Doubt over facts of Villeneuve-Pironi row

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The details of one of the most famous and tragic episodes in Formula 1 history have been disputed by one of the sport’s long-standing figures.

It had long been claimed that Didier Pironi ‘stole’ victory from team mate Gilles Villeneuve in the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix by refusing to follow team orders. Livid with Pironi, Villeneuve crashed to his death two weeks later.

But John Hogan, the man at the forefront of Marlboro’s sponsorship activities in F1 since 1973, dismissed that version of events as “bullshit”.

He said:

That Gilles died.. has coloured many people’s impressions of Didier. But my angle on it is that they were racing all the way, every lap. The idea that they had an agreement that Pironi reneged on is bullshit.

Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. So why did Villeneuve come out with all that vitriol about Pironi going back on a deal?

I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise.

It’s a remarkable view that flies in the face of the established version of events. I’m not old enough to remember the race, but having read about it I can offer these observations that strongly contradict Hogan’s claim.

Villeneuve claimed that he was lapping slowly because the Ferraris were troubled by poor fuel consumption and he didn’t want to run out before the flag. That much was clear at Monaco later that year when Pironi ran out of fuel within sight of the flag.

Villeneuve maintained that in the Imola race he was cruising when Pironi passed him, and that he only increased his pace to re-pass Pironi, and when he did he slowed down again. Pironi ultimately overtook Villeneuve on the final lap, giving him no opportunity to respond.

Nigel Roebuck wrote about the Imola row one week after which, crucially (in the light of Hogan’s remarks), was one week before Villeneuve’s death:

As I left the press office on Sunday evening, I picked up a list of the drivers’ lap times. Does close scrutiny of them bear out Villeneuve’s story? Yes, it does. Here are the last 15 laps, together with their leaders:

Lap 45 – 1’36.578s (Villeneuve)
46 – 1’36.451 (Pironi)
47 – 1’35.828 (Pironi)
48 – 1’35.406 (Pironi)
49 – 1’35.967 (Villeneuve)
50 – 1’37.372 (Villeneuve)
51 – 1’37.321 (Villeneuve)
52 – 1’38.123 (Villeneuve)
53 – 1’35.409 (Pironi)
54 – 1’35.571 (Pironi)
55 – 1’35.555 (Pironi)
56 – 1’35.307 (Pironi)
57 – 1’35.213 (Pironi)
58 – 1’35.906 (Pironi)
59 – 1’37.020 (Villeneuve)
60 – 1’36.271 (Pironi)

Reproduced from “Inside Formula 1”, Nigel Roebuck, 1989.

The lap times strongly support the claim that Villeneuve was trying to manage the pace and lead home a Ferrari one-two in team order. If Pironi had passed him on merit, then why was Villeneuve lapping two to three seconds off the pace after he took the lead from Pironi – even on the penultimate lap?

It’s fair to say that both commentators have reason for siding with each driver. Marlboro sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari, Roebuck makes no secret of his admiration for Villeneuve.

But for me the bald facts of the lap times underlined the accuracy of the established version of events.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “Doubt over facts of Villeneuve-Pironi row”

  1. I am old enough to remember the race and I do – very clearly. It was very obvious that Villeneuve was cruising when Pironi first caught and passed him. Gilles seemed surprised but immediately increased speed until he caught and passed Didier in turn, thereafter dropping his pace again. And so it went – every time Villeneuve got ahead, he slowed. A more obvious execution of a previous agreement I have never seen.

    Gilles said afterwards that, when Didier came past him, he thought that he was putting on a show for the crowd and so Gilles joined in. And the truth of the matter is clear in Villeneuve’s face after the race – he was furious. You don’t get angry when you’re fairly outdriven, you make excuses.

    John Hogan is talking tripe, I’m afraid, for reasons known only to himself. But I will say this: I don’t believe that the incident had anything to do with Villeneuve’s death in practice for the Belgian GP that followed, as so often has been said. That was purely a misunderstanding between Gilles and the driver he was about to pass.

  2. John Hogan… odd.

    Anyway, as for Zolder 2 weeks later, Gilles was still affected by it, I think. Quali lap, on the limit, certain emotions can make you decide one way when you’d normally decide the other. No direct connection, but I think the indirect emotional connection exists.

  3. João Carlos Osório
    25th July 2007, 1:14

    I agree with both previous opinions here. Pironi was not OK in the family picture at Imola and Villeneuve’s concentration might be afected later at Zolder.
    But this is a bit late to discuss as they are both dead now… perhaps someone could ask Ferrari team managers of that time about it.

  4. Nah, I don’t think we should ask. Not really in good taste. If they have anything to share, they should share it on their own.

    Besides, would anyone really admit anything?

