Simply Didier

Didier Pironi Didier Pironi

Thoughts are the dark side of the moon. We can see the actions and listen to the man's words, but it is not the same for his thoughts, as shifty and elusive as the truths are often, and what about the driver's thoughts? They may be even more innermost, chocked under the helmet that is like the mask of a theatre at the earliest times. The mask of speed hides even the smallest emotions of the face. Only a small slit could reveal the truth, but the champion's eyes are looking too far to let him understood. Many times I wondered about the driver's thoughts while he was sitting in the red car number 28, during that strange San Marino GP in 1982. Only two laps were missing to the end and the two Ferraris were steadily leading the race. Gilles was ahead and Didier behind. From the Ferrari pit was just shown the "slow" sign, for fear of run out of fuel for both of them. It meant to freeze the positions up to the arrival and both drivers had certainly seen it. Suddenly Pironi's Ferrari abruptly swerved and went aside his team mate's car, who caught unexpectedly couldn't offer resistance. Gilles didn't give up and started a hard struggle under the astonished eyes of his team and fans. The two 126C 2, that ran earlier laps at 1'37", now they reached 1'35". Gilles delayed in breaking at "Tosa" and he managed to recover ground. Only two rounds were lacking to the end but Didier didn't surrender: next round, at the same corner, the French driver tried to give tit for tat in the same way. The two cars came dramatically close, but Gilles held out with stubborn resistance. He tried again at the "Acque Minerali" and this time he succeed in breaking down the door held by Gilles desperately closed, gaining the second victory in his career and the first one for the prancing horse. Later on, what happened was scarcely important: there was only Villeneuve's rage and disappointment as he felt betrayed by the person he regarded as a friend. And what was Didier's reaction? He simply pointed out that there was nothing in writing that he should have been second for ever. But his position was difficult: after his attack on the racing circuit, he was obliged to defend himself against the team and fans' eyes being petrified by his rudeness. Was it a premeditated act or an outburst of pride raised there and then? Those famous thoughts were missing. That act will remain a sort of definition for many people: Didier was a traitor: Didier, a man reserved and introverted with an odd concept of friendship, as someone will describe him. Obviously, it was a too severe definition. After so many years it's worth rediscovering the character, not so much with the idea to ascertain the truth, but to know a man, a driver in his entirety and complexity. Didier was a man born with a good card at his disposal: he came into the world in March 26th 1952 from a family of "Macaroni", the Italian emigrants to France. The Pironis came from Friuli, but in the new country they made a fortune in the construction and Didier had the opportunity of a well-off life. We don't know very much about his early childhood, except for his precocious bent for sports. First it was a hard swimming school, but when he was about 15 years old he started interesting in the world of speed and engines. Contagion came from his cousin, José Dolhem, who began by driving the Lotus Seven cars and in 1969 he won the Shell Wheel. In his cousin's wake, Didier had the chance to approach people like Depailler and Jarier, who were getting experience while waiting for a call from Formula One. But at the beginning he showed interest in motorcycles and only his mother's anxiety brought him back to the four wheels, considered safer ones. The boy had his head screwed on, even if he came from a well-off family, he knew that races were expensive and didn't intend to waste money to no purpose. By that time, in France, there was a well deserving institution, the Volant Elf , which allowed aspiring drivers to enter the basic course at Paul Ricard school and to be under the munificent oil company's protecting wing. Didier enrolled there in 1972 and seized his Wheel that will open the door to Formula Renault. In 1973 there was a bad attendance like Arnoux and Tambay, but Didier got off well, some podiums and good placing allowed him to close the season at the sixth place. His regularity and gained scores could satisfy the Elf but not Pironi. Didier wasn't disappointed by himself, but by a strong competitive environment got dirty by the out-of-rule quality of materials supplied to competitors. That was the poison of small producing series belonging to a mono-brand, where there was always a suspicious that the others had more powerful engines and better assistance. In 1974 Pironi made something really extraordinary for a boy of twenty: he convinced Elf to completely entrust him with the budget at his disposal for the new season. Thanks to that money Didier formed his team, practically doing all by himself. In that time he was also appreciated by Tico Martino, the renowned supplier of chassis, who admired the boy's skill in developing and setting a car. It was a triumphal year that saw Didier win 7 races out of 15 and gain the championship by full right. The opponents were warned: if the childish look and taciturn attitude might reveal certain shyness, his behaviour on track spoke frankly and said that Pironi ran to win. In 1975 Formula Renault became a European Challenge, but Didier's bitterness of his first season returned: in Elf there were too many cocks of the walk and they were getting restless, plotting one against the other; you couldn't keep count of the suspicions and irregularities in the use of the material. Didier let Arnoud and Ragnotti trample on him. In his opinion, the season was thrown away and in 1976 he got ready to rout the competitors: 12 wins out of 17 races, 8 of which in a row and 10 fastest laps. Such evident superiority opened the door of Formula Two: in 1977 he gained the victory and by dint of podiums and placing he closed the championship at the third place. But the exploit that launched him definitively was the Monaco GP of Formula Three, under big bosses' eyes of Formula One. The greatest talent scout of those years was certainly Ken Tyrrell, one of the few ones willing to risk image and resources to invest on young drivers. He took them under his patronage; he brought up them, often corrected their defects with roughness and eased their being so hot-tempered. Ken saw young Pironi working and he guessed his potential: it wasn't only a matter of mere speed but there was determination and self-discipline in conducting himself and leading the race. In 1978 he placed him with Depailler co-driver: two French drivers to the sponsor Elf's joy. In fact that's was a happy period for the whole French motor racing: for the generation of the drivers who entered Formula One in the early 70's, Laffitte Depailler and Jarier, new talented drivers were adding: Jabouille, Arnoux, Tambay and also Alain Prost soon appeared. The Renault was added to a more and more competitive Ligier. The Renault brought the turbo revolutionary technology to Formula One, while Michelins with radial carcass were outclassing the Good Year old crossed plies. The country dream was to see a French driver win the championship at the wheel of a car, all French from the first bolt to the last one, and at that time it didn't seem so impossible. Rivalry between the two teams that entered the championship, but also among drivers: each of them in his heart hoped and dreamed of being the first French driver, World Champion in Formula One. Pironi was not less than the others, but he was almost obsessed by that dream and the consciousness of competition hanging over hurried him much more and made him want to arrive. His first season in Formula One was lived with reality, before the awareness of having to learn everything, Didier put his best quality to good use, i.e. his ability to use every experience at the utmost and change the mistake into a lesson. His first rival was Depailler. Pironi didn't take much to approach his times and first at Zeltweg and then at Monza he managed also to outdo him in qualifying: but he was still lacking in experience! He finished the championship with seven points, stored with his good placing in South Africa, Brazil, Monaco and Germany. As far as possible, he remained out of trouble trying to bring the 008 in full to the finishing line, behaviour that was certainly appreciated by Ken Tyrrell. Great satisfaction in that season was Le Mans victory at the wheel of the Renault Alpine A442b official Turbo. With co-driver Jassaud, Pironi inherited the lead of the race after that Jabouille-Depailler twin car stopped with the roasted engine at the 18th hour of race. Actually, it was Didier's third attempt to French classification: first time, in 1976, he finished 19th at the wheel of the Porsche 934, while the 1977 experience, on board of the Renault Alpine A442 Turbo of De Chaunac's Equipe, had seen him retire because of the fuel oil leakage and a fire risk. The victory at the Sarthe circuit seemed to approach Pironi to Renault, as much as Gerard Larousse, the manager responsible for sports activities of the "Regie", tried to free the driver from the contract obligations to Ken Tyrrell. The agreement between two parties was not reached, but Didier didn't seem to suffer from it: "After all, neither Renault, nor I are at the end of our career."

