Didier Pironi’s ambition of becoming France’s first World Champion was never realised when he crashed during the warm-up for the 1982 German Grand Prix, and he was sidelined on a long and difficult road to recovery while his compatriot Alain Prost took the spoils.
Having eventually recovered from his injuries, Pironi would be killed on this day twenty-four years ago in a powerboat accident. Yet he is remembered far more for his part leading up to Gilles Villeneuve’s death than for his own exceptional racing accomplishments…
Born in March 1952 in Villecresnes, near Paris, Didier’s interest in motorsport was sparked when he and his cousin went to a race meeting. As soon as he was old enough, Didier enrolled in the Winfield Racing School and promptly won, claiming an Elf-sponsored Martini Formula Renault as his prize.
His maiden season of competition was a hard graft, but he set about learning from his mistakes and applying his knowledge to win the next around, and he did so, claiming the 1974 French Formula Renault title.
He moved to the senior Super Renault championship in 1975 as Rene Arnoux’s number-two, playing the dutiful understudy before he had his turn as number-one in 1976, blitzing the championship.
His prize was a Formula 2 drive with the Elf Martini squad – again as Arnoux’s number-two – but took a gamble on contesting the Monaco Formula 3 support race, knowing that a strong result could be his ticket to Formula 1. The decision paid off when he won the blue-ribbon event, and along with his strong results for the rest of the F2 season (including a win at Estoril) he had a contract with the Tyrrell F1 team signed, sealed and delivered.
And he impressed immensely in the top flight in his debut F1 season. Points’ finishes in four of his first six races was an outstanding start, although this was tempered with a few accidents towards the end of the season. He also won the Le Mans 24 Hours in an Elf-sponsored Alpine Renault.
With the Renault F1 team looking to secure his services for 1979, Tyrrell held firm to their contract with Pironi, and he claimed two podium finishes before leaving the team to join Ligier for the 1980 season.
He instantly overcame his more established team-mate Jacques Laffite with some outstanding drives, claiming his maiden win at Zolder and being unlucky not to claim win number two with a charging drive through the field at Silverstone.
When Jody Scheckter announced he was quitting the sport at the end of the year, Pironi jumped ship to Ferrari, but struggled against team-mate Gilles Villeneuve – a pair of fourth places were his best finishes.
After resolving not to be dealt the same treatment in 1982, his battle with Villeneuve escalated at the San Marino Grand Prix, where he defied team orders and snatched the win from the French-Canadian on the final lap. Villeneuve was incensed, and vowed never to speak with Pironi again; he would be killed two weeks later in a shocking accident during qualifying at Zolder.
Now the undisputed team leader despite the tragedy, Didier rose to the occasion and he was the title favourite after a sequence of exceptional drives – including a great win at Zandvoort – until he hit the Hockenheim.
Ploughing into the back of Prost’s Renault during a rain-hit Sunday warm-up, Pironi somersaulted end over end, suffering multiple breakages to both legs and luckily avoiding amputation. His season was over, and it wasn’t until the final rounds that his title lead was finally overhauled by the eventual victor, Keke Rosberg.
Pironi now faced years of recovery and the battle of learning to walk again on his shattered legs. Incredibly, he would achieve this, although much of the feel and movement necessary to pilot a Formula 1 car was gone.
He made a one-off test return to the cockpit of an AGS F1 car in 1986 before turning to the dangerous sport of off-shore powerboat racing. His fate was sealed off the Isle of Wight when he failed to throttle off after hitting the bow wave of a tanker. His craft flipped, killing Didier and his two crew members instantly.