Doubt over facts of Villeneuve-Pironi row

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

The details of one of the most famous and tragic episodes in Formula 1 history have been disputed by one of the sport’s long-standing figures.

It had long been claimed that Didier Pironi ‘stole’ victory from team mate Gilles Villeneuve in the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix by refusing to follow team orders. Livid with Pironi, Villeneuve crashed to his death two weeks later.

But John Hogan, the man at the forefront of Marlboro’s sponsorship activities in F1 since 1973, dismissed that version of events as “bullshit”.

He said:

That Gilles died.. has coloured many people’s impressions of Didier. But my angle on it is that they were racing all the way, every lap. The idea that they had an agreement that Pironi reneged on is bullshit.

Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. So why did Villeneuve come out with all that vitriol about Pironi going back on a deal?

I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise.

It’s a remarkable view that flies in the face of the established version of events. I’m not old enough to remember the race, but having read about it I can offer these observations that strongly contradict Hogan’s claim.

Villeneuve claimed that he was lapping slowly because the Ferraris were troubled by poor fuel consumption and he didn’t want to run out before the flag. That much was clear at Monaco later that year when Pironi ran out of fuel within sight of the flag.

Villeneuve maintained that in the Imola race he was cruising when Pironi passed him, and that he only increased his pace to re-pass Pironi, and when he did he slowed down again. Pironi ultimately overtook Villeneuve on the final lap, giving him no opportunity to respond.

Nigel Roebuck wrote about the Imola row one week after which, crucially (in the light of Hogan’s remarks), was one week before Villeneuve’s death:

As I left the press office on Sunday evening, I picked up a list of the drivers’ lap times. Does close scrutiny of them bear out Villeneuve’s story? Yes, it does. Here are the last 15 laps, together with their leaders:

Lap 45 – 1’36.578s (Villeneuve)
46 – 1’36.451 (Pironi)
47 – 1’35.828 (Pironi)
48 – 1’35.406 (Pironi)
49 – 1’35.967 (Villeneuve)
50 – 1’37.372 (Villeneuve)
51 – 1’37.321 (Villeneuve)
52 – 1’38.123 (Villeneuve)
53 – 1’35.409 (Pironi)
54 – 1’35.571 (Pironi)
55 – 1’35.555 (Pironi)
56 – 1’35.307 (Pironi)
57 – 1’35.213 (Pironi)
58 – 1’35.906 (Pironi)
59 – 1’37.020 (Villeneuve)
60 – 1’36.271 (Pironi)

Reproduced from “Inside Formula 1”, Nigel Roebuck, 1989.

The lap times strongly support the claim that Villeneuve was trying to manage the pace and lead home a Ferrari one-two in team order. If Pironi had passed him on merit, then why was Villeneuve lapping two to three seconds off the pace after he took the lead from Pironi – even on the penultimate lap?

It’s fair to say that both commentators have reason for siding with each driver. Marlboro sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari, Roebuck makes no secret of his admiration for Villeneuve.

But for me the bald facts of the lap times underlined the accuracy of the established version of events.

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