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New biography sheds new light on Imola 1982


Imola 1982: An F1 controversy that keeps on rolling

Every F1 fan knows the story of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. The story of how Didier Pironi duped his unsuspecting teammate Gilles Villeneuve in a desperate, last lap manoeuvre has become part of motor racing folklore. But a new biography relating events of that long ago day is set to turn the story of this infamous race on its head.

Pironi: The Champion That Never Was by David Sedgwick is set to shed new light on those extraordinary events thirty-five years ago. "What happened to Didier after that race was nothing short of scandalous," asserts Sedgwick. "His reputation never recovered. Even now, all these years later, the name Didier Pironi can trigger some very unsavoury reactions."

Running comfortably in first and second place that day in front of an ecstatic home crowd, the Ferrari 126C2s of Didier and teammate Gilles Villeneuve were running down the laps to the flag. Everything was going smoothly. The Renault turbos had, as ever, imploded long ago. And with the FOCA teams boycotting the race, Ferrari was set for a famous one-two victory. Forza Ferrari!

Such was their superiority the two Ferrari drivers were putting on a show for the 100,000 crowd, slipstreaming one another into the Tosa hairpin as the laps went by. The crowd was thrilled. Just a handful of laps remaining to the flag and either Ferrari man could win the race, or so it seemed. This is where things become complicated.

In the cockpit of Ferrari number 27 Gilles Villeneuve assumed the Ferraris were indeed putting on a show for the crowd, taking part in a co-ordinated procession to the flag. The Canadian also assumed he would take the victor's laurels come race end. Was he not the team's senior driver?

However, in the cockpit of the number 28 Ferrari Didier Pironi's thoughts were of an entirely different sort. The Frenchman was playing to win.

Each time he managed to squeeze his 126C2 into the lead, Pironi upped the pace obliging his partner to follow suit. If this was indeed a show, a piece of theatre strictly for the fans, nobody seemed to have told the (1978) Le Mans winner.

"Didier had been waiting for the Ferrari pit to show the 'OK' sign - the signal that the cars should hold places," explains Sedgwick. This 'OK' message was absolutely crucial, the sign that the Ferraris should hold their current positions until the end of the race, to not overtake. The pit board would have thus shown the message:

1 - Gilles
2 - Didier

This particular message never materialised. Instead, the Ferrari board somewhat enigmatically displayed the word 'SLOW'. Precisely what 'SLOW' meant in this context is not entirely clear.

Into the last lap the Ferraris went, Gilles ahead by a couple of car lengths. Approaching Tosa however, and catching the Canadian unaware, Didier suddenly catapulted his 126C2 out of his teammate's slipstream to seize the lead. The Ferraris almost touched. The Imola crowd held its breath.

And that was that. The Frenchman had overtaken at the only feasible overtaking spot on the circuit. Didier Pironi duly led a Ferrari one-two over the line. Italy went crazy.

Far from celebrating a team triumph Villeneuve was incandescent. "The bastard stole my race!" fumed the runner-up. The recriminations had only just begun. It was civil war at Ferrari. Writing for Autosport, Nigel Roebuck penned an article entitled 'Bad blood at Maranello'. As far as the international sporting media was concerned this was a story of betrayal, wherein a villain (Pironi) had duped a hero (Villeneuve).

In the aftermath of the 'betrayal' Villeneuve sunk to the depths of despair. Two weeks later, the great Canadian was killed at Zolder trying to beat his French foe in qualifying. Pironi, they said, had as good as killed his teammate. Villeneuve, they said, went to the grave hating the Frenchman. Didier Pironi became an F1 pariah.

As ever with such narratives, the truth is however a little more nuanced.

The media portrayal of a dejected post-Imola racing driver is unfamiliar to long-time Villeneuve friend and confidante Allen de la Plante who Sedgwick interviewed for the book: "According to de la Plante, Gilles was not obsessing about Pironi after Imola - far from it. Rather all he could talk about was a very expensive helicopter he had just purchased."

Villeneuve's anger, it transpires, had been directed more at Ferrari management than his teammate. The Canadian felt that the team's pit crew had mishandled the situation at Imola. In an interesting twist, Sedgwick hints that events in the Ferrari pit that day might not have been solely due to negligence, inexperience or poor judgement, that proceedings might in fact have been orchestrated.