  5. Nathan Jones
    25th July 2007, 9:27

    i think the only ppl that have a real good idea is the drivers themselves and sadly they are both gone.
    but from what i understand at the time gilles crashed he was desperate to beat pironi’s time, as if to prove a point.
    thats how i read it
    either view u take, it’s a tragic tale

  6. Rob van der Kroon
    26th July 2007, 13:07

    Hogan is speaking nonsense. There was no 1-2 agreement between both drivers but Gilles clearly earned the race in Imola

    The following facts speak for themselves:
    1) Gilles was not racing at all in the end and clearly did not defend himselves (we all know the way Gilles was racing). Both drivers were instructed to keep eye on fuel in Ferrari’s home race. Gilles clearly obeyed, evidenced by lap times , Didier simply not thus stole the race in a very poor and cheap way
    2) Gilles proved to be the quickest of both for major part of the race (as usual)and qualified more than a second faster (as usual
    3) Gilles is recognized of one of the most passionate, honorable and unpolitical racing drivers. After 2 weeks, he still did not came down from this injustice, especially the back stab of Puccicini. I think this betrayal played a certain part in Gilles tragic death.

    Honestly speaking, I can’t feel any symphathy for Pironi…Dio perdonas…Gilles no.

  7. Rob van der Kroon
    26th July 2007, 15:58

    furthermore, at the moment of the the “slow” instruction from the pits, Gilles was leading and these team orders can only be interpreted as holding position. how can you obey “slow” orders when your team mate is maintaining pace or even racing? So Pironi’s story does not make sense and consists of lies (engine problems). rightly so, gilles claim on victory was justified and his honesty, his loyalty made him to be stunned and bittered by this betrayal. That Gilles died as a bitter man is the most tragic aspect of his death

    For the complete story of this tragic event and the fall out of it, one should read Nigel Roebucks “Bad blood at Maranello” in which Gilles provides a highly accurate reproduction of the last famous laps and leaves you to decide. Apart from the facts, everyone who red the biography of the legendary race driver knows who speaks the truth.

    1. Johannes Essink
      21st January 2011, 10:48

      Hi there Rob…
      That Imola race was a race until René Arnoux had his engine failure… The only pilots fighting for the lead up to that point were Gilles & René… The remaining laps to the finish was a farce!!! Gilles had added in 1982 race intelligence to his unbelievable speed and from the moment René was out, he only tried to control the 35sec. lead over Michele Alboretto’s Tyrrell on P3… To save fuel and not risking also an engine failure was first priority for Scuderia Ferrari and Gilles… Only lifting the pedal gave Didier a chance! And Didier knew, that he wasn’t the faster of them, so he had to play the unfair betrayel game with the always straight and open minded teammate Gilles Villeneuve!!! If Gilles had an idea, what Didier was planning, he’ll never gave him the chance to attack by simply outpacing him and stay a couple of seconds in front…

  8. “Bad blood at Maranello” is where the above quote is taken from, that’s reproduced in Inside Formula 1.

  9. Pardon me for asking but where was John Hogan quoted from?

    Thank you.

  10. It was the last issue of F1 Racing.

  11. Alejandro Lanza
    15th May 2011, 17:36

    I just watched this race in full yesterday, unfortunately narrated in German which i don’t speak, but i was surprised when i saw Gilles wasn’t on the truck they got on after the race was over and thought he was angry at being passed in the last lap. Having said that, i don’t understand why people don’t mention the fact that the Ferraris fought Arnoux for a long time during the race, and while doing that both Pironi and Gilles were able to at points get ahead but Arnoux was also able to reclaim first place, so at no point were the Ferraris able to run into the distance. I understand people saying Gilles didn’t pull away from Pironi due to fuel/reliability concerns, but not pulling away from Arnoux, and in fact being overtaken by both him and Pironi is to me proof that things weren’t as clear cut as the Gilles supporting side wants them to be. During the 3 way duel there were several overtakes going into Tossa, and Pironi’s final one was probably the more spectacular one and i can’t see Gilles being surprised by it as it followed the established pattern during that race of cars following each other throught the main straight and then getting side by side through Tamburello, that move had been seen too many times in that race to say there were any elements of surprise. Anyways, it seems to me it was a very nice race and was well fought til the end, i’m surprised to read Gilles’ declarations.

    1. Rob van der Kroon
      3rd January 2012, 20:43

      As mentioned above……it WAS a race until the yellow turbo of Renoux was blown.
      Mindfull of typical racestyle of Gilles, he definetely was off the pace and did not defending his raceline at all.

      Most drivers agreed Didier stole the race and backstabbed Gilles.

      Gilles was the last romantic racedriver, honoring certain race codes.
      Like the great Fangio said….Gilles belonged to the 50, 60 or early 70 ties.
      Had this great man not be so naive…..he probably would have lived.