1979, GP Italia, D.Pironi su Tyrrell 009

He thought his team could offer him a winning car, but it wasn't like that: Tyrrell 009 was the photocopy of the Lotus 79 that left the championship broke in the previous year, but it hadn't its dynamic qualities: both Didier and Jean Pierre Jarier, the new first driver, grappled with a car that was unsteady and quite unreliable. They entered the era marked by the ground-effect, phenomenon that increased the car adhesion, turning out, however, very poor as a condition. To hold the miniskirts stuck to the ground and avoid the car bottom suddenly passing from down force to lift force, suspensions were stiffened with heavy effects on chassis and suspensions. Structure collapses were frequent and Pironi collected two dreadful incidents: during practice of the South Africa GP a rear wheel came off in a fast big bend of 200 km/h. Although shocked, he survived the terrible crash unharmed. He was obliged to repeat the pileup on the Dijon circuit, always because of a hub breaking and this time at 230 kilometres per hour. Notwithstanding accidents, breakdowns and financial difficulties causing trouble to the team (only late in the season they managed to find an important sponsor) it was however a good year for Didier. He closed third in Belgium and at Watkins Glen, plus some placing that permitted him to end the championship at the 10th place. Le Mans could again offer him a winning opportunity, sharing the cockpit of the Porsche 936 with Jacky Ickx, the great specialist of the French marathon, but Ken Tyrrell objected: the English team used Good Year tires, while the German car was equipped with Dunlop tires. At the end of the season Tyrrell and Pironi separated their destinies. The transalpine was the sought-after driver by Brabham, Lotus and Ligier: the English paid more, but his heart brought him to the French team, that, moreover, was living a rather positive period for competitiveness. Guy Ligier was a difficult and bit despotic boss, while Jacques Laffitte was a very fast and fighting driver. Both represented an association which dated from the beginning of Ligier's adventure as racing cars constructor. Pironi becoming part of a tested relation between these two men was like a "dark horse".

