30 years ago today: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari

1982 San Marino Grand Prix flashback

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari, Imola, 1982

The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, 30 years ago today, began with a political row that saw more than half the teams boycott the race.

It ended with a bitter feud between Ferrari team mates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi – one which had a tragic end.

A turbulent season

0185_005.jpg

Imola was the scene for round four of the 1982 season.

It was holding a world championship race for the third time and the second time under the title of “San Marino Grand Prix”. This was a simple dodge to allow Italy to host two rounds of the world championship – the principality lies 70km south-east of the track.

The year had got off to a bad-tempered start. Drivers went on strike in the opening round at Kyalami in protest at restrictive new terms on their superlicences.

The drivers won the day, and that perhaps played on the minds of several of their team bosses following the events of the next round in Brazil.

There Nelson Piquet won ahead of Keke Rosberg. But on the Monday before the Imola race, the FIA Sporting Tribunal excluded both and handed the win to Alain Prost, who had finished third.

The pair – Piquet driving for Brabham, Rosberg for Williams – were thrown out following a protest by Ferrari and Renault. The FIA found both cars had run under the minimum weight limit during the race.

These protested teams – and several more besides – had tried to get around the minimum weight rule by fitting oversized liquid tanks to their cars. These were emptied of fluid when the race started and refilled after the race, before the cars were weighed.

The FIA found the cars were fitted with tanks capable of holding 25-28kg of liquid, mostly water, ostensibly used to cool the brakes. The tribunal deemed that during the race, Piquet and Rosberg’s cars had been at least 10kg under the minimum weight limit.

The practice had been widespread for some time and the authorities had turned a blind eye to it. In Spain the previous year Brabham were found to be using an unnecessarily large oil reservoir to get their car up to the minimum weight limit – but the scrutineers were leant on to overlook the team’s circumnavigation of the rules.

The FIA’s double-whammy decision to retroactively change the rules and disqualify both drivers sent a shockwave through the sport along long-established fault lines.

Go ad-free for just £1 per month

>> Find out more and sign up

The FOCA boycott

The teams which made most use of the weight limit dodge were the Cosworth-powered outfits, who were mostly aligned to the Formula One Constructors’ Association headed by Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone. They did so to reduce the performance deficit to their rivals equipped with more powerful – but heavy – turbocharged engines.

FOCA pledged to boycott the following race at Imola in protest. As a result, fewer than half of the cars entered for the race turned up.

The resolve among the FOCA teams was surprisingly strong. Even McLaren, whose driver John Watson had been promoted to second in Brazil despite also running underweight, sided with the boycotters.

One team which broke ranks was Tyrrell. They had been without major sponsorship the previous year, and became so strapped for cash several employees were temporarily made redundant and the team ran a skeleton staff for a few weeks.

For 1982, Ken Tyrrell had landed backing from two major Italian companies: Candy (transferring their allegiance from Toleman) and Imola Ceramica – the latter a tile manufacturer based near the circuit. Not willing to risk losing their funding, Tyrrell sent his team to Italy while insisting he supported FOCA.

0464_016.jpg

In total, 17 entries were withdrawn. They included a pair of cars each from Brabham, Williams, McLaren, Lotus and March. Neither of the Arrows were present, despite their cars carrying the sponsorship of local company Ceramica Ragno. The single entries of Ensign, Fittipaldi and Theodore were also absent.

Ligier prevaricated, putting out a press release saying their new JS19s weren’t ready to race. But their transporters were reportedly seen heading back to France on the day before practice, suggesting an 11th-hour change of mind had taken place somewhere.

That left a miserable entry of just 14 cars. But it included full representation from the one team most people in Italy came to see – Ferrari.

They were joined by fellow turbo users Renault and Toleman. There were rumours Ferrari and Renault would field third cars to bolster the grid, but nothing came of it.

Alfa Romeo sent their V12-engined cars. In addition to Tyrrell, the other Cosworth users to cross the picket line were ATS and Osella.

The change to the Brazilian Grand Prix result meant that Prost led the championship, followed by four drivers who were not racing at Imola: Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, John Watson and Carlos Reutemann.

Crashes in practice

FotoScan_CD07_188.jpg

The dangerous levels of downforce produced by the 1982 cars was plain to see in practice at Imola. ‘Ground effect’ aerodynamics generated huge grip in the corners but the massive loads placed on suspension often caused breakages.

