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Didier Pironi

Full Name:
Didier Joseph-Louis Pironi
26th March 1952
Villecresnes, Paris, Ile-de-France
23rd August 1987 (Aged 35)
off the Isle of Wight (GB), powerboat accident
Most recent race (in database):

Ferrari started 1982 with high hopes of a 10th drivers’ Formula 1 World Championship. In Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi they had two of the quickest men in the field and its turbocharged chassis was finally sorted and reliable. But ultimately it would be a year of tragedy and frustration.

Background and early racing career

The son of a wealthy building contractor, Pironi was inspired to race by watching his older half-brother José Dolhem. He made his name in Formula Renault during the mid 1970s as one of the many Frenchmen backed by oil giant Elf.

Twice European Formula Renault Champion, he graduated to Formula 2 in 1977 with a works Martini MK22-Renault as René Arnoux’s team-mate. Initially fast but fragile, Pironi finished second at Vallelunga and Pau before dominating the penultimate race of the season at Estoril from pole position. Third in the European F2 Championship, he had also stepped back to Formula 3 to win the prestigious Monaco support race.

A winner in Formula 1 and at Le Mans

Pironi signed for the Tyrrell F1 team in 1978 and made an immediate impact by finishing in the points in four of his first six Grands Prix before the team’s competitiveness waned. He also shared Jean-Pierre Jaussaud’s Alpine A442B-Renault in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours and they scored a patriotic home victory. That success was celebrated by driving the car through Paris.

Pironi continued with the now unsponsored Tyrrell team in 1979 and finished third at Zolder and Watkins Glen. Hungry for victories, he joined Ligier for 1980 and there were days when Pironi was the class of the field. He led all the way in Belgium to claim a first GP victory and dominated both the Monaco and British GPs before retiring. He also won the Canadian GP on the road but Pironi was penalised one minute for jumping the start and so was only classified third.

The Ferrari years

Pironi moved on after just one season when he signed as Gilles Villeneuve’s team-mate at Ferrari. 1981 was a transitional year as they developed the new V6 turbo and the difficult Ferrari 126CK chassis. Villeneuve somehow managed to win twice but Pironi’s season was blighted by mechanical failures.

Well placed to challenge in 1982, Villeneuve and Pironi had become close friends but that soured at Imola on April 25. The British teams had boycotted the race and only 14 cars lined up on the grid. What followed seemed a classic with René Arnoux’s Renault battling the two Ferraris. Arnoux retired but Villeneuve and Pironi continued to put a show on – taking turns to lead. The Canadian believed they had a pre-race pact to entertain and pit signals instructed both drivers that Villeneuve should win. The Canadian retook the lead with a lap to go only for Pironi to re-pass him into Tosa on the last lap and score a highly controversial victory.

They did not talk again and Villeneuve was killed qualifying for the Belgian GP two weeks later. Pironi rallied the grieving team and took control of the championship by winning the Dutch GP in convincing fashion. However, with the world championship seemingly in his grasp and having dominated qualifying in Germany, he was unsighted by torrential rain during the warm-up and crashed into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault.

The Ferrari barrel-rolled three times into the barrier and it took over 30 minutes to cut Pironi free. He was airlifted to Heidelberg University Hospital with a broken arm and both legs fractured – his right so badly injured that there were fears of amputation. Transferred to Paris, he eventually made a successful recovery and Pironi hankered after a return to racing. He even tested an AGS in 1986 but his motor racing career was over.

Powerboat race winner

Instead, he began competing in offshore powerboat racing that year and he won a world championship race at Arendal, Norway in August 1987. The next event was off of the Isle of Wight coast but his boat flipped at speed – killing Pironi and his two passengers.

Didier Pironi was so nearly France’s first world champion. He was runner-up in 1982 – just five points behind eventual champion Keke Rosberg despite missing the last five races through injury.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1982 F1 World Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
10 (2) 2 6 2
20% win rate
2nd 39
1981 F1 World Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
15 0 0 0
0% win rate
13th 9
1980 F1 World Championship
Equipe Ligier Gitanes
14 2 5 1
8% win rate
5th 32
1980 World Championship of Makes
BMW Motorsports France
2 0 0 0 6
1980 BMW M1 Procar
BMW Motorsport
BS Fabrications
7 (1) 0 2 1
15% win rate
10th 34
1979 F1 World Championship
Candy Team Tyrrell
15 0 2 0
0% win rate
10th 14
1979 BMW M1 Procar
BMW Motorsport
3 0 2 0
0% win rate
8th 34
1978 F1 World Championship
Elf Team Tyrrell
16 0 0 0
0% win rate
15th 7
1977 European F2 Championship
Equipe Renault Elf
13 1 5 1
8% win rate
3rd 38
1976 World Championship of Sportscars 0 (1) 0 0 0 0
1976 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup 1st -
1974 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup 1st -