Didier Pironi was a French racing driver who competed in Formula One between 1978 and 1982 with three teams (Tyrrell, Ligier and Ferrari). He was the leading driver in the 1982 F1 championship when he crashed at Hockenheimring and retired from racing. Before his F1 career, he was the European Formula Renault champion and he took the overall victory at the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Didier Joseph Louis Pironi was born on March 26th, 1952, in Villecresnes near Paris. He studied engineering and earned a degree in science, but he never entered the family construction business because he decided to develop a racing career.
Didier started to race because of his cousin
Didier's cousin Jose Dolhem was eight years older than him and Didier watched Jose while racing. Jose attended the famous Winfield Racing School at Circuit Paul Ricard and Didier announced that he also wants to become a racing driver. Didier's family wasn't happy with his decision, but they agreed to finance his racing venture.
The 18-year-old Didier attended the Winfield Racing School, along with the likes of Jacques Lafitte, Rene Arnoux, Alain Prost and Jean-Pierre Jarier. Pironi was awarded Pilot Elf sponsorship in 1972 and in the following year he debuted in the National Formula Renault series. He finished 6th in the classification.
Pironi's rally adventure at Tour de Corse
In 1974, Elf allowed him to have his own team and Didier became the champion, with seven wins in 20 races. In 1975, Elf was backing Pironi's Formula Renault Europe entry, but engine problems caused a few retirements and he finished third in the final standings. Formula Renault was a kind of a qualifying series for the Formula 2, so Pironi had to stay one more year in the competition to prove that he is good enough.
It is less known that Pironi competed in one event of the World Rally Championship. In November 1975, he entered Tour de Corse with Renault 12 Gordini. His co-driver in the #17 car was Gerard Bonnamour. They didn't reach the finish.
Le Mans debut and Formula Renault title in 1976
In 1976, Pironi debuted at 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving Porsche 934 Turbo for the German Kremer Racing team alongside Bob Wollek and Marie-Claude Beaumont. The French trio finished 19th overall and fourth in the GT class.
In 1976, Pironi won the European Formula Renault with twelve wins in 17 races. His next step was Formula 2. He competed for Ecurie Renault Elf team and finished third in the classification of the 1977 Formula 2, behind his teammate Rene Arnoux and the American Eddie Cheever Jr. Pironi scored one victory (at Estoril) and five podiums during the season.
Sensational victory at Formula 3 Monaco GP
In 1977, Didier participated again at Le Mans. He was driving Renault-Alpine A442 of Hughes de Chaunac, who was his boss in the Ecurie Elf team only in the practice session. Pironi shared the car with Rene Arnoux and Guy Frequelin. They qualified 5th but retired on the first lap when the car caught fire due to an oil leak, so Didier didn't race.
He captured attention of motorsport fans by winning the 1977 Formula 3 Monaco Grand Prix, which was held during the Formula One weekend. He was driving Toyota-powered Martini MK21 of Ecurie Elf and he won ahead Elio de Angelis and Anders Olofsson.
Third place in Formula 2 and victory at Monaco earned him a dream job – he became a Formula One driver. He signed for Tyrrell. Team boss Ken Tyrrell knew Didier since 1972 when they met at the Pilot Elf competition.
Pironi's F1 debut season with Tyrrell
In November 1977, the Elf Team Tyrrell announced that Didier would become Patrick Depailler's teammate for the 1978 season. The season started early, with the Argentine Grand Prix in January.
Pironi debuted in Formula One with the #3 Cosworth-powered Tyrrell 008, which was the successor of Tyrrell's P34 six-wheeler. Pironi qualified 23rd at the Buenos Aires racing track and finished 14th. Already in the next race in Brazil, Didier scored his first championship point with a sixth place, starting 19th on the grid.
The next race was held in Kyalami, South-Africa, and Didier again took one point. After retirement at Long Beach in California, Pironi scored more points at Monaco and Belgium. He finished fifth on the streets of Monte-Carlo, in the race won by his teammate Depailler, and took sixth place at Zolder.
15th in the classification of 1978 F1 season
After the successful opening of the debuting season, with four point finishes in six races, Pironi was less successful during the rest of the season. He took only two more points with fifth place at German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring. The season was also marked by Pironi's opening lap collision with Riccardo Patrese at Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort and a huge multicar crash at Monza, in which Pironi participated. Ronnie Peterson died one day after that accident due to complications after the surgery.
