Nothing is more disturbing during a Formula 1 race than silence. When the whining of the engines is replaced by silence, 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 crash during qualifying. It happened just a fortnight after a major argument with his teammate, who he had sworn never to speak to again.
Gilles Villeneuve was 32 years old when he died, ejected from the mutilated 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 pronounced dead that night.
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While the 2021 championship battle between rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen turned sour at times, it was nothing compared to the brief, intense and ultimately fatal feud that erupted in mid-1982 between Villeneuve and his teammate Ferrari Didier Pironi.
This is the subject of an upcoming documentary, Villeneuve and Pironi, which will be released later this year with the full cooperation of both families. Produced by nine-time Grand Prix winner Mark Webber, it recounts one of the sport’s darkest hours.
“It’s an amazing story about two gladiators,” Webber told Wide World of Sports.
“There was a pretty big disagreement, and that’s what we’re basically coming to, in terms of understanding what happened between two friends.
“The relationship broke down and we are talking about two phenomenal individuals in our sport at the time.”
The affair came to a head in April 1982, at the San Marino Grand Prix, when a furious Villeneuve claimed he had been betrayed by Pironi, who ignored the team’s orders to claim victory.
When René Arnoux’s Renault retired with 16 laps to go, it eliminated the only remaining threat to Villeneuve and Pironi, and with fuel concerns they were tasked with calming down and finishing 1-2 in order. in which they were running, with Villeneuve ahead.
The pair swapped positions on several occasions, with Villeneuve initially believing that Pironi was simply playing for the crowd. However, when Pironi took the lead at the last possible overtaking opportunity on the final lap, his true 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 had not forgiven Pironi.
When asked if he had spoken to his teammate about the events at Imola, Villeneuve’s response is chilling.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t said a word to him, and I won’t again – ever. I declared war. I’ll do my own thing in the future. This is war. Absolutely war.”
Unfortunately, those words turned out to be true. On May 8, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, Villeneuve overtook the March-Ford of Jochen Mass. Mass moved to the right to let him pass, only to find Villeneuve also going to the right, into a gap that no longer existed.
Villeneuve’s left front tire hit Mass’s right rear, sending the Ferrari flying. The car fell apart on landing, the whole front end was ripped off. Debris is scattered over more than 200 meters, Villeneuve’s helmet is torn off in the carnage.
“I talked to Jochen about it,” Webber explained. “Absolutely, it was just a misjudgment. It was tough. It was a blind ridge.
“Of course, nobody wanted something like this to happen, but it’s written on the back of every ticket. Motor racing is dangerous. Sometimes things like this happen. Fortunately, it happens much less often than before. .
“We lost a hero that day because of a small error in judgement. It was such a tragic result.”
A falling out between teammates is nothing new in the world of Formula 1, as Webber himself can attest. In 2013, his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel ignored team orders at the Malaysian Grand Prix, in an almost identical repeat of the Villeneuve-Pironi Imola controversy.
In this case, the “Multi-21” call was coded for Webber to finish ahead of Vettel, instead the German passed Webber to take the win.
“Absolutely, there are similarities, and I haven’t been an angel either,” Webber conceded when asked to compare Multi-21 with the events of three decades earlier.
“There are times when we can get murky in our decision-making process, but I always believe that I have tried to be as tough and fair as possible, to ensure that whatever was agreed off track is honored. on the track.
“But in F1 you play to the limit. It’s like a triangle, there’s the interest of the team and then the interest of the two drivers, it’s not like a football team where everyone pulls in the same direction.
“When people are under immense pressure, relationships can break down. There have been some incredible flashpoints in our sport between teammates, and it’s always about being up front.
“When it’s a battle for fifth or fourth place, the relationship isn’t under the same pressure. On top of that, when you’ve been teammates for a while, things can pile up. “
The most cloak-and-dagger driver of his generation, Villeneuve’s mark on the sport is bigger 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 final tribute.
“He was the most genuine man I’ve ever known,” Scheckter said.
“He was the fastest racing driver history has ever known. He went to do something he loved. But he didn’t leave us. The world will remember what he gave to the car race.”
Alan Jones (1980) and Ayrton Senna (1990) both 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 the opposite padlock are sure to fail to excite Scuderia fans, his style the complete antithesis of the more orthodox Pironi.
“In any sport you see guys who perform blazingly, they’re really quick and fearless, that’s their way of operating, and then there are others who are bigger and more conservative,” explained Webber.
“People came 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 that flamboyance. Other drivers can be just as successful but go about it in a totally different way.
“But I think people are attracted to drivers like Gilles because it’s even further from what they themselves could be.
“A calculating driver, like Didier or later Alain Prost, is not seen as sexy, even if the results could be better in the long term.”
The tragedy of Villeneuve’s accident is that it should never have happened. His qualifying tires were shot and he should have slowly pitted. Instead, he was on the edge, if not beyond, in a furious attempt to get the better of Pironi.
“That’s the racing driver mentality,” Webber noted.
“As Jackie Stewart always says, when you put too much emotion into a situation, often the outcome isn’t great, you might not be making the best decisions.
“I have a helicopter license, if you take stress in the cockpit, of course you increase the mistakes you make.
“These 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. “
After 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 held 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 thrown into the above the Renault in an accident eerily similar to the one that claimed Villeneuve’s life. .
Pironi suffered serious leg injuries and never drove again, with Williams driver Keke Rosberg winning the world title by just five points.
“The trajectory of what happened between these two individuals changed Ferrari and the sport of Formula 1. Keke Rosberg won a race in 1982 and he was world champion,” Webber said.
“There is absolutely no doubt about it, nobody could have ever imagined at the start of the seasons the ramifications on both Gilles and Didier, and the scenarios that unfolded because of what happened. .
“It’s something that we put under the microscope in the documentary like never before because it changed the story.”
Villeneuve’s son Jacques won the 1995 Indy 500 as well as the IndyCar championship that season, and won the Formula 1 championship two years later.
In a sad postscript, Pironi was killed in 1987 in a motorboat accident. His girlfriend then gave birth to twins, 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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