1980, GP Monaco, D.Pironi su Ligier JS11/15

The season itself went on a controversial way, between light and shade: two poles in Monaco and Brands Hatch. At Zolder the first win in his career, a race dominated by an overwhelming way from the first to the last round; a failed victory in Canada for the jump-start and consequent relegation to the third place, then a second place at the Paul Ricard circuit and again a third place at Watkins Glen, to which he added some points placing. The dark side of the moon was represented by missed opportunities. At Monaco he was in the lead when the gearbox started "spitting the gears out": Pironi lost his car control for a moment and damaged his single-seater against the barriers. At Jarama once again the transalpine driver was in the lead but one rim of his car started playing up, while in Germany he dropped out the track because of the axle-shaft failure. Didier was aware of the fact that the Ligier was an excellent single-seater, but he started thinking that his car was lacking of a suitable preparation in comparison with the Laffitte's car.

1980, GP Monaco, D.Pironi, P.Depailler(AlfaRomeo), A.Jones (Williams)

Guy Ligier's rough character will do the rest. The French constructor didn't take a long time to charge his drivers with fault: to Brands Hatch, for instance, the rims of both cars failed, preventing the team from an extraordinary double win. Ligier declared to the press that if his drivers had used their brains a little more, they would have succeeded in leaving the Grand Prix broke. Since halfway through the season there were rumours that Pironi was on the market's drivers. The French driver was induced to change not only because of the changeable relations he had with present team, but also because he was aware that the future was in turbocharged engines: in 1981 Ligier could only offer him the revival of the 12-cylinder Matra, with the new Talbot brand, waiting for the French Company showing its own turbo engine. As for Didier, who thought of time requirements, it would mean to waste a year. But for the moment only Renault had the turbo charged engine, while Ferrari was preparing one for next season: the Regie seemed more in favour of Alain Prost, the young phenomenon. At Maranello, on the contrary, they were looking Jody Schekter's substitute and Didier was mentioned on the "Commendatore's list. "I watched him carefully on the television and I appreciated some of his persistent pursuits and tenacious defences; a real first class fighter. Like Phil Hill, he liked high speed and like few drivers, he felt at his ease with wide range corners where you needed to keep down foot" Enzo Ferrari then reminded us in his writings. Thus Didier went to Maranello, being satisfied with an amount of money lower than Guy Ligier's offer. To justify his sudden passage, Pironi declared that "in Ferrari's there wasn't only one driver but two co-drivers under the same conditions". Perhaps misunderstanding was there, at the beginning of an odd triangle: a photo portrayed the Old Man wearing sunglasses in the middle of his standard bearers, Gilles and Didier. The elderly man, with a face lined by a life that spared him neither great joys nor deepest grieves. The drivers, under whose childish faces were hidden an overwhelming ambition and a touch of recklessness just typical of fighters. But it was too soon so that the two drivers could discover their rivalry: Pironi was afraid that remaining at Ligier's he might have wasted one year, but when he went to Ferrari's things didn't go so differently. New car, new engine and all the problems related to such a new technology as the turbocharger. Villeneuve was the only one who got out something good of the 126C, thanks to his "Down the head" violent style, that exceeded the car limits. In fact, he won at Monaco, where the turbocharger was theoretically at a disadvantage in respect of aspirated engines. Then, he was once again on the podium top in Spain, after a fight to the bitter end with Lafitte, Watson, Reutemann and De Angelis. As for Didier it was only a fine collection of failures and some points scraped together here and there. In return, there was harmony in the team. Didier and Gilles got on well and due to the impossibility of a challenge on track, they amused themselves to infringe the high way code in homely races. In 1982 there were important novelties: Harvey Postlethwaite's joining the team permitted to acquire a new expertise on the use of composite materials and to improve the construction of updated chassis. The problems on six-cylinder turbocharged engines seemed being solved and, during winter tests, the Ferrari car got interesting results with good expectations for next season. In that period Didier's test activity will be highly appreciated.

