The usual squabbling between the FIA and FOCA was noticeably absent at the start of the 1982 season. Alan Jones had become disenchanted with the almost suspension-less cars and had gone home to Australia. The rumour mill was rampant with as many as three former World Champions to appear on the grid for the season. Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and Niki Lauda were all reported to have been offered large sums of cash to put on a helmet again. Only Lauda appeared at McLaren with John Watson as his backup.
Carlos Reutemann had intended to retire but reconsidered when Jones left the team. Keke Rosburg was his second at Williams. Mario left Alfa-Romeo to return to America and IndyCar racing. Gilles and Didier remained with Ferrari. Piquet teamed with Recardo Patrese at Brabham while Prost and Arnoux returned to Renault. Mansell and de Angelis took up the cores with Lotus and March retained Jochen Mass alongside newcomer Raul Boesel.
Gilles thought 1982 was going to be his year. Ferrari would win the constructors championship, but things would be very different in the drivers race.
South Africa started the season and a rift over the new driver’s super license which the drivers felt they could be traded like cattle at the whim of the team owners. Once this got straightened out the race got underway. Gilles had qualified third behind Arnoux and Piquet. Didier was qualified sixth. Both Ferrari would drop out of the race with Gilles blowing a turbo and Didier having a misfire and finishing in eighteenth.
In Brazil Gilles started in second behind Prost. Didier started in eighth. On the thirteenth lap Piquet took on Gilles for the lead and Gilles got on the grass on the left side of the track and promptly slid across the circuit in front of the pack and buried the car in the catch-fence. Pironi finished sixth a lap down.
At Long Beach Gilles qualified seventh behind the big surprise of qualifying, Andrea de Cesaris in the Alfa-Romeo. Lauda showed he had not lost the touch by sitting on the front row in his McLaren.
Everyone was concerned about how de Cesaris would handle leading, but he led them into the first corner and continued to lead until they came upon back-markers when ‘old King Rat’ slipped past as de Cesaris hesitated. Gilles duelled all race long with Keke. The second place changed hands numerous times with Keke holding it at the finish. Ken Tyrrell lodged a complaint about the rear-wing configuration on Gilles’ Ferrari.
The Ferrari engineers had decided to show FOCA how easy it was to interpret the rules. They mounted two wings end-to-end with a slight overlap to the rear of Gilles car. They proved the point and Gilles was promptly disqualified and his points taken away. Tough way to make a point considering he had just put his ass on the line and not the guy making such a decision.
The Grand Prix family returned to Europe and to Imola and one of the most controversial races in memory. There was more political squabbling that saw the starting grid with only Ferrari, Renault, Alfa-Romeo, Tyrrell, Osella, Toleman and the ATS team appearing. The other FOCA teams had decided to boycott the race over disqualifications of Piquet and Rosburg in Brazil. Both drivers had been disqualified for having ballast tanks that were full at weigh-in scrutineering, dumped during the race and re-filled before post race inspection.
During practice and qualifying both Renaults thwarted all attempts of the Ferrari team to oust them from the front row. Prost was almost a second faster than Gilles in third and well over two seconds better than Didier in fourth.
Arnoux took the lead at the start with Prost in second, but Gilles pulled a late-braking manoeuvre and took second heading into Tosa, the same corner that Gilles had had the great shunt in 1981. Pironi slipped past Prost into third before the end of the lap. By the seventh lap Prost had had enough and pulled into the pits with engine problems.
At one point Arnoux had as much as a four-second lead on Gilles who began to reel the Renault in. Gilles tried to get past on lap 22, but was blocked my Arnoux. Gilles had to lift off to prevent a shunt which allowed Didier to slip into second. Pironi could not make any headway on the fleeing Renault. Gilles got by him and took off after the leader. He took the Renault as they climbed the hill after Tosa. The Italian fans went through-the-roof, but it was all for naught as Arnoux retook the lead on the 31st lap. It appeared another wheel-banger like Dijon was about to begin. Pironi then retook second and held it for several laps before Gilles took second from him yet again and charged after Arnoux. With all this fighting for the lead at a high rates of speed, the fuel level on the two Ferrari was getting marginal.
The wild show started to turn in Ferrari’s favour when small puffs of smoke began to appear behind the Renault. Both Gilles and Pironi were having visual problems with the smoke and oil coming from the expiring car in the lead. Suddenly the rear of the Renault was a ball of flame! The turbo was on fire! Arnouz pulled to the side of the track and made a hasty exit from the cockpit. The two Ferrari were now one-two with Gilles in the lead. The Ferrari pit hung out a ‘Slow’ signal and Gilles realized what they needed to do to make it to the end. Pironi was so close behind, I doubt he saw the pit board the first time around. Little did that matter as Gilles cocked up one turn and got on the grass. Pironi was able to slip by without resistance from Gilles.
What I am going to say now I have reflected on for many years. It is at times difficult for those of us that were there to revisit the time, but in fact Gilles and Didier were good friends. Didier had even covered for Gilles. There is talk about a lack of invitation to Didier’s wedding. There had been an invitation, but the social life with Gilles was complicated. He felt he had to decline. There is a lot to be seen if you look closely at the Imola race linked here to this story. Keep an open eye and an open mind. Time, the media and those that were not there at all have kept, in my mind, the tainted memory alive. To feel Didier deliberately betrayed Gilles is to believe what those in the media have stated in their stories. There is no question there was a lot of bad feelings at Imola and shortly thereafter. The media jumped on it and created the drama we still believe today. If you have ever seen the images of Didier at Zolder carrying Gilles helmet you can see it in his face. He had lost a friend. A lot of Gilles anger was aimed at the team. He expected the team to back him up. It was very emotional and Gilles could be an emotional guy. Look at the video. When Gilles got into the lead after Rene had his engine blow, he naturally inherited the lead with Didier in tow. A few short laps later he went off the circuit himself after making a mistake. It opened the door for Didier to pass without resistance. Didier was now in the lead and according to Gilles himself, the Ferrari in the lead of a race should not be challenged by his teammate lest they take out both cars. Gilles was pissed off with himself and took off after Didier. Didier had the ‘Slow’ signal from the pits hung out for him. They needed to conserve fuel. Gilles was faster on this day and got past Didier, contrary to the rules he followed himself! Had he not exercised this set of rules with Jody in 1979? Did Didier slow down while he was in the lead to conserve fuel? Possibly, but Gilles retook the lead from him. Did Didier think Gilles was just wanting to give the fans a show. It has been written by so many scribes that this is what Gilles believed when Didier passed him after he slowed as the pit board directed. I am surprised that either one of these fine drivers would have had much chance to read the pit signal at 150mph while trying to decide which side the other red car was going to attack from. Again, look at the video of this race and decide for yourself. Having known both men and observed them both closely through my lens, I doubt there was any deliberate action taken, yet the media and fans alike have crucified Didier Pironi to this day after one of the greatest displays of driving we have ever seen by two men who actually liked each other. They were certainly different. Didier was an aristocrat. Gilles was a country-bumpkin with enormous talent and a drive to be faster, yet they shared a passion for winning. What kind of racing driver would they be if they were not. I think the racing community and the media in particular owe the memory of Didier Pironi a sincere apology.
We know how this race ended and how it appeared on the podium. We also know what the media has said about this event. I wonder how many of them actually saw the race or at least the video of it. So many of the stories differ it is at times hard to believe it is the same event. Zolder will bring more of this speculation.
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