  12. I think I’m missing something. Why was Villeneuve angry that Pironi took advantage of him slowing down? I would have thought any driver would go through if he felt he could go quicker.

    1. Because they were supposed to be maintaining position so Gilles slowed felt it was all fine and then Pironi nicked the place from him- well that’s the version everyone thought before until this.

  13. Johannes Essink
    16th April 2012, 9:10

    The loyality from Gilles to his boss Enzo and his team was bigger than egocentric fighting for position with the team mates! The mythos Ferrari was built up around a fair-play amongst Scuderia pilots and the “we against the rest of the world” philosophy! Gilles and Jody showed us in their common years, that fair & sportive behavior amongst themselves stood above winning a single Grand Prix or even winning the World Champion title… It was all about racing & winning for the Scuderia Ferrari, doesn’t matter who scored the big points!!! Everyone of the spectators at the circuits could make up his own mind, who of the pair was the quicker one… Just remember the 1981 season! Gilles scored 2 unbelievable back-to-back victories in Monaco and Spain! Suddenly his chances ending high in the championship scoreboard appeared, but teammate #28 didn’t act as Gilles gave his assist & loyality to Jody in 1979 — Even worse, #28 blocked him several times at GP-Silverstone’s opening laps instead of giving Gilles a back-up to the other cars for scoring championship points!!! At that point Gilles should have waked up and realized, that teammate #28 isn’t a friend and gave him the usual fighting treatment as every other driver had to face in a close competition challenge with Gilles! And here opened up the door for a chance of being betrayed by a team mate and no respectful backing from the team… Gilles was always open minded and straight by the word, but not all others do act that fair & sportive way! A little bit more selfish behavior and a pilot from #28 style never ever could follow the time-marks, that Gilles burned into the circuits on this planet… An Imola 1982 situation never existed, if this would have affected Gilles to play the pedal-to-the-metal game on his own (unreachable) level from start to finish line in San Marino! But adding race intelligence to the phenomenal speed of Gilles Villeneuve gave others the slight chance to launch unfair attacks (in their opinion) instead of noticing, that Gilles only played a game of reliability to bring the car(s) safe home to the finish line!!! <>

    1. I like how you call him #28. He doesn’t deserve to be called by name.

  14. I still believe there was only one Ferrari in fuel trouble that race, Villeneuve. He didn’t slow down because he was saving the car, he was saving himself.
    Pironi could afford to race.

    Fun fact, there are claims the first time Ferrari showed the slow sign was on a lap Pironi was leading

    1. Fun fact, there are claims

      If it’s “claims”, it’s not a “fact”.

  15. Mark Fransen
    3rd August 2014, 8:02

    Anyone who is in doubt can watch this excellent episode of Belga Sport.
    Most of the interviews are in English or in French.

  16. Lorenzo Benetton
    8th December 2014, 11:48

    There have been lots of interviews, in Italian magazines, to Ferrari managers since then, and all admitted there was a pre-race agreement not for fuel reasons but for giving a show to fans since there were only 14 cars racing (remember the strike of some teams). In these interviews all of the managers admitted a sign should be out at a precise lap and, whoever was ahead, the other pilot should back off and both slow down… that’s what Gilles did. However the sign was not to keep positions and THIS not clear message, on purpose, is what Pironi and some Ferrari managers supporting him, used, later, to justify his behavoiur. Another reason was fuel because, quite obviously, if they were fighting along the race they, both, would burn more than normal. In another interview last year Forghieri did say that Gilles was still furious at Zolder when he jumped on the car in that last trial so overcome Pironi’s time. Forghieri added that Gilles didn’t improve Pironi’s lap time in his first attempt but, at the time, tyres allowed for just one trial, after which the pilot should stop, put new tyres and retry. But Gilles continued even if the team put out the sign “pits” and he was doing a desperate second lap with worn tyres. This to shut up ANY person inventing today a different story. Gilles was a correct person and following agreements as when he accepted to support Scheckter to win the Championship, and was naturally hoping for the same in ’82 but Pironi wasn’t… Gilles and one another thing that upset Gilles was that he realized some managers were not supporting him but the new arrival.

    1. Sorry for say this too late but ALL of you are missing two points -I suppose not for lack of data but I can’t imagine why:
      1-After Arnoux KO Didier passed Gilles because a driving mistake of Gilles. 34 years of silence about this. The agreement included to wait for your teammate on outtrack trip?
      2-There was an agreement between Renault and Ferrari drivers (clearly honored by Gilles on lap 30) so the whole race was clearly manipulated.
      Didier was treated so bad… Just for wining the 4th race of the Championship and getting 3 miserable points more than Gilles.
      Gilles… I still miss you with a terrible grief. You were unique. Salut Gilles!

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