
It’s such sad asides that mark the film. And as sad as it is, we think it’s important to cover these stories as a reminder of the way Formula 1 once was. Thankfully, such awfully sad stories are increasingly rare.