Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler BlackJack’sBriefs
Such a list is not easy to compile, and it is even harder to be objective.
The way I reduced 830 F1 drivers to 20 is detailed in Part I. I wanted twenty top drivers (top No.2’s who might have been a team leader.) who had proved their ability to win – not drivers who showed talent but were unable to realise their potential, including drivers whose career was brought to an untimely end, for whatever reason.
. . . was born in 1952, in Val-de-Mame, France. After his engineering studies he entered a race-driving school and in 1972 won the Pilot Elf which had also helped Patrick Tambay and Alain Prost. After winning the Formula Renault championship in 1974, and showing considerable talent in Formula Super Renault (12 wins in 16 races) in 1976, Pironi was promoted to F2 for 1977.
This was a time of new French drivers all desperate to be the first French World Champion. The previous year’s F2 champion was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, chased by the Martini duo of Rene Arnoux and Tambay. Tambay had now gone in search of a F1 drive, and Pironi arrived to ‘support’ Arnoux. They were up against Ricardo Patrese, Bruno Giacomelli, Eddie Cheever, Brian Henton, Jacques Lafitte, Alberto Colombo, Ricardo Zunino, Keke Rosberg, Elio de Angelis, a returning Tambay, and Alain Prost… all of whom would reach F1, but only two would take the Champion’s crown.
Pironi’s first few races were dreadful – the Martini wasn’t as fast as the March, and the Renault engine wasn’t as reliable as the Hart – but after a strong second place at Vallelunga, Pironi gambled on a one-off drive in the F3 race at Monaco, where the F1 bosses would be watching… and he so obliterated the opposition he was instantly regarded as a future World Champion.
Throughout the year Pironi usually qualified badly, rarely higher than 10th, but was such a keen racer he often completed the first lap up around 5th. But, in the penultimate round at Estoril Pironi was suddenly on Pole, and he led from start to finish. Arnoux was second, and wrapped up the Championship. In the final race Pironi went from eighth on the grid to third in the race, and third in the Championship. At the end of the year Ken Tyrrell signed Pironi to partner Patrick Depailler in F1 for 1978, probably disappointing a number of his peers who might have expected this glory for themselves.
Subsequently, Pironi was probably also disappointed, with six retirements, and 15th in the Championship, and 1979 was only slightly better – another six retirements but two podiums, to rank 10th in the Championship. However Pironi took an Alpine-Renault to a four-lap victory in the 1978 Le Mans.
For 1980 Pironi was apparently negotiating with Lotus and Brabham but was snatched up by Ligier, to partner Laffite. In the first race Pironi qualified third; in the second he was on the front row, dropped to 21st after a long pitstop, and finished 4th – after which Ferrari started discussions with him for 1981… In his third F1 race Pironi was on the podium, behind Arnoux and Laffite. The French are coming. The French are coming…
At Zolder, Pironi’s fifth GP, he started on the front row, this time between Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet, and simply disappeared into the sunset when the flag was waved, taking his first F1 victory – 50 seconds ahead of Jones and nearly 90 ahead of Carlos Reutemann… Didier Pironi had arrived.
Although running third in the Championship at the mid-point a string of four retirements from stunning drives finally dropped him to fifth, two points behind Laffite. Ligier came second in the Constructors Championship.
Ferrari, meanwhile, after eleven retirements, and never finishing higher than fifth, languished down in 10th (just behind McLaren…) – not a good omen for the Part II of Pironi’s career, now partnered with Gilles Villeneuve…
Some have wondered why Pironi left Ligier , which was more successful at the time than Ferrari, but Pironi asserted he had been assured there would be no No.1 driver at Ferrari. Additionally it was not all plain-sailing at Ligier: the cars had suffered numerous mechanical failures and in the British GP, for example, both cars had suffered wheel-rim failures – Laffite had mowed down several safety fences and Pironi had pitted with a flat tyre…
“When I came back to the pits Guy Ligier was telling French journalists that one of his drivers would have won if they had more brains, if they’d drive more cautiously and not go over the kerbs so heavily and treat the car better. At that time I started thinking about my future.”
Enzo Ferrari later recalled, “As soon as Pironi arrived at Maranello, he won everyone’s admiration and affection, not only for his gifts as an athlete, but also for his way of doing things – he was reserved while at the same time outgoing.”
1981: Villeneuve: 8 retirements, 2 wins, 1 Pole, 1 Fastest lap, 7th in Championship. Pironi: 7 retirements, 1 4th place, 3 5th places, 13th in the Championship. Incidentally, Villeneuve’s younger brother, Jacques Snr, was entered into the final two races in Canada and America by Arrows but he failed to qualify…!
This writer has previously written extensively of the tragic 1982 Season, and of the rivalry between these two great drivers. Villeneuve retired in the first two races, was disqualified from the third, came 2nd to Pironi in the controversial fourth race, and crashed in practice for the fifth… and was killed. Pironi took a second victory, two 2nd places, two 3rd places, and was leading the Championship race… before also crashing (in Germany), and being seriously injured, ending his motor-racing career… He was finally placed 2nd in the Championship, just five points behind Keke Rosberg, having missed the last five events – so close to that elusive title: First French World Champion.
As for San Marino and Zolder, to even suggest Villeneuve’s death two weeks after Pironi’s victory, was somehow Pironi’s fault, is vindictive nonsense. Others have even tried to imply that Pironi’s later accident, which horrifyingly seemed to mirror Villeneuve’s, was some kind of karma…
These two men were great racers and, like Senna, Fangio, Vettel, Nuvolari and many others, were not content to sit back if they thought they could pass the driver in front of them. When a driver opts for a safe second place, whether for personal or mechanical reasons, at that moment he ceases to be a racing driver. We admire all these drivers for their ability and willingness to take chances, braking later, passing on the outside of a corner, refusing to give up, and just exciting our senses. “Motor Racing Is Dangerous” We’ve all seen the signs. Pushing a car, and also themselves, beyond the limit causes accidents. It can also have dreadful and tragic consequences.
These are no more the fault of someone else than the fault of the man who stepped on the butterfly…
In his five-year F1 career Didier Pironi had three wins, ten more podium finishes, and four poles. He was a fully committed racer and came so close to his dream as a young man of being France’s first World Champion. Four years, and thirty-nine surgeries, later Pironi tried a comeback. Ligier wanted a replacement for Laffite and apparently McLaren, Brabham and Ferrari all offered him a test-driver role, but Pironi wanted to race, and wanted a car in which he could win.
He tested both an AGS and a Ligier, and his times were considered sufficiently competitive to make a comeback, but… Pironi’s insurance policy had paid out substantial sums of money specifically on the grounds that he was unable to race in F1… Thus a return would have been very costly to him, because he would have had to repay the money. Instead he turned to Power Boat racing and… the following year… was killed in an accident off the Isle of Wight. A few weeks after his death his girlfriend gave birth to twins. She Christened them: Didier and Gilles…
to be continued, next week…