The Spectacle

On the 25th of April 1982, two Ferraris lined up third and fourth on the Imola grid. Rene Arnoux had set pole position with a 1'29.765 - half a second quicker than his team-mate, Alain Prost. Gilles Villeneuve followed with 1'30.717 and Didier Pironi started from fourth with 1'32.020.

Arnoux converted pole position into the lead when the lights changed to green and before the Ferraris had reached Aqua Minerali they had overtaken Prost. By the seventh lap of the race Arnoux was four seconds ahead of the Ferraris but Prost had retired with a blown piston.

The Imola track was always known for it's high fuel and brake consumption which meant different race strategies playing out continuously and Arnoux pulled several seconds ahead. Villeneuve and Pironi began to close the gap to the leader and Didier led Gilles between laps 22 to 25 before the French-Canadian regained second on lap 26. On the following tour Villeneuve surged through for the lead with the tifosi screaming out their encouragement. 

For four laps a red car led in Italy before Arnoux retook the lead once again. With his boost raised - he pulled away from Gilles and on the 35th lap Pironi was through to second in his chase of the Renault.

Pironi made little impression on his fellow French driver and Villeneuve took up the cudgels on lap 41 as he retook second position.

Two laps later - as the cars accelerated out of the Tosa hairpin - brief puffs of smoke were emitted from the rear of the yellow car and as they began the 44th lap Arnoux slowed and the car erupted in flames as it entered Tamburello with a blown turbo.

As the Ferraris raced into Rivazza for the forty-fifth occasion, Villeneuve made a mistake and went off the circuit which allowed Pironi through. They had fifteen laps remaining of the race and third placed Alboreto was forty-five seconds behind. 

At the completion of the forty-sixth lap the Ferrari pit crew displayed both pit boards. Pironi's clearly showed a number two beside it, his lap time of 1'37.8 and the word 'slow' whereas Villeneuve's displayed the number one beside his name, the previous lap time of 1'38 and, again, the now legendary 'slow' instruction.

On the forty-eighth lap Villeneuve passed Pironi into Piratella and led for four laps before being demoted once more into Tosa with Pironi assuming the lead until Villeneuve passed him on the penultimate lap.

On the final lap Villeneuve remained on the left hand side of the track so as to secure the inside line for Tosa but Pironi swept past and pulled immediately in front. For the remainder of the lap the body language of these cars was tangible, Pironi defending on unusual lines and Villeneuve sniffing out any opportunity.

On the slow down lap Pironi was jubilant and celebrated by removing his helmet and waving to the Italian crowd. Villeneuve was sullen and refused to accompany Pironi and Alboreto during the post race parade lap. 

Those were the TV images which the rest of the world saw transmitted from Italian soil. To be honest not that big a deal at the time but in the thirty-four years since - those images have been re-written into words by countless journalists with their own views and agendas.


Immediately after the race Villeneuve refused to talk to the Ferrari team manager, Marco Piccinini, and had to be persuaded by his wife to mount the victory podium. 

"..he was there looking like the hero who had won the race and I looked like the spoiled bastard who sulked… after the race I thought everyone would realise what had happened but no. Pironi says that we both had engine problems and there were no team orders. And what really pissed me off was that Piccinini confirmed that to the press saying there were no team orders. My engine was perfect and there were team orders."

"When Rene blew up at Imola I took the lead and we got a 'slow' sign from the pits. You get a 'slow' sign and that means hold position. I had been in front of Pironi when Arnoux dropped out. If it had been the other way around, tough luck for me.."

"People seem to think we had the battle of our lives! Jesus Christ! I'd been ahead of him most of the race, qualified a second  and a half ahead of him. Where was my problem? I was coasting those last 15 laps. He was racing.. I guess it looked like I was mad at finishing second. Okay, I'd have been mad at myself for not going quick enough if I'd be plain beaten. Second is one thing, but second because he steals it, that's something else."

This writer has developed a cynical view of mainstream journalists in general but I have found the British F1 professionals to have questionable ethics when it comes to impartiality. 

For any historical story to be written, there has to be research of facts beyond merely one expressed point of view. When it comes to the re-telling of the Villeneuve legend, most people will turn immediately to a brilliant biography written by Gerald Donaldson and a book and articles written by Nigel Roebuck. It is here that history gets blurred by both journalistic opinions and rose-tinted glances. 

Care should be taken with both these works because Donaldson is a Canadian journalist and Roebuck was a close personal friend. In a court of law this would normally be viewed as a 'conflict of interests'. Their representation of the facts also manipulate people's views of the two protagonists. Roebuck would later develop a friendship with Alain Prost and his biased support was never more apparent than his constant critique of Ayrton Senna.

