Pironi: The Legend That Never Was, by David Sedgwick
© 2017, published by Pitch Publishing
ISBN 9781785313493 (Paperback)

Thirty years on from his death in a powerboat racing accident, Didier Pironi is remembered in an excellent new biography written by David Sedgwick.

The Frenchman is sadly remembered as the Ferrari teammate and sworn enemy to Gilles Villeneuve, who would be killed attempting to beat Pironi’s qualifying time at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982 after he had disobeyed team orders at the preceding San Marino Grand Prix and denied the Canadian a victory he felt he deserved.

Villeneuve’s death ironically shot Pironi into the pound seats to challenge for that year’s World Championship title, only for Pironi to suffer career-ending leg injuries when he plowed into the back of Alain Prost’s unsighted Renault in the rain at the Hockenheim.

Rewind to his birth, however, and you will see where Pironi’s motorsport roots were born. The half-brother of fellow F1 graduate José Dolhem, Pironi too found himself on the path to Formula 1 via Formula Renault, Formula 3 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. He made his Grand Priux debut in 1978 with Tyrrell, precisely when Dolhem’s career prospects had hit a dead end.

He joined Ligier in 1980 and won the Belgian Grand Prix in the stunning ground-effect JS11/15. His form saw him hired by Ferrari to replace the retiring Jody Scheckter for the 1981 season (pictured below). While teammate Villeneuve won two races, Piron’s season was poor and the pressure was on for him to perform.

Didier Pironi

Didier Pironi was on course to becoming France’s first F1 champion in 1982 until the ill-fated German Grand Prix…

After surviving two huge pre-season testing accidents, Pironi married his girlfriend Catherine Bleynie just before the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix where Pirno would go on to betray team orders instructing him to follow Villeneuve home across the finish line. A furious Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again and was killed trying to beat his teammate’s qualifying time.

Pironi’s new marriage was rapidly falling apart and he was soon having an affair with the young actress Veronique Jannot. Then came his accident at Hockenheim where he hit Prost and somersaulted his Ferrari over several hundred metres and smashed his legs in the process.

He miraculously avoided amputation and underwent multiple surgeries to rebuild his legs. The strain was too much for Jannot, who called time on their relationship while Pironi found solace in Catherine Goux, who became pregnant with twin boys.

His recovery took years but a determined Pironi would have further F1 hit-outs. He tested for the new AGS team in 1986 and had further test outings for Ligier with whom he reportedly signed a contract for the 1988 season.

By now Pironi was making a name for himself in powerboat racing, but at a race off the coast of the Isle of Wight he struck the wake of a shipping freighter and flipped his boat. He and two crew members were killed.

A devastated Goux miraculously avoided a late-pregnancy miscarriage, and when her two sons were born by emergency C-section she named them Didier and Gilles.

While Pironi has carried a reputation of being Villeneuve’s traitor since the French-Canadian’s death over 35 years ago, Sedgwick gives a balanced and insightful account of the remarkable story of a man whose own achievements in F1 have largely been overlooked. It is a fascinating account of a journey to the heights of triumph and the depths of despair.

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.