Pironi finished his first Formula One season with seven points on his account and 15th in the drivers' standings. His teammate Depailler finished 5th and the team finished fourth in the classification.
Historic Le Mans victory for Renault
Although Pironi's 15th place was the worst result of his F1 career, the season of 1978 can still be declared as one of the most successful, if not the most. The reason for this is his overall victory at 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He participated in the famous endurance event in one of three factory-entered Alpine-Renault A442B Turbo cars. His co-driver was Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. Renault lost from Porsche in 1976 and 1977 and the French manufacturer was determined to finally take their first Le Mans victory.
And they succeeded. All through the race, only Renaults were in the lead, with a chance to take a double victory. After 18 hours, the leading #1 car of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Patrick Depailler stopped due to an engine failure. Pironi and Jaussaud took the lead, seven laps ahead of two Porsche 936s, and remained in front until the chequered flag. The #3 Alpine-Renault A442B remained the only Renault car in the brand's history to win at Le Mans.
With the reputation of a Le Mans winner, Didier had the offer to join Jacky Ickx in a Porsche 936 for the 1979 edition of the race but Ken Tyrrell intervened and the deal failed. Ken also insisted that Pironi had to fulfill his two-year contract and Pironi's transfer to Renault Elf team was stopped.
Childhood friend Jarier as the new teammate
Pironi stayed with Tyrrell, who got a new sponsor Candy later in the season. Piron's new teammate was his childhood friend Jean-Pierre Jarier. The 1979 season started with Didier's retirement at Argentine Grand Prix after a first lap massive crash of five cars. Pironi finished fourth at Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, which remained his best result to date.
At South African Grand Prix, Pironi survived a dangerous crash at the qualifying session after the rear wing of his Tyrrell 009 broke. Nevertheless, he participated in the race but retired due to a broken throttle linkage. At Long Beach, Pironi was disqualified because of push start after he went off the track.
In the sixth round of the season at Zolder, a new sponsor came and Pironi scored his first-ever F1 podium. After a third place at Belgian Grand Prix, he took one more third place in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
10th place in the 1979 F1 season
Between those two races he survived one more qualifying wreckage at French Grand Prix, when the wheel broke off at 230 km/h. Once more, Didier had escaped from the wreck unhurt and participated in the race but stopped with a broken suspension.
Pironi ended his second F1 season with 14 points and tenth in the classification. Jarier also collected 14 points but with two races less, which he missed due to a viral disease. Team Tyrrell finished fifth in the constructors' standings.
Maiden F1 victory with Ligier at Zolder
Didier Pironi was contract-free after the 1979 season and he could choose between Lotus, Brabham and Ligier for 1980. He chose the Equipe Ligier Gitanes and got the #25 Cosworth-powered Ligier JS11/15. His teammate was Jacques Laffite.
Both Ligiers retired in the season-opening race in Argentina, Pironi in the first lap and Laffite on lap 30. At the second round in Brazil, Pironi started from the front row, after which he was second in the qualifying. He finished fourth. At Kyalami, Didier scored his first podium for Ligier, behind Rene Arnoux and his teammate Laffite.
At the fifth championship round at Zolder, Ligiers qualified second and third. When the green lights went on, Pironi took the lead from the poleman Alan Jones and remained in the lead until the end, taking his maiden Formula One victory with 50 seconds gap ahead Jones.
Pironi reached the top 5 at the end of 1980
At Monaco, Didier took his first pole position but retired from the race on lap 54 after an accident. Didier finished second at French Grand Prix, four seconds behind Alan Jones. Pironi was in the 4th place in the championship standings but four consecutive retirements followed and he dropped out of the contest for the title.
At British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, Pironi and Laffite were the fastest drivers in qualifying, held on July 12, 1980, on the day of Guy Ligier's birthday. The team boss got a pole position as a birthday present but the race next day spoiled the celebration because both cars retired due to tyre problems.
In the final three races of the season, Didier earned one point at Imola and scored third place finishes in Montreal and Watkins Glen. Pironi crossed the finish line in Canada first but he was penalized because of a jump start and he was demoted to third place. He finished fifth in the championship, two points shorter than his teammate Laffite, who was in the 4th place. The team finished second behind Williams.