The political landscape:

The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix meeting became a victim of the FISA/FOCA war that had been simmering for some years.

The Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile was headed by Jean Marie Balestre - a tyrannical pseudo dictator - that represented the interests of the 'Grandee' manufacturer teams made up of Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo.

The Formula One Constructors Association - headed by Bernie Ecclestone - represented the interests of the 'garagista' British teams and the decision was made to boycott the Italian event. Tyrrell were the only FOCA team that entered the event as they had considerable Italian backing and were not willing to lose their funding after a sparse financial season the year before.

The British media understood where their favours lay and allied with the English teams against the French autocrat. By association any French team or driver was viewed with cynical disdain. Rumours were stated as truths in regards Balestre's wartime association with both the French resistance and the invading Nazi forces - and when the French government's backing of the Ligier team was also offered in evidence, the distrust of the French quarter was complete.

The cultural divide:

After Villeneuve had won the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, he attended a gala evening held for the race winner. A few weeks later he was presented with a photo of himself with Sean Connery. He remarked to Roebuck: "Hey look, a hick from Berthierville with James Bond!"

He is also offered up as perhaps ' the most disarmingly honest man' the writers have ever met. Yet he was 32 when he died despite having claimed throughout his life being two years younger. Revelations in the book about extra-marital liaisons are also brushed over with a 'what happens in Vegas..' attitude with colleagues involved in the duplicity.

In Donaldson's biography Pironi is described as: "coming from an entirely different background, he lived well in Paris and enjoyed a sophisticated lifestyle. A Parisian that studied engineering and gained a science degree and his destiny was to take over his fathers 'prosperous' construction business which employed 300 people. 

Money was never a problem for him and he always had the best equipment. A thoughtful, somewhat aloof and introspective man who took his racing very seriously and was very hard-working."

After Imola, the author wrote that Joann - Villeneuve's wife - had had reservations about Pironi. Her observations of the man were he was politically motivated and something of a schemer. The fact that they hadn't been invited to Pironi's wedding made her even more suspicious and undoubtedly Piccinini being his best man would have raised alarm bells.

The image of the French is not particularly favourable around the world and Parisians definitely less so.

My fiancee and I spent a weekend in Paris a few years ago and despite the obvious beauty of the city were left profoundly unimpressed by the locals. A chance meeting with a French client a few weeks later highlighted a problem I had never appreciated when I mentioned I'd been in her country a few days before.
She urged: "Paris? Oh please don't judge the French by Parisians - they are the rudest people in the world!"

Personally I despise the use of cliches. It's always so difficult to explain to people that although I eat a lot of pasta and ice-cream, drink a lot of espresso, sing opera from my renaissance-like decorated apartment, chat to my Godfather whilst playing a violin and happen to arouse the fairer sex with whispered words of Italian - whilst driving my humble Fiat with Ferrari stickers on the bodywork - it is so.. well, you get my point.

Evidence debunked:

Villeneuve had mentioned after Imola that he understood team-orders from the 1979 Italian Grand Prix. He had dutifully sat on Jody Scheckter's tail the whole way: "knowing that this was my last chance to win the World Championship. I hoped like hell he would break! But I never thought of breaking my word. I know all about team orders at Ferrari."

What Villeneuve didn't say was that in 1979 at Monza, Ferrari were fighting a superior Williams for the title. For Villeneuve to have won the title he would have had to win the last three Grand Prix; whereas Scheckter could secure it in Italy. Earlier in the season the two Ferrari drivers had fought over race victories like 'here' in South Africa without team-orders. 

At Imola, Ferrari had concerns over high fuel consumption and with the Renaults both retired they could slow their pace down and still take maximum points. The slow signal was most likely given to conserve fuel not to hold position. Irrespective of how Ferrari is viewed in the twenty-first century, Enzo Ferrari wanted to see his drivers compete. Team orders would only have been applied towards the seasons end.

Another myth that has been seized upon in this 'tragedia' was that two days after the race Enzo Ferrari took the unprecedented step of stating that Pironi had misinterpreted the pit signals and he well understood Villeneuve's disappointment. Enzo Ferrari was a brilliantly manipulative patriarch and would have known how to play both the media and his young warriors. 

He was also a little un-nerved by Villeneuve's fame. He had hoped of having found a new Nuvolari and yet according to Gino Rancati: "he thought that the Canadian had become an idol for the crowds and that his name had perhaps partly supplanted that of the man who had given him his mount."


There are always multiple sides to every story and the vilification of Pironi has been appalling. He could not have predicted the tragic consequences that followed less than two weeks later. 

Villeneuve captured the imagination of the public because of his driving style and what made him a legend also contributed to his untimely demise. 

Grand Prix Histories is published in association with MISSED APEX PODCAST and Spanners Ready Podcasting. 

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