Certainly, it appears that there had never been team orders at Imola - a fact subsequently confirmed by the late Harvey Postlethwaite as well as Marco Piccinini, Ferrari's Chief Designer and Sporting Director respectively. Ferrari it seems, might have decided to purposely let the drivers fight it out amongst themselves.

"What happened at Imola can be put down to a major misunderstanding," says Sedgwick who has spoken to members of the Ferrari pit crew present that day. "Not unreasonably, Gilles assumed he had earned the right to win the race. But Ferrari management did not confirm this assumption. In fact by putting out 'SLOW' rather than 'OK,' their actions could be construed as being deliberately ambiguous."

Sedgwick's theory, and he stresses it is just that - a theory - is that the Ferraris were definitely racing, and racing hard; the data certainly suggests as much. Gilles basically fell for a sucker punch on that final lap. Didier caught him napping. Villeneuve had made a huge assumption, that the race was over. It wasn't. Not as far as Ferrari or Pironi were concerned.

In the days that followed, typically the international media emphasised the betrayal angle. It made for great headlines. While the Canadian's legend increased over time, the Frenchman's status as one of F1's bad boys became equally assured.

"Put very simply, Gilles had no authority to consider the race over," says Sedgwick. "He was genuinely surprised to see the sister car hurtling past him on that final lap, but as the dust settled I think he came to realise he might have been a little presumptuous as well as na´ve.

"For someone to break an agreement," continues the author, "to 'betray' someone, first there must be an agreement. But there never were any team orders that day. Pironi always maintained - rightly so in my opinion - that the Ferraris were racing for position."

Hero or villain? The story of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix will remain one of F1's most enduring controversies. One thing that is beyond dispute is the fact that 1982 turned out to be one of motor racing's saddest seasons, a year marred by acrimony and carnage.

As fate would have it neither protagonist, Gilles Villeneuve nor Didier Pironi, would see the season out to its conclusion. "If I have one hope for this book," says Sedgwick, "it is that Didier will finally be exonerated for what happened that day. It is time to lay the ghosts of Imola '82 to rest."

Pironi: The Champion That Never Was (paperback) is published on January 1st. The paperback and e-book is available on Amazon.

Picture Credit: Emmanuel Zurini


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1. Posted by Red Baron, 04/01/2018 22:41

"The day that anyone is ENTITLED to win is the day that F1 is no longer a sport..."

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2. Posted by Editor, 03/01/2018 21:36 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 03/01/2018 23:52)

"@ Dovahkiin

"Feel free to ban me from your website if you don't accept my position on this matter."


To which Mr Grenier responded by email: "You and your team are sold out c***. Enjoy yourselves!"


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3. Posted by Dovahkiin, 03/01/2018 21:18 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 03/01/2018 23:52)

"Cheers for 2018 M Balfe!

I hate to disagree with such an honorable man as you, Mr Balfe. But, sadly Topchaw has a very pertinent point. Indeed, what was "vile and shameful" in all of this sad affair was that frenchman actions! After all the grief that Gilles suffered with Ferrari since he let Sheckter win the 1979 championship, he was ENTITLED to win that race in front of his most fervent fans... Regardless! That honorless frenchman doesn't deserve any kind of defense for his actions. And with all due respect to you, sir, I for one was SO very happy about what happened to that "traditore" in Hockenheim.

Feel free to ban me from your website if you don't accept my position on this matter.

Regards and respect,

Franšois Grenier

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4. Posted by Batman, 01/01/2018 22:14

"Team orders? What in fact are team orders? We can't send team orders to humans that are F1 drivers and expect them to obey when the same orders come from who tell them that they are pay to win. Or at least, they are pay to try to make the most of the car. I don't believe and will never believe that a F1 driver will just keep is position, loosing a win or not fight for a pothium, just because ... team orders. If you are a F1 driver, you accept team orders in such position and you will never be feared. They were both great and F1 owe them a lot. A champion is a champion because he toped the fight from all the greatness of the others. I think!