The ;ast Le Mans participation with BMW M1
In 1980, Pironi competed one more time at Le Mans, driving BMW M1 for BMW France alongside Dieter Quester and Marcel Mignot. Before Le Mans, Pironi and Quester tested the car under the race conditions at 6 hours of Mugello and reached the class victory. At Le Mans, they had technical problems and finished 14th overall. Pironi also participated in the BMW M1 ProCar Series, winning one of seven races.
During the 1980 season, the French car manufacturer Talbot announced that they would take over the Ligier team from 1981. They planned to use the Matra V12 engine before the switch to a new turbo engine in 1982. They also announced that Laffite and Pironi would stay with the team, but Pironi had another plan.
Catastrophic start of the first F1 season with Ferrari
He chose to move to Ferrari because the Italian team already had a turbo engine and he didn't want to wait one year. It was a sensational transfer because Pironi was teamed up with Gilles Villeneuve, another Formula One rising star.
They both got new Ferrari 126CK cars with turbo-powered V6 engines. It wasn't a good year for Ferrari. Scuderia finished fifth in the championship standings while Villeneuve and Pironi were far from the top – Villeneuve 7th and Pironi 13th.
The season-opening race at Long Beach was an announcement of a bad season. Both Ferraris retired, Pironi suffered an engine breakdown, Villeneuve was stopped by a broken driveshaft. Double retirements followed in Brazil and Argentina.
In the fourth round of the championship at Imola, Pironi finally took first points, finishing fifth. Villeneuve started from the pole position but tyre strategy ruined his race and he finished 7th.
Fourth place at Monte-Carlo as the season-best result
Pironi finished 8th in the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, marked by an organisational chaos and dead mechanic in a pit-lane accident. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Pironi finished fourth, which remained his best season result. He had a good race and progressed from the penultimate row on the grid but his performance was shadowed by Villeneuve's victory. Villeneuve also won the race in Spain while Didier had a problematic race and finished fifteenth.
Pironi recorded four more retirements until the end of the season, with only two points finishes in France and Italy. Both Pironi and Villeneuve had already signed their contracts for the following season, so they could only hope that the 1982 season would be better.
Problematic start of the 1982 season
The Formula One season 1982 really started better, with a better car and better results, but unfortunately, it finished as a nightmare. Scuderia Ferrari lost both drivers – Villeneuve was killed at the fifth round at Zolder while Pironi was badly injured at the twelfth round at Hockenheimring and he never raced again.
The new Ferrari 126C2 was much faster than its predecessor and Scuderia's drivers could count on the fight for the title. At the season-opening South African Grand Prix, Ferraris' promising testing results couldn't be converted into a good race. Villeneuve retired early due to the turbo problems and Pironi finished 18th.
At that time, F1 drivers fought against FISA because of new super-license rules. Pironi was among the drivers who led the protest. He also founded PRDA (Professional Race Drivers Association) to get more influence for the drivers.
The Argentine Grand Prix was cancelled for political and financial reasons, so the teams had the possibility for some additional testing sessions at Le Castellet. Pironi had a major accident during testing but he survived with a slight knee injury.
War between organisations
Pironi finished sixth at the Brazilian Grand Prix and retired at Long Beach's United States Grand Prix West. Villeneuve was disqualified after that race because of an illegal double-wing on his car.
On Wednesday before the San Marino Grand Prix in April, Didier married his 29-year-old girlfriend Catherine. At Imola, there were just 14 cars at the start, because of the war between FISA and FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association). Four FOCA-aligned teams boycotted the race and only seven teams with 14 cars participated.
Renault drivers Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost dominated in the qualifying, ahead of Villeneuve and Pironi. After the two Renaults had retired, the race developed into a duel between the two Ferrari drivers.
Although the sign 'Slow' was shown to Gilles and Didier from the Ferrari pit wall several times, both of them hunted each other around the circuit. Didier won the race and Gilles was furious because he thought Pironi had to let him win.
Gilles died after a horrific crash at Zolder
Two weeks later, at Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, G.Villeneuve was killed in a fatal accident during the qualifying session. With eight minutes of the session left, Gilles found Jochen Mass driving slowly in front of him. Mass saw Villeneuve approaching at high speed and moved to the right to let him through on the racing line. At the same time, Villeneuve also moved right and Ferrari hit the back of Mass' car. Gilles died later that day. Scuderia Ferrari withdrew from the race.
