Shutter Speed: The new kid on the block

The 1981 Formula One season continued with the on-going dispute between the FIA, the sports governing body and FOCA, the Formula One Constructors Association. At the first race it came to a head and only at the insistence of the principal sponsors of the teams would any kind of reconciliation take place and the season got underway at Long Beach.

At Ferrari there was a new kid on the block. Jody had retired having achieved his goal of the World Championship in 1979. He stuck around for 1980 with the T5 disaster falling down around him. Some drivers would have just thrown up their hands and called it a day, but Jody showed his class by sticking to Ferrari so they could capitalize on his achievement. The new kid was Didier Pironi who had moved over from Tyyrell.

“When I joined Ferrari the whole team was devoted to Gilles. I mean he was not just the top driver, he was much more than that,” recalled Pironi. “He had a small family there…he made me fit right in. I felt at home right away. Gilles made no distinctions. I was expecting to be put in my place. I was not number one. I was number two yet he treated an equal all the way.”

During the off-season Gilles had toiled away at what he loved best…a faster and better car. As it stood, anything would have been an improvement on the T5. Everyone in Formula One was playing ‘catch-up’ in an attempt to gain on the power advantage the turbo Renaults had over the normally aspirated engines.

The 126 had made it’s debut in 1980 at Monza during Saturday’s practice, but was not raced due to lack of development. When it turned up at Long Beach there was something missing…the beautiful sound of the flat 12 engine. The new engine was a fully turbo-charged V-6 that developed 560 bhp at 11,500 rpm. The sliding skirts had been banned for many reasons, one being safety. The car would not be totally on rails as it had been for the last number of years; the driver would again be in control. This delighted Gilles. Now dubbed the 126C, the red rocket hit the streets of Long Beach flying.

Gilles managed to put the car into fifth place on the grid right out of the box. Pironi was back in eleventh in his first drive for Ferrari. Ricardo Patrese sat on the pole in an Arrows to everyone’s surprise. Alongside him was the new World Champion Alan Jones in a Williams. Third was Carlos Reutemann in the second Williams with Nelson Piquet in fourth.

At the start Gilles took advantage of the incredible power of the Ferrari and attempted to take the lead on the outside. The attempt was very nearly successful, but Gilles slid wide going into the Queen’s Hairpin. He attempted several other ‘late-braking’ manoeuvres, but continued his backward slide. He eventually coasted to a stop with a broken drive-shaft. Pironi would also retire with fuel pick-up problems. Jones would claim the first victory of the season.

The only other event I remember that weekend was while standing with Dr. Hugh Scully of the Canadian Medical team that oversees much of Canadian racing including the Canadian Grand Prix. Hugh was accompanied by his young wife. Crowds tend to have some sound at a Grand Prix even during practice, but I noted that the spectators at the turn we were standing at were silent. I also noticed they were not looking at the cars at all. Most were looking in our direction. I could not figure out what their interest was until I saw Hugh’s wife doing a stretching exercise by putting her foot up on the cement guard rail next to the track near a marshall’s station. I looked at her then pointed at her new fans. She promptly took the foot from the cement wall in both her hands and raised it until it was straight up! Her toe was perfectly pointed into the heavens! The crowd went nuts! Hugh’s wife is Vanessa Harwood, at the time a principal ballerina with the National Ballet Company of Canada! Did I get a shot of it? Don’t ask. It embarrasses me that I did not.

Gilles DNFed in both of the South American races after starting 7th in each. The turbo let go in Brazil and another drive shaft went in Argentina.

The Italian Grand Prix had been relocated in 1980 and held for the first time at Imola, a small principality just south east of Ferrari’s home of Marenello. It was so successful that a new race was created as organizers were able to skirt the rules governing the number of Grand Prix per country and the distances between circuits. Imola and Monza were certainly close by most standards, which should have had to be dealt with according to the rules, but Monza, the traditional Italian Grand Prix remained on the calendar for September.

Friday saw many of the teams threatening to boycott the race over various ground-effects infractions. Colin Chapman had withdrawn his Lotus 88 when it was declared illegal during scrutineering. Eventually things settled down with all moveable or flexible skirts on the underside of the cars being removed. A ground clearance check was made on every car as it returned to the pits after a run. A number of teams found ingenious ways to have the car lower itself while on the circuit. This post run inspection created chaos and line-ups in the pits.

For the first time in Italy a Ferrari would carry the number ’27’. Pironi would campaign ’28’. Gilles promptly put ’27’ on it’s first pole ahead of Reutemann in the normally aspirated Williams-Ford. Pironi was back in sixth. It was the first pole for Gilles since Long Beach in 1979. He fully admitted it had been a long dry spell.

At the start, in the wet, Gilles took the lead with Pironi slicing through the pack to take second. The two Ferraris drove the fans nuts until Gilles dove into the pits to change to slicks as the track began to dry. Luck being what it is, the rain began again as he drove out onto the track. Two laps later he was back in to change his rubber again. In effect, his race was run as he was the better part of a lap down in fourteenth.

Gilles charged on with his usual gusto and set the fastest lap over and over, but still found himself in seventh at the end. Pironi scored the first points for the 126C with a fifth.

Gilles and Didier had become good friends by this time. Both shared any information they had about their cars and encouraged each other. Later, when Didier’s wife gave birth to twins, they named one of them Gilles.

next: Terror at Zolder!

Read the rest of the Shutter Speed series here.


  1. says

    A great insight Allan. I hadn't realized that Gilles and Pironi had become close, which makes Pironi's later treachery at Imola even harder to digest.

    I remember so many instances when Gilles showed his class, not least when I was doing radio in Montreal for the first time. Totally unconfident, I was hugely intimidated by having my interview overheard by hundreds of eavesdropping international press. When I explained this to Gilles, he promptly got up and we went into the men's room to talk in private! He was an exceptional human being in so many ways. But you already know this.

    • says

      It must have been hard to do the 'journalist' thing after being the man who had been there from the start in the driver's seat, in fact the car that Gilles broke his leg was your seat which he took over. Your story is very impressive. Good luck on your new ebook. Please feel free to add a link to this.

      • says

        Fish out of water would be one description, but my interest in bringing attention to him, when nobody outside of the sport in Canada had a clue who he was or understood all that he had achieved, overcame my fear.

        I was totally ecstatic when against all odds, Gilles actually managed (just barely) to attain F1 and then prospered there, while I (and so many others) had been all in, but failed. I'm sure I'm not alone in having believed that his success somehow vindicated all our efforts and disappointment. I believed that clearly until May 8th, 1982, when in an instant, I understood that I/we were the lucky ones, after all.

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