Such an accident befell Derek Warwick. Plunging down the hill to the left-hander at Rivazza, the front-left suspension collapsed on his Toleman. Warwick managed to avoid hitting anything, and the shaken driver dragged his car back to the pits.

Ferrari’s Didier Pironi also crashed heavily on Friday and was at a loss to explain the accident, suspecting a tyre or suspension failure. It was the second big crash of the season for the French driver, who had shunted at Paul Ricard prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix.

It wasn’t just the cars that took a pounding from the G-forces – the track did too. Despite just 14 cars running in practice the track began to break up – a situation which would surely have been worse had the planned 31 entries been present.

ATS’s participation in the weekend was badly hampered by the fact that they procured their Avon tyres through Ecclestone’s International Race Tyre Services company, which packed up and went home on Thursday after the boycott was announced.

They started practice running cross-ply Avons at the front of the car and radial Pirellis at the rear, a combination which their poor drivers struggled to make much use of. For race day they were able to get hold of some used Avons from the previous races.

1982 San Marino Grand Prix grid

Unsurprisingly the turbo cars claimed the front two rows, the Renaults ahead of the Ferraris. Michele Alboreto in the Tyrrell was 1.2s off the slowest of them and 3.5s off the pole position time.

In light of which, one has to wonder whether FOCA would have made their protest had the track been better suited to their cars.

Row 1 1. Rene Arnoux 1’29.765
Renault
2. Alain Prost 1’30.249
Renault
Row 2 3. Gilles Villeneuve 1’30.717
Ferrari
4. Didier Pironi 1’32.020
Ferrari
Row 3 5. Michele Alboreto 1’33.209
Tyrrell-Ford
6. Bruno Giacomelli 1’33.230
Alfa Romeo
Row 4 7. A.de Cesaris 1’33.397
Alfa Romeo
8. Derek Warwick 1’33.503
Toleman-Hart
Row 5 9. Jean-Pierre Jarier 1’34.336
Osella-Ford
10. Teo Fabi 1’34.647
Toleman-Hart
Row 6 11. Brian Henton 1’35.262
Tyrrell-Ford
12. Manfred Winkelhock 1’35.790
ATS-Ford
Row 7 13. Riccardo Paletti 1’36.228
Osella-Ford
14. Eliseo Salazar 1’36.434
ATS-Ford

More retirements

On the morning of the race Tyrrell petitioned the stewards to rule the turbo cars illegal, insisting their engines used turbines which were forbidden by the rules. Unsurprisingly, his protest was thrown out. But it had been more than just a symbolic gesture – several teams continued to protest the turbos’ legality in the coming months.

Clearly the promoters could not stand to lose any more cars. As it was just a dozen of them took the start.

The second Tyrrell of Brian Henton was out before the race had even begun. Henton had taken the place of Slim Borgudd (formerly a drummer for pop group Abba), and was making his seventh F1 start for his sixth different team. Unfortunately, his transmission failed on the grid.

Meanwhile Warwick’s electrics died on the warm-up lap, a poor reward for his fright in practice.

By lap nine there were just nine cars left. Andrea De Cesaris’s fuel pump failed, Prost’s engine threw a piston and Riccardo Paletti – who had made his first start in the Osella – went out with broken suspension. The prospect of no cars finishing the race began to look like a serious possibility.

Pironi steals victory

http://youtu.be/Ua70zL52pt0?t=9s

But the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix would come to be remembered more for what happened next than the political wrangling that preceded it.

At the front of the field there was a surprising amount of dicing for position – rather more than there had been in the preceding races, prompting claims the drivers had arranged to put on a show.

Villeneuve took the lead off Rene Arnoux on lap 27. Four laps later Arnoux and Pironi slipstreamed past him on the run to Tosa. On lap 41, Villeneuve got down the inside of Pironi once more at Tosa, re-taking second place.

He was still there when smoke from the back of the Renault turned into orange flames and Arnoux pulled off. That handed the lead to Villeneuve, and Ferrari held out a pit sign instructing their drivers to “slow”.

Exactly what was intended by this message is something that has been debated for 30 years. What is not in doubt is that Villeneuve took it to mean the pair should hold their positions and finish in that order. Either Pironi did not see it that way – or chose not to.