1981, GP Italia, D.Pironi su Ferrari 126C
1981, GP Italia, D.Pironi su Ferrari 126C

Thus the 126C2 car was born: probably one of most beautiful Ferrari's racing cars, but above all a fast and effective car. In a certain sense the car of the disagreement. Both drivers were aware of the potential they had at their disposal, but the beginning of the season seemed more dominated by politics than by the events on the track: in fact there was a war among Fisa (Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile), Foca (Formula One Constructors' Association) and Gpda (Grand Prix Drivers' Association). It was a conflict that saw the Federation engaged against constructors because of technical regulations, and against drivers for the contract conditions that were imposed. At the South Africa Grand Prix, Ferrari's promising private tests didn't seem to be confirmed. Villeneuve broke his turbo again, while Pironi was struggling against the feeding that played up. The Argentine GP was cancelled for finance reasons and the prancing horse team could go to Le Castellet for further testing sessions, during which Didier had a bad accident that saw him miraculously escape unharmed. In the Brazil GP Didier was only eighth while at Long Beach he left his car on account of the defective drive-shaft. Before the Imola GP he managed to lead Catherine, his historic fiancée, to the altar. Then off like a shot to San Marino, not even the time for the honeymoon; an action that will stain a career marked by fairness and sports values. At Maranello, watching the television, the Old Man jumped to his feet when he saw the two cocks fighting: his position was clearly in favour of the Canadian, but all the same he tried to let them come to an agreement to cheer them up. One complained of his excess naivety, the other objected that nowhere was written he had to be forever the second. A wall of incommunicability fell between the two drivers causing the team a very tense atmosphere. Someone went so far as to whisper that feud was started out just inside the Scuderia, thanks to some managers who stirred it up by asking the French driver to push himself forward. Others complained Forghieri's absence from the wall: if the Emilian engineer had been present at that Grand Prix that unlucky overtaking would haven't been happened. Some others displayed their truth: Didier would have suffered from inferiority complex with regard to Villeneuve who, since his arrival at Maranello, with his exploits he eclipsed any other driver. People only saw and wanted Gilles. Motor racing is full of stories on rivalry, betrayal and evident rudeness, more often quickly dropped and revived from time to time as colourful notes. But this story had a tragic consequence that was fixed in the crowd's memory. At Zolder, during qualifiers Didier was faster than Gilles: the Canadian went out to have a last try but he didn't succeed in passing his rival. During the return round, victim of a misunderstanding with Mass, Villeneuve collided and his car was launched over the German driver's rear wheel: the car somersaulted into the air and disintegrated while the little Canadian hero, he who had inflamed the crowds of all over the world, in the end was tragically flung out against the protections at the side of the track. In the presence of a feeling of emptiness caused by an event, in a certain way incomprehensible, there were those who were looking for the guilty man. The guilty man was not necessarily a direct responsible for the accident. For many the guilty man was him: Didier. Now it hanged over him the pressure of the press and the responsibility of the team number one driver. At Monaco, notwithstanding injection problems he managed to be in the lead. It seemed a grand prix envisaged for going down in the history for boring, but in the last rounds, due to a shower, there was a great bedlam. Prost, in the lead, lost the control of his Renault and crashed into barriers. Patrese, at the wheel of Brabham, took the lead but the Italian's car spun right round at Loews and found himself with the engine cut out. That was Pironi's time, before stopping inside the tunnel, miserably run out of petrol! Goddess of races gives and takes away: Patrese, pushed by the marshals that found him situated in a dangerous position, managed to re-start his car and miraculously to win the Grand Prix, while the lead gained over the opponents was sufficient for Didier keeping the second place. Then Didier gained another podium in Detroit, but this time on the lowest step. Meanwhile Ferrari had chosen Villeneuve's substitute: it was Patrick Tambay, a French driver. Once again another tragedy hanged over the race world. Pironi was on pole in the qualifying sessions of the GP in Canada, but on the grid-start he had the clutch burnt. All drivers managed to avoid unharmed the Ferrari driven by the Frenchman, except for the Osella with Riccardo Patrese; the car, squeezed in the chaos, crashed into the rear of the red car No 28: it was a terrible impact. Osella wrecks set fire, while Didier, who had a miraculous escape, tried to save Paletti from fire, but every attempt was useless: the Italian driver was already dead. At the wheel of a spare-car with misfiring problems, Pironi ended ninth. A week later, during private testing at Paul Ricard, Pironi at the wheel of the 126 C2 had a broken suspension: again an awful crash at 280 km/h and again so much luck. He escaped with a damaged rib and some bruises. Luckily this time the cockpit held out. Still aching for the accident after effects, at Zandvoort Didier flashed past Arnoux and got the better of Prost, gaining a bright win. But it was the second place of Brands Hatch that moved him up to the top of the championship classification, letting him overtake John Watson, the old but always hard driver. At Le Castellet, Didier had nine points' lead over the Englishman, while over Prost, at the third place, his lead was almost unchanged thanks to Rene's disobedience, who regardless of the team-orders, gained a victory to the disadvantage of his team-mate. And here we are at Hockenheim: during practice it was raining in torrents, but Pironi spun at unbelievable and unreachable lap-times for his rivals. General opinion was that the French driver was driving "like mad", but as a matter of fact the Ferrari number 28 was fitted with new Good Year rain-tyres which offered a significant advantage over the old type. In those extreme conditions mistake is round the corner. Didier saw Daly's Williams behind him and he moved to the right side to let him pass, but he assumed, erroneously, the left side of the track to be free. But he found the Alain Prost's Renault: the Ferrari hit the rear of the French car and took the air, overturned three times on a distance of 250 meters and then broke into pieces. Prost escaped uninjured, but Didier, squeezed in the wreck, lost much blood and cried desperately to get him out of there. Nelson Piquet was among the first ones to go to the Frenchman's rescue. He stopped his Brabham, took the French driver's helmet off but when Nelson saw his severe injures he wasn't able to stand it and ran away. He was absolutely right because the scene was simply appalling. Twenty minutes were necessary for the rescue party to get him out of his single-seater. With both legs broken, Didier was brought to a close university hospital where they operated on him for about five hours. He left the intensive care unit after a few days, but his career was definitively finished.

