‘Incredible’ Formula 1 feud that turned fatal

Nothing is more unsettling at a Formula 1 race than silence. When the wail of the engines is replaced by quiet, it’s usually a sign of trouble.

Such was the case at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, when, 40 years ago this week, one of the sport’s greatest talents was killed in a horrific accident during qualifying. It came just a fortnight after a major falling out with his teammate, who he’d sworn he’d never speak to again.

Gilles Villeneuve was 32 when he died, flung from the mangled wreckage of his Ferrari, his lifeless body coming to rest against the catch-fencing. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but in reality there was no hope of survival. He was declared dead that night.

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While the 2021 championship battle between arch-rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen turned ugly at times, it was nothing compared to the brief, intense, and ultimately fatal feud that erupted in mid-1982 between Villeneuve and his Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi.

It’s the subject of an upcoming documentary, Villeneuve & Pironi, to be released later this year with the full co-operation of both families. Produced by nine-time grand prix winner Mark Webber, it chronicles one of the sport’s darkest hours.

“It’s an incredible story about two gladiators,” Webber told Wide World of Sports.

“There was a pretty big disagreement, and that’s what we’re getting to the bottom of, in terms of understanding what happened between two friends.

“The relationship broke down, and we’re talking about two phenomenal individuals of our sport at that time.”

The matter came to a head in April, 1982, at the San Marino Grand Prix, when a furious Villeneuve claimed he was betrayed by Pironi, who ignored team orders to take victory.

When the Renault of Rene Arnoux retired with 16 laps remaining, it removed the only remaining threat to Villeneuve and Pironi, and with fuel a concern, they were instructed to ease off and finish 1-2 in the order that they were running, with Villeneuve ahead.

The pair traded positions a number of times, with Villeneuve initially believing Pironi was simply playing to the crowd. However, when Pironi took the lead at the last possible overtaking opportunity on the final lap, his real intentions became crystal clear.

A seething Villeneuve could barely contain his anger on the podium, and speaking to Autosport magazine two days later, it was clear he hadn’t forgiven Pironi.

Asked if he’d spoken to his teammate about the events of Imola, Villeneuve’s response is chilling.

“No,” he said. “I haven’t said a word to him, and I’m not going to again – ever. I have declared war. I’ll do my own thing in future. It’s war. Absolutely war.”

Sadly, those words proved true. On May 8, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, Villeneuve went to pass the March-Ford of Jochen Mass. Mass moved to the right to let him through, only to find Villeneuve also going to the right, into a gap that no longer existed.

Villeneuve’s left front tire hit Mass’ right rear, launching the Ferrari into the air. The car disintegrated when it landed, the entire front ripped away. Pieces of wreckage were scattered over more than 200 meters, Villeneuve’s helmet was ripped off in the carnage.

“I’ve spoken to Jochen about it,” Webber explained. “Absolutely it was just a misjudgement. It was tough. It was a blind crest.

“Of course nobody wanted something like that to happen, but it’s written on the back of every ticket. Motor racing is dangerous. Sometimes things like that happen. Fortunately it happens a lot less frequently now than it used to.

“We lost a hero that day through a tiny misjudgement. It was such a tragic outcome.”

A falling-out between teammates is nothing new to the world of Formula 1, as Webber himself can attest. In 2013, his Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel ignored team orders at the Malaysian Grand Prix, in a near-identical repeat of the Villeneuve-Pironi Imola controversy.

In that instance, the “Multi-21” call was code for Webber to finish in front of Vettel, instead, the German overtook Webber to claim the win.

“Absolutely there are similarities, and I’ve been no angel as well,” Webber conceded when asked to compare Multi-21 with the events of three decades earlier.

“There are times when we can become clouded on our decision-making process, but I still believe I tried to be as hard and fair as I possibly could, to have everything that was agreed off-track honored on the track.

“But in F1 you play right up to the limit. It’s like a triangle, there’s the team’s interest, and then the interests of the two drivers, it’s not like a football team where everyone is pulling in the same direction.

“When people are under immense pressure, relationships can be fractured. There’s been some incredible flashpoints in our sport between teammates, and it’s always about being at the front.

“When it’s a battle for fifth or fourth the relationship isn’t under the same pressure. On top of that, when you’ve been teammates for a while things can build up.”

The most swashbuckling driver of his generation, Villeneuve’s mark on the sport is greater than six wins from 67 starts would suggest. Delivering the eulogy at his funeral, his former Ferrari teammate, 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter, paid the ultimate tribute.

“He was the most genuine man I ever knew,” Scheckter said.

“He was the fastest racing driver that history has ever known. He went doing something that he loved. But he hasn’t left us. The world will remember what he has given to motor racing.”

Both Alan Jones (1980) and Ayrton Senna (1990) won a world title sporting the number 27 on their cars, but it was Villeneuve who made the number famous, images of his Ferrari on full opposite lock sure to excite fans of the Scuderia, his style the complete antithesis of the more orthodox Pironi.

“In any sport you see guys who execute in a flamboyant way, they’re really fast and fearless, that’s their MO, then there’s others who are big picture and more conservative,” Webber explained.

“People turned up just to watch Gilles, he was spectacular. But you can’t always be Gilles, and you can’t always be Didier, you need that variety on the grid.

“People gravitate to that risk and flamboyancy. Other drivers can be just as successful but go about it in a totally different way.

“But I think people are drawn to drivers like Gilles because it’s even further away from what they could be themselves.

“A calculating driver, like Didier or later Alain Prost, it’s not seen as sexy, even if the results might be better in the long-term.”

The tragedy of Villeneuve’s accident was that it should never have occurred. His qualifying tires were shot, and he should have been returning slowly to the pits. Instead, he was at the limit, even beyond it, in a furious attempt to get the better of Pironi.

“This is the racing driver mentality,” Webber noted.

“As Jackie Stewart always says, when you take too much emotion into a situation, often the result isn’t great, you might not make the best decisions.

“I’ve got a helicopter licence, if you’re taking stress into the cockpit, of course you’re increasing the errors you make.

“Those two weeks, there was a lot of pressure. Most racing drivers can give you a scenario where the control of their emotions was overcooked. We are not normal. That’s why we do what we do.”

Following Villeneuve’s death, Pironi seemed likely to be crowned world champion. He finished on the podium in five of the next six races, including a victory in Holland. He had the championship lead with five rounds remaining, before a career-ending crash in appalling conditions in Germany in August, when he hit the back of Alain Prost’s car and was launched over the Renault in an accident eerily similar to that which claimed Villeneuve’s life .

Pironi suffered serious leg injuries and never drove again, Williams driver Keke Rosberg claiming the world title by just five points.

“The trajectory of what happened between those two individuals changed Ferrari and the sport of Formula 1. Keke Rosberg won one race in 1982 and he was world champion,” Webber said.

“There’s absolutely no question about it, nobody could have ever imagined at the start of the seasons the ramifications on both Gilles and Dider, and the scenarios that unfolded because of what happened.

“It’s something we’re putting under the microscope in the documentary like never before, because it changed history.”

Villeneuve’s son, Jacques, won the 1995 Indy 500 as well as the IndyCar championship that season, and took out the Formula 1 championship two years later.

In a sad postscript, Pironi was killed in 1987 in a powerboat accident. His girlfriend later gave birth to twin boys, who would never meet their father.

Their names? Gilles and Didier, after the two men whose battle, however brief, defined a season.

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