The history of Formula 1 is full of intense rivalries and bitter feuds that have come to define the championship. From the infamous clashes between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost to more recently the awkward battles between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Grand Prix racing is certainly not lacking in drama.
But perhaps the most tragic rivalry, which seemed almost tied to fate, is that of Ferrari teammates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Their friendship, the infamous events of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix and the gruesome sequence of events that followed are the subject of a new documentary from the Noah Media Group and director Torquil Jones.
It’s a story well documented before – how Villeneuve felt Pironi robbed him of victory at Imola and vowed never to speak to him again before the popular French-Canadian was killed in Zolder just two weeks later. A horrific crash for Pironi at Hockenheim later that year – eerily similar to Villeneuve’s accident – ended his F1 career as he was on the verge of winning the title, before also dying in a powerboat race off the Isle of Wight in 1987.
But even for those who think they know the subject well, the documentary – which has a running time of one hour and 40 minutes – is a must-see.
The rise of both drivers to the pinnacle of F1 is debated and highly narrative – Villeneuve the absolute hero, adored by the Tifosi and even considered a second son by Enzo Ferrari himself. It’s a direct contradiction to Pironi’s more methodical approach, portraying the Frenchman as cold and calculating – essentially taking on the role of the villain.
Former F1 ringleader Bernie Ecclestone suggests he could have become a politician, given Pironi’s decision to choose then-Ferrari sporting director Marco Piccinini as best man for his wedding just a week before Imola certainly fits into this narrative.
What is particularly striking is that despite being two very different people, the documentary brilliantly embodies that they are essentially two sides of the same coin. A passion for racing and determination to win was the same with each of them, but they approached it from two very different points of view.
Brought together as Ferrari teammates, the differences and similarities between the two are exposed in the documentary
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
Where the film shines is in its archive footage, some of which has probably never been seen in public before, and there are plenty of clips for F1 fans to enjoy.
The biggest input comes from Villeneuve and Pironi’s relatives, with former widow Joann and two children, 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques and Melanie, making their voices heard. Pironi’s former partners also have their say, as do his twin sons, aptly named Didier and Gilles – the latter an engineer for the Mercedes F1 team. It is clear that Joann Pironi has never fully forgiven his “dishonesty, infidelity.” [and] a betrayal” but states that her husband’s death “cannot be his fault”, and it all makes for a powerful viewing experience.
Outside of the immediate families there is no shortage of input from F1 alumni including Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, John Watson and Jody Scheckter and many more who, while only offering sound bites, help push the story forward.
While Villeneuve is generally portrayed as the hero, he does not escape criticism from his own son, Jacques. The former Williams F1 driver makes it clear that he never wanted to be compared to his father
However, the most convincing testimonies come from those who worked at Ferrari, including Piccinini, ex-technical director Mauro Forghieri (interviewed shortly before his death earlier this year), and Brenda Vernor, personal assistant to the ‘Old Man’. All three offer a unique insight into the inner workings of Ferrari, the personalities of both drivers – and in the case of Piccinini and Forghieri – their thoughts on what happened at Imola.
However, given the subsequent ramifications of the race, there is surprisingly little analysis on the exact details of what happened. Villeneuve’s error at Rivazza in leading and causing him to fall behind Pironi is shown, but there is no indication whether he should have returned the position, only a mention of Ferrari’s alleged policy of holding position at a one-two.
Attention is drawn to the interpretation of ‘slow’, shown on the pit board for both drivers, but which is unclear whether it meant the same as ‘hold position’. Piccinini states that after viewing the footage “Pironi did nothing wrong”, while describing how initially Ferrari itself supported Pironi before going back the next day.
The documentary attempts to shed light on what really happened at the 1982 San Marino GP
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
Sometimes it’s obvious that some artistic license has been used, which can be frustrating for die-hard F1 fans. Not a word is said about Villeneuve’s one-off drive at Silverstone with McLaren in 1977 – his F1 debut – or how he generally struggled in his early races with Ferrari.
PLUS: Gilles Villeneuve’s 10 best F1 drives
Instead, viewers make the jump to his first F1 win at the 1978 Canadian GP. Even his most famous exploits, wheel banging with Rene Arnoux at the final lap of the 1979 French GP at Dijon, or returning to the pits on three wheels racing after a flat tire in Zandvoort, only occur for short seconds.
But that is largely not what this documentary is about. It is not intended as an overview of Villeneuve and Pironi’s careers. Instead, it takes a closer look at what drove each of them and aspired to become F1 world champions, even in the face of danger and ultimately death.
This certainly doesn’t shy away from it, showing Villeneuve’s horrific accident in full, and the aftermath of Pironi’s crashes at Hockenheim and at sea. It certainly becomes a tough watch at times, from seeing Villeneuve’s parents in tears after their son’s death, to hearing Pironi’s twin sons talk about the father they never met.
While Villeneuve is generally portrayed as the hero, he does not escape criticism from his own son, Jacques. The former Williams F1 driver makes it clear that he never wanted to be compared to his father and suffered from migraines due to the pressure put on him by the older Villeneuve, whom he even describes as a “selfish man”.
PLUS: The F1 rebel who defied Schumacher and won Williams’ last title
And while Pironi starts the documentary as something of a villain, a lot of empathy is generated for him in the latter part, especially after undergoing 30 surgeries on his shattered legs. There is a real sense that at more than one point in his life he deeply regretted his decision at Imola in 1982 and felt somehow responsible for Villeneuve’s death. .
Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy will be shown on Sky Documentaries at 6.30pm on Saturday.
Their tragic rivalry will be remembered for Imola’s fallout, but perhaps there was more beneath the surface
Photo by: Motorsport Images