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The tale of F1's most tragic rivalry which makes for compelling viewing

A famous Formula 1 rivalry and a narrative told many times before, Villeneuve Pironi: Racing's Untold Tragedy attempts to shine a new light on their story. With never before seen archive footage and a dramatic storytelling method, it provides an intense and worthwhile watch for any fan

Watch: Villeneuve Pironi: Racing's Untold Tragedy

The history of Formula 1 is full of intense rivalries and bitter feuds that have come to define the championship. From the infamous clashes between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, to more recently, the fractious battles of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, grand prix racing certainly isn't lacking in the drama stakes. 

But perhaps the most tragic rivalry and one which seemed almost bound by fate is that of Ferrari team-mates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Their friendship, the infamous events of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1982 and horrendous sequence of events that followed are the subject of a new documentary from the Noah Media Group and director Torquil Jones. 

It’s a story that’s been well-documented before – how Villeneuve felt Pironi robbed him of victory at Imola, vowing never to speak to him again before the popular French-Canadian was killed just two weeks later at Zolder.  An appalling crash for Pironi at Hockenheim later that year – eerily similar to Villeneuve’s accident – ended his F1 career when on the cusp of the title, before he too was killed during a powerboat race off the Isle of Wight in 1987. 

But even for those who think they know the topic well, the documentary – which has a running time of one hour and 40 minutes – is a must-watch.  

The rise of both drivers to the pinnacle of F1 is covered and is very much narrative driven – Villeneuve the all-out hero, adored by the Tifosi and even considered a second son by Enzo Ferrari himself. It’s a direct contradiction to Pironi’s more methodical approach, the Frenchman portrayed as cold and calculating – essentially taking on the role of the villain to some extent. 

Former F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone suggests he could have become a politician, which given Pironi’s decision to pick then-Ferrari sporting director Marco Piccinini as best man for his wedding just a week before Imola certainly fits this narrative. 

What’s particularly striking is that despite being two very different people, the documentary does a brilliant job of empathising that they are essentially two sides of the same coin. A passion for racing and determination to win was the same in each of them, but they approached it from two very distinctive points of view.  

Drawn together as Ferrari team-mates, the differences and similarities between the two are exposed in the documentary

Drawn together as Ferrari team-mates, the differences and similarities between the two are exposed in the documentary

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Where the film excels is with archive footage, some of which has likely never been shown publicly before, and there’s plenty of clips for F1 fans to enjoy. 

The biggest input comes from the relatives of Villeneuve and Pironi, with the former’s widow Joann and two children, 1997 F1 world champion Jacques and Melanie, offering their voices. Pironi’s former partners have their say too, as well as his twin sons, aptly named Didier and Gilles – the latter an engineer for the Mercedes F1 team. It’s clear that Joann has never fully forgiven Pironi for his “dishonesty, disloyalty [and] a betrayal” but states that the death of her husband “can’t be on him”, and it all makes for powerful viewing. 

Outside of the immediate families, there’s no shortage of input from F1 alumni including Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, John Watson and Jody Scheckter amongst many more who, while only offering soundbites, do help to propel the story forward. 

While Villeneuve is generally portrayed as the hero, he doesn’t escape criticism with regards to his own son, Jacques. The former Williams F1 driver makes it clear he never wanted to be compared to his father

The most compelling testimonies though come from those who worked at Ferrari, including Piccinini, ex-technical director Mauro Forghieri (interviewed shortly before his death earlier this year), and Brenda Vernor, personal assistant to the ‘Old Man’. All three offer a unique insight into the inner workings of Ferrari, the personalities of both drivers – and in the case of Piccinini and Forghieri – their thoughts on what transpired at Imola. 

Considering the subsequent fallout from the race, though, there’s surprisingly little analysis as to the exact details of what transpired. Villeneuve’s mistake at Rivazza when leading and which dropped him behind Pironi is shown, but there’s no indication if he should have been handed the position back, just a mention of Ferrari’s supposed policy of maintaining position when running one-two. 

Focus is drawn to the interpretation of ‘slow’, shown on the pitboard to both drivers, but which isn’t clear as to whether it meant the same as ‘hold position’. Piccinini states that after reviewing the footage “Pironi has done nothing wrong”, while it’s described how initially Ferrari himself was in support of Pironi before backtracking the following day. 

The documentary attempts to shed light on what really happened in the 1982 San Marino GP

The documentary attempts to shed light on what really happened in the 1982 San Marino GP

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

At times it’s clear an artistic licence has been used, which for die-hard F1 fans might be frustrating. There’s no mention at all about Villeneuve’s one-off drive a Silverstone with McLaren in 1977 – his F1 debut – or how generally he struggled in his early races with Ferrari. 

PLUS: Gilles Villeneuve's 10 greatest F1 drives

Instead, viewers make the jump to his maiden F1 victory at the 1978 Canadian GP. Even his most famous exploits, wheel-banging with Rene Arnoux over the final lap of the 1979 French GP at Dijon, or speeding back to the pits on three wheels after a puncture at Zandvoort, only feature for brief seconds. 

But to a large extent that’s not the point of this documentary. It’s not meant as a blow-by-blow account of Villeneuve and Pironi’s careers. Instead, it delves into what made each of them tick and strive to become F1 world champions even in the face of danger, and ultimately death.  

This it certainly doesn’t shy away from, showing Villeneuve’s horrendous accident in full, and the aftermath of Pironi’s crashes at Hockenheim and at sea. At times it certainly becomes a difficult watch, from seeing Villeneuve’s parents in tears after the death of their son, to hearing Pironi’s twin sons talk about the father they never met. 

While Villeneuve is generally portrayed as the hero, he doesn’t escape criticism with regards to his own son, Jacques. The former Williams F1 driver makes it clear he never wanted to be compared to his father, and suffered migraines due to the pressure placed on him by the elder Villeneuve, who he even describes as a “selfish man”. 

PLUS: The F1 rebel who defied Schumacher and won Williams’ last title

And while Pironi begins the documentary as something of the villain, a lot of empathy is generated towards him in the latter part, especially in the wake of undergoing 30 operations to his shattered legs. There’s a real sense that at more than one point in his life, he deeply regretted his decision at Imola in 1982 and somehow felt responsible for Villeneuve’s death – only compounding the tragic tale, which will resonate with both seasoned F1 fans and those new to motorsport. 

Villeneuve Pironi: Racing's Untold Tragedy will be shown on Sky Documentaries on Saturday at 18.30. 

Their tragic rivalry will be remembered for the Imola fallout, but perhaps there was more beneath the surface

Their tragic rivalry will be remembered for the Imola fallout, but perhaps there was more beneath the surface

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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