Concerned about fuel use by the thirsty Ferrari turbo on a track where fuel was marginal, Villeneuve backed off. He completed lap 45 in 1’36.5.

0129_009.jpg

But on the next lap he ran wide at the exit of Rivazza. Pironi took his chance to grab the lead, and then reeled off a pair of 1’35s.

Villeneuve responded, and claimed the lead back on lap 49, passing Pironi as they headed into Piratella. Again he backed off – a pair of 1’37s and even a 1’38 – and again Pironi came past, taking Villeneuve on the run to Tamburello before firing off a sequence of 1’35s.

Now Pironi was defending hard at Tosa, carefully covering the inside on lap 58. But on the penultimate tour he left the door open – and Villeneuve dived through, seemingly to clinch the win.

“Even at that stage I thought he was being honest, obeying the original pit signal,” said Villeneuve afterwards. He backed off around the rest of the lap, crossing the line with a 1’37.020.

But as they approached Tosa for the final time, Pironi dived down the inside and passed him for good. “It never entered my head to cover the line,” said Villeneuve. “Stupid, wasn’t I?”

After the chequered flag came out, the crowd broke onto the track to celebrate with their Ferrari heroes. Pironi took his helmet off on the slowing down lap to receive their applause.

The jubilant scenes contrasted with Villeneuve’s dark mood on the podium. His demeanour did not improve when engineer Marco Piccinini told the press his car had an engine problem – which Villeneuve strenuously denied.

To his mind Pironi had stolen the victory from him. Villeneuve was in his sixth year with Ferrari and believed he understood what a ‘slow’ sign meant – he had sat behind Jody Scheckter at Monza three years earlier for that reason, allowing his team mate to win a world championship that could have been his.

“You get a ‘slow’ sign and it means ‘hold position’,” he said. “That has been the case ever since I have been there.” Pironi denied there had been any team orders.

1982 San Marino Grand Prix result

Pos # Driver Car Laps Gap Difference Reason
1 28 Didier Pironi Ferrari 60 1:36’38.887
2 27 Gilles Villeneuve Ferrari 60 +0.366 0.366
3 3 Michele Alboreto Tyrrell-Ford 60 +67.684 1’07.684
4 31 Jean-Pierre Jarier Osella-Ford 59 +1 lap 1 Lap
5 10 Eliseo Salazar ATS-Ford 57 +3 laps 3 Laps
Not classified
9 Manfred Winkelhock ATS-Ford 54 Disqualified
36 Teo Fabi Toleman-Hart 52 Not classified
16 Rene Arnoux Renault 44 Turbo
23 Bruno Giacomelli Alfa Romeo 24 Engine
32 Riccardo Paletti Osella-Ford 7 Suspension
15 Alain Prost Renault 6 Engine
22 Andrea de Cesaris Alfa Romeo 4 Electrical
4 Brian Henton Tyrrell-Ford 0 Transmission
35 Derek Warwick Toleman-Hart 0 Did not start

After the Ferraris it took over a minute for the only other car on the lead lap to appear – Alboreto’s Tyrrell, giving the young Italian his first podium finish.

Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Osella was a lapped fourth and Eliseo Salazar came in three laps down for ATS in fifth place on his old tyres.

No-one claimed the final point for sixth place: Teo Fabi was still circulating in his Toleman, but a long pit stop had left him eight laps down so he wasn’t classified – there went Toleman’s chance of their first F1 point. The second ATS of Manfred Winkelhock would have taken sixth, but he was disqualified for being underweight.

The political aftermath

0511_005.jpg

Viewed from the perspective of 30 years later, the events of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix had far-reaching consequences, some less obvious than others.

It’s hard to view FOCA’s boycott as anything other than a failure. Their attempts to persuade TV broadcasters the race would be cancelled fell on deaf ears.

Organisers said 100,000 attended the race, those present suggested it was closer to 75,000. Either way it was still more than enough to demonstrate the boycott had not affected the race’s popularity.

The lessons Bernie Ecclestone took away from that day were surely instructive for his future dealings.

Not least of which was the reminder that to win any political argument in F1, you must have Ferrari on-side. His numerous financial sweeteners to the team over the years illustrate the importance of that message was not lost on him.

Whether it has been healthy for the sport for one team to have so much political power is another debate entirely.

