To say 1982 was a fractious season for the sport would be an understatement. A drivers strike at the very first round in South Africa set the tone that would last all year, as the returning Niki Lauda led the drivers against the FIA in a dispute over superlicense terms. A local hotel was the scene of a drivers protest, locking themselves away while negotiations ran through the night. Lotus driver Elio De Angelis kept them all entertained by playing classical piano. After this was settled (luckily before the first race), a war then erupted between the FIA (or more importantly, FISA) and the constructors teams (FOCA) over regulations and financial compensation.
The disqualification of Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg culminated in a boycott by the FOCA teams of the San Marino race later that year, leaving Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo the only cars to contest the grand prix. On the day of qualifying though, the Tyrrell, Osella, ATS and Toleman teams all declared themselves eligible, citing “sponsor obligations”. In total, fourteen cars were to compete.
With such a depleted field there were no surprises in terms of the grid. Renault locked out the front row with Rene Arnoux on pole and a young Alain Prost alongside. The Ferrari’s of Gilles VIllenueve and Didier Pironi were third and fourth respectively. Michele Alboreto was a distant fifth in his Tyrrell, with Derek Warwick a notable eighth in his Toleman.
From the start the Renaults maintained their positions off the grid. Prost was in contention until lap six, then his turbo gave up the ghost and he retired. This meant Arnoux assumed the lead, with the Ferraris of Villenueve and Pironi close behind, and swapping position regularly. This three-way battle lasted for nearly fifty laps until Arnoux’s engine blew, and both Prancing Horses were left out in front with less than fifteen laps left.
This is where the confusion started to occur within the Italian team.
With third place Michele Alboreto quite a distance behind Ferrari ordered their drivers to slow down to minimise fuel consumption and not suffer the same fate as the Renaults. Villenueve construed the order as hold position, while Pironi thought the race was still between the two of them until the chequered flag and began to challenge his team-mate, before eventually passing for the lead. Villenueve thought Pironi was merely spicing up an otherwise dull race, and re-passed to hold the lead going into the last lap. But, to his surprise, Pironi overtook him right at the finish to take the win.
The podium celebrations were a strange affair. Villenueve never smiled while Pironi looked sheepish to say the least. Villenueve was so incensed that he was quoted as saying, “I’ll never speak to Pironi again in my life”. Those words would prove to be quite prophetic, as the confusion over team orders would have deadly consequences.
Gilles Villenueve saw the order as a oppurtunity for him to establish a title challenge, and secure a victory to kick-start his campaign. Unfortunately, it would be the last grand prix he would compete in. While trying to beat a time set by Pironi at Zolder, the very next round, Villenueve would encounter a slowing Jochen Mass. Their tyres touched, launching the Ferrari into the air before crashing nose first into the ground. The cockpit seat – with Villenueve strapped in it – was ripped from the Ferrari monocoque. The car came to rest in pieces. Villenueve had been thrown into a fence and was critically injured. He was pronounced dead later in hospital.
With a fast, reliable car, the title looked to be Didier Pironi’s for the taking, but the Frenchman’s state of mind underwent severe stress due to several factors. Widespread antipathy was directed toward him in the wake of the Zolder tragedy. There was also the breakdown of his marriage, and he observed at first hand the death of Riccardo Paletti in the Canadian Grand Prix, the young Italian ploughing into Pironi’s stalled Ferrari on the starting grid.
In such a mindset, he unnecessarily lapped a drenched Hockenheim during a practice session at the German Grand Prix at high speed. Passing Derek Daly’s Williams, Pironi, unsighted, smashed into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault, triggering a violent accident which bore some similarity to that suffered by Villeneuve. Pironi survived, but injuries to his legs meant he never raced again. He would lose his life four years later in a powerboat accident.
Rivalries occur in all sporting diciplines, but only in Formula One can they turn deadly in such a fast manner. The Villeneuve-Pironi story is one of best friends falling out, that eventually turned fatal, and should always be a morality tale for all involved in motorsport.