1981, GP Italia, D.Pironi

At this time Didier had 39 points in the championship: the title will be gained by Keke Rosberg with 44 points and one only victory. Didier, in spite of his severe injuries, didn't give up: he wanted to go back to Formula One and underwent to a long rehabilitation treatment which included about thirty surgical operations on his legs. In 1986 he newly managed to be at the wheel of a single-seater for one test: the car was the AGS, not very competitive one, but some weeks later he made also a test with the Ligier. In 1987 there was a rumour that he would have joined MacLaren, with Alain Prost co-driver, but it all came to nothing and the only option left to him was an agreement in 1988 with Gerard Larousse, who was making a plan, very poor actually, to enter the Formula 1 under his own name. But his return to motor races wasn't the only dream he had in those years. Another passion occupied his thoughts: the one for the sea. In parallel with his driver's activity, Didier had been for a long time involved with the import of the Abbate offshore mono-hulls and Lamborghini marine engines to France. After the accident he set up his own company at Saint Tropez, the Euronautique Leader, that dealt with the construction, maintenance and preparation of hulls for competition. In 1986 they took directly part in the European Offshore Powerboat Championship with three powerboats: Abbate 41, Conquest 39 and Cigarette 38, all Lamborghini powered. Didier ran with the first one. Again speed, angry engines shouting their power into the air, adrenalin of risk and the other side of the coin for those who like flirting with danger: during a competition in Spain he broke three ribs in an accident. In view of the 87's season Pironi displayed a revolutionary hull in the sector: completely built in carbon and Kevlar fibre, Colibri was the lightest powerboat in its class. Thanks to this audacious project Didier moved in to the attack of the World Offshore Powerboat Championship, dreaming of becoming the world champion in that speciality. The adventure was shared with by Bernard Giroux, former Ari Vatanen's navigator, and Jean Claude Guenard, ex Ligier's engineer. The crew was the favourite in the race for title, but in the freezing waters of the Isle of Wight, once again fate was waiting for Didier. Colibri was easily sailing among the first five competing boats and slowly moving up to the second place, fighting neck to neck with "Pinot di Pinot", when it hit a wash from a nearby boat: Pironi's hull reared up and crashed heavily into the sea at 170 km/h. Violence of impact didn't let the crew find safety. That's was the tragic ending of a story that perhaps, at a certain time, would have deserved a better close. Didier gained neither Formula One nor World Offshore Powerboat Championship and what's more his character remained closely linked to the foul deed occurred at San Marino, throwing a shade over a career dominated by great willpower and deep sense of challenge. Unluckily, great dreamers not always see their dreams come true.

Stefano Costantino

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