The human cost

The consequences of the race in human terms were far greater. Villeneuve swore never to speak to Pironi again, and it seems he never did. He was killed during qualifying for the following race, trying to find another tenth of a second to beat his team mate’s time.

Pironi has long been seen as the villain of this particular piece. But, almost 25 years after his own death, perhaps we should view less harshly the actions of a man who was doing what F1 drivers are born and bred to do – win races.

This is not to pretend his actions were anything less than the duplicitous work of a driver who couldn’t beat his team mate in a straight fight on the day. But Pironi could not possibly have imagined the appalling consequences that lay in store at Zolder less than two weeks later.

Long before the season’s end, at which point a team might reasonably have been expected to impose a finishing order to favour their leading driver, Pironi took advantage of an opportunity to score his first win for two years.

In the races that followed, Pironi was a haunted man. He took the lead of the world championship, but suffered career-ending injuries when he crashed in a wet practice session at the Hockenheimring.

He was not the only driver to openly defy his team that year. Three months later at Paul Ricard, Arnoux did much the same, refusing to pull over and let Prost win. But there was no tragic coda to that story, and Arnoux has not been reviled the same way Pironi has.

Grand Prix flashback

Browse all Grand Prix flashbacks

First image © Decib via Flickr, other images via Flickr

Advert | Go Ad-free

40 comments on 30 years ago today: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari

  1. OG Kush (@ogkush7) said on 25th April 2012, 17:52

    Great article! The quality of the video on the grid is surprisingly crisp.

  2. Sridhar Gopal (@sridharg16) said on 25th April 2012, 18:36

    I started watching formula 1 seriously since 2008. The more i watch and learn about this sport i feel that i have been so unfortunate to miss out on the glorious historical moments and the great drivers in this sport. Nevertheless articles like this just make me love this sport more and more… so keep it coming…

  3. Great article.
    Only fourteen starters and sad to think that five of them (Villeneuve, Pironi, Alboreto, Paletti and Winkelhock) all died in racing competitions.

  4. And I agree that people tend to be too harsh on Pironi. It always bugs me that Nigel Roebuck (with whom I usually agree) always brings up Rosberg’s remark he made to the effect that without Pironi Villeneuve ‘would still be here’, as if to suggest that Pironi was somehow complicit in Villeneuve’s demise when really all he was guilty of was being arrogant and impulsively diving into a gap that opened on the last lap of a race. It was only later circumstances that made him look the villain, without them the Imola affair would be a footnote.

  5. chiliz said on 26th April 2012, 4:11

    fantastic article Keith.. gives some of us newbies a little peak in the history of F1…

  6. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 26th April 2012, 8:17

    Thanks for the positive feedback everyone!

  7. TommyB (@tommyb89) said on 26th April 2012, 10:02

    Great article. I had no idea about all the political stories before that race.

  8. BasCB (@bascb) said on 26th April 2012, 11:08

    A really nice article Keith, thanks

  9. nickfrog (@nickfrog) said on 26th April 2012, 12:43

    The story doesn’t even stop there. Didier died in 86 in a speed boat accident at a race off the Isle Of Wight, which also killed Bernard Giroux (the then F1 commentator on TF1) and Jean-Claude Guenard (a distant relative of mine and then Ligier mechanic). Pironi’s wife was pregnant then and she called her twins Didier and Gilles.

  10. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 7th May 2012, 23:04

    The last few paragraphs got me thinking – I’ve only ever read about this from Villeneuve’s side of the story, mostly as related by Nigel Roebuck. Do any interviews with Pironi exist? I’d love to know what he was thinking during the Imola race, how he was affected by events that followed – not only Villeneuve’s death and also Paletti’s (in a collision with Pironi’s stalled car). Sid Watkins observed he was becoming more highly-strung that summer, but any words from the man himself?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 7th May 2012, 23:22

      @bullfrog Not half as much as there is from Villeneuve. If anyone’s found a good one I’d love to read it.

      I have got a biography of Pironi – which is terrible, hagiographic from start to finish – which quotes Pironi saying he had no clause in his contract stating he had to finish second and that if they’d wanted Villeneuve to win the order would have been more explicit. However there’s no indication when or where the quote is from.

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments must abide by the comment policy. Comments may be moderated.
Want to post off-topic? Head to the forum.
See the FAQ for more information.