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5. Posted by phantom, 01/01/2018 7:49 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 03/01/2018 23:52)

"In Piero Ferrari's book, "Mio Padre, Enzo" (My Father, Enzo, 2007 w/Leo Turrini), Piero states that Forghieri was absent from Imola that day:

(Piero Ferrari) 'Gilles was in the lead with Pironi right behind him. We’d hired Pironi in 1981 to replace Scheckter, who’d retired on the glory of his World Championship. Didier was French. He got along well with Villeneuve, they spoke the same language, let’s say they were great friends, sincere in their work and proud of their extra-professional relationship.

(Turrini) But that Sunday in Imola. . .

P: Forghieri wasn’t there that Sunday, he was absent on a family matter. I was there, but the operation of the pits, as always, was assigned to Piccinini, the Sports Director, and to the engineer Tomaini. Marco, seeing the situation with the two Renaults retired, put up a sign in the pits. . .

T: What sign?

The sign that told the drivers the team orders and decisions. They were to maintain position, arrive at the finish as they were and bring Ferrari the glory of a one-two finish on the circuit named for the memory of my brother, Dino.'

There is more of a Q&A, continuing with Piero saying: '[Pironi] told us later that he’d gone in front because Gilles had made a mistake. And at that point, not having ‘stolen’ anything from his team-mate, didn’t think it necessary to lift off and return to second place.'

Just mentioning this. I don't know how widely known Piero's book is (I was contracted to do a translation of it that went nowhere).

Happy New Year to all.

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6. Posted by @R1Racing71, 31/12/2017 20:05

"Thanks for the plug on this book, I shall indeed add this to my ever increasing library now over 30 years in the making.

I'm personally glad that Didier now appears to be the subject of a more balanced account of Imola '82. Had the unfortunate events of Zolder two weeks later have been averted, the likelihood is the whole episode would have been discussed internally and forgot about over time, the two gentlemen would agree to differ, with one of them being assured to win that years Championship given the circumstances.

Didier and Gilles were fierce competitors and ruthless behind the wheel, that's what some of us (now) pay some good money to watch. We really don't like team orders now do we......?

Fatalities in motorsport are an emotive issues, and with retrospect can often point the finger at innocent parties for an accident they were not involved in. Had Gilles been the eventual winner at the San Marino race, it's unlikely he would have been less spirited in qualifying in Belgium, still taking the risks that made him so loved through the racing community. As a result Didier has been the focus of some torrent abuse over the years, and distracts from what a great Grand Prix driver he was.

For the younger viewers amongst us on this wonderful website - it should be pointed out that after Didier's passing in 1987 (a powerboat accident - I'll save you a wiki) his widow gave birth to twins,

Named Didier and Gilles.

Happy new Year.


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7. Posted by Editor, 31/12/2017 17:26 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 03/01/2018 23:52)

"@ Topchaw

I can only assume that with your comment "Piron was subsequently dealt the retribution that he deserved", you are referring to the career-ending accident he suffered at Hockenheim later that year.

That a 'fan' should make such an utterly contemptable comment is sad and despicable enough, that they should use this site to do so even worse.

A vile, shameful comment."

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8. Posted by Topchaw, 31/12/2017 16:22 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 03/01/2018 23:52)

"Regardless of orders that day, Gilles had earned the rigth to be classed as the number 1, and Pironi should have stayed in position on that last lap.

Gilles was an honourable driver, and had done as such in following Jody Scheckter during the '79 season.
Pironi was not, and showed his hand, that day.

Honour is something that seems to be long forgotten in this modern day, of the current "I'm alright Jack" bridgade, with one of the few occurences in recent years, being Lewis' handing back of third at Hungary to Bottas earlier this year. A feat that few would even contemplate.

Gilles passed some two weeks later, and Piron was subsequently dealt the retribution that he deserved, and for that I have no doubt.

Regardless of what happened that day, dragging this up is a pointless excercise to try to boost sales for a book about a man that no-one wants to know about.

Good luck with it, but I for one, as a lifelong Gilles fan, will not be buying it."

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9. Posted by Motorsport-fan, 31/12/2017 13:37

"Having watched it again, Gilles was defending on the last lap clearly expecting a pass, so perhaps the team order scenario was not in force?"

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