After Villeneuve's death, many of his fans and some media made Didier Pironi responsible for what happened but that was a ridiculous statement. Villeneuve was killed in a racing accident and if somebody was guilty, then it was the Canadian racer himself.
Video : Horrific crash of Gilles Villeneuve (warning: disturbing scenes)
Third and last Pironi's F1 victory at Dutch GP
In the following three races (Monaco, Detroit and Montreal) Ferrari participated just with Pironi's car. He finished second in Monaco and third in the United States, progressing to 2nd place in the championship standings. At Canadian Grand Prix, Osella's driver Riccardo Paletti was killed at the start of the race, when his car ran into the back of Pironi's Ferrari who stalled on the grid. One week later, Didier survived one more testing accident at Paul Ricard. His car crashed into a fence at 280 km/h.
At Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, Pironi scored his third career victory, with big gaps ahead of rivals. The Frenchman Patrick Tambay was introduced as Pironi's new teammate.
1982 French GP was Pironi's last race
In the tenth round of the championship, British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, Didier ended up second behind Niki Lauda while the championship leader John Watson retired. For the first time in his career, Pironi became the leader of the F1 World Championship classification. One week later at Paul Ricard, he extended the lead to nine points ahead Watson, who retired again. Didier finished third behind two Renault drivers Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost.
With five races to go, French motorsport fans were excited because France had an opportunity to get its first ever Formula One champion. Nobody knew that French Grand Prix was Pironi's last race.
Didier was badly hurt in an accident similar to Villeneuve's crash
German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring followed in August. Pironi secured pole position in the Friday's qualifying session. He returned to the rain-flooded track on Saturday to test the new Goodyear wet tyres. As some people said, he was flying around the track 'like a mad man'. When Didier saw Derek Daly's Williams, he moved to the right and crashed into the back of Alain Prost's car. The horrific crash was similar to one that Villeneuve had at San Marino.
Didier was squeezed in the wrecked car for 20 minutes, losing much blood. The rescuing team brought him to Heidelberg's university hospital where they operated on him for about five hours. He was able to leave the intensive care unit on Wednesday after the accident. His bad leg injuries requested a long recovery and Didier was aware that his racing career was over. It would even be considered lucky if he could walk again.
Pironi was so close to a Formula 1 title
The race at Hockenheim was won by Pironi's teammate Patrick Tambay. After that race, Pironi had 39 points, nine more than John Watson and twelve more than Keke Rosberg. Pironi missed the last four races and Rosberg managed to overtake him, finishing the season with 42 points. Finland got their first F1 champion, France had to wait until 1985 and Alain Prost's first title.
Pironi's Formula One career was stopped violently and prematurely. He recorded 70 Grand Prix starts, three wins, four pole positions and thirteen podiums.
Four years later, in 1986, it looked as Pironi would make a comeback when he tested F1 cars of AGS and Ligier. The French press wanted his return, Pironi also was optimistic but the reality was different. After his Hockenheim accident, he got a lot of money from his insurance policy because of the fact that he was injured so badly that he could not race anymore. If he made a comeback, he had to pay back all the money he had received.
High-speed death was his destiny
Instead of car racing, Pironi turned to powerboat racing. Together with his half-brother Jose Dolhem, he founded a company Euronautique-Leader at St. Tropez. Their team competed with three boats in the 1986 European Offshore-Championship. In 1987, he competed in the World Championship, together with his navigator Bernard Giroux, a famous rally driver Ari Vatanen and an ex-Ligier engineer Jean-Claude Guenard. Their boat 'Colibri' was the top competitor for the title, so Pironi, Giroux and Guenard entered the event at the Isle of Wight with big expectations. Unfortunately, during the race, 'Colibri' hit a wave produced by a nearby tanker and crashed. The crew was killed instantly.
Didier Pironi was buried at Grimaud near St.Tropez a few days later. He left his second wife Catherine Goux pregnant with twins. After Pironi's death, Catherine gave birth to twins. In honour of Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve, who were good friends before the Imola controversy, she named them Didier and Gilles.