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40 years on: Pironi and Villeneuve go to war at Imola

The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix was the start of a tragically short-lived feud between Ferrari teammates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi.

The 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix marks a bittersweet anniversary for Scuderia Ferrari, at a race where they will be hoping to utilise the inherent pace of the F1-75 to score their second 1-2 finish of the season. This weekend's race will take place on 24 April, just one day shy of the 40th anniversary of a historic 1-2 claimed by Ferrari at Imola in what was then the San Marino Grand Prix. Didier Pironi led home teammate Gilles Villeneuve to secure the victory, but it was a highly contentious and dramatic race that led to tragic consequences just a few short weeks later.

Villeneuve feels betrayed by Pironi

Having started behind the turbocharged Renaults, the Ferraris found themselves leading the race with ease in the closing stages. This was after turbo failures resulted in the retirements of Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux, and after an already frantic scrap between the two Ferraris and the surviving Arnoux – a battle in which Villeneuve had prevailed. That, then, was that, according to Villeneuve. After years of being Jody Scheckter's understudy, Villeneuve felt he had earned team leadership. Ferrari seemed happy enough with the result too, as they held out signs saying 'Slow Down' to their leading cars – there being no threat coming from behind. Now entirely comfortable with only a handful of laps to go, Villeneuve relaxed and eased off his full outright pace, only to make a small error at Piratella. But, rather than settle in behind Villeneuve, Pironi took the lead ahead of his teammate. Figuring this was just a show, an off-the-cuff drama for the delighted Tifosi in the stands, Villeneuve didn't suspect any foul play. He set about catching and passing his teammate again, succeeding in doing so into Piratella on Lap 49 of 60. The two traded places a number of times over the remaining laps, with Villeneuve not under the impression that Pironi's actions were in any way duplicitous. On the penultimate lap, Villeneuve took over the lead again after Pironi left a gap at Tosa – Villeneuve then thinking that was the race, and apparently orchestrated show, over. However, on the final lap, Pironi got a run on Villeneuve through Tamburello and passed him into Tosa. This time, he held on to take the win as he crossed the line just inches in front of Villeneuve. The French-Canadian was furious and felt utterly betrayed by a man he counted as a friend.

An enraged Villeneuve crashes at Zolder

Heading to the next race at Zolder in Belgium, Villeneuve travelled alone to the circuit. This was unusual for him, as he usually brought his wife, Joan, and his children, Jacques and Melanie to the races. However, Melanie was celebrating her first Communion on race day, and so Villeneuve found himself alone. At a particularly vulnerable time too, as he felt isolated at Ferrari also. Despite being there a number of years longer than Pironi, the French driver had clicked with the Ferrari manager Marco Piccinini, and had even been best man at his wedding. This was an event Villeneuve had not even received an invitation for. Together with Ferrari's refusal to censure Pironi for his conduct at Imola, Villeneuve vowed to beat Pironi at every opportunity. Speaking to Nigel Roebuck (now a columnist for Motor Sport Magazine), Villeneuve said: "This is war. Absolutely, this is war." It was a war that he immediately took to, lapping 1.2 seconds faster than Pironi in practice for the Belgian round. Qualifying day came, and Villeneuve set a string of very fast laps, using up every single little bit of grip his car had to offer. Knowing he couldn't go any faster, Ferrari instructed him to pit, with his best lap time of 1:16.6. Unfortunately for Villeneuve, Pironi had set a 1:16.5. It remains unclear whether Villeneuve was attempting another fast lap, or was just doing a fast inlap on his next tour around the Zolder circuit. What is clear is that Villeneuve was doing a speed of around 150mph approaching the Terlamenbocht kink when he came across the March car driven by Jochen Mass. Villeneuve struck the back of the March and was catapulted out of the car, while the car cartwheeled end over end down the track. The late Professor Sid Watkins oversaw Villeneuve's transfer to hospital and his placement on life support. Villeneuve's wife Joan flew in that evening and gave her permission for his life support to be switched off, due to the extent of his injuries. Villeneuve died at 21:10 on 8 May, 1982.

Imola the catalyst for the unfolding tragedy

Villeneuve clearly thought Pironi was the villain on that fateful day at Imola. But, if we look at the story from a subjective viewpoint, did Pironi really do anything he wasn't supposed to do? He claimed afterward to not understand that a team order had been issued, and didn't feel he had done anything wrong. Whether there was duplicity in his actions or his words isn't known, and it is a little unimportant as to whether he did or didn't intend to betray Villeneuve. "When I joined Ferrari the whole team was so devoted to Gilles," Pironi said on his arrival at Ferrari. "I mean he was not just the top driver – he was much more than that. He had a small family there. "He made me fit right in and I felt at home right away overnight, and Gilles made no distinctions either. I was expecting to be put in my place; I was not number one, I was number two. He treated me like an equal all the way." Pironi went on to spearhead the Ferrari team's efforts after Villeneuve's death, and took the lead of the 1982 championship. However, by the end of the year, he was critically injured in a crash at Hockenheim, in which his legs were badly damaged. Putting an end to his driving career, Pironi recovered and made a move to powerboat racing. He was killed in a powerboating crash in 1987. It may be a tad melodramatic to claim that both men's careers and lives changed irrevocably on that fateful day at Imola, although it does appear to be the case. Villeneuve felt aggrieved enough by his teammate's actions to become consumed with 'destroying' him, that the tenth of a second that separated them in Belgian qualifying perhaps caused him to take a risk too far. Sadly, Villeneuve remained true to the vow he made at Imola: "I will never speak to Pironi again as long as I live."

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