Team orders in Formula One.
At time of writing (July 2016) there’s a lot of mayhem going on about imposing team orders at the Mercedes Formula One HQ. Now team orders are a subject of a very long article, or even a book, but today I want to talk about motorsport history — and the team orders at the Grand Prix of Imola in 1982.
In that year, Didier Pironi of France and Canadian Gilles Villeneuve were team-mates driving for Ferrari, considered to be the most promising team in the field of entrants for that race. Villeneuve qualified third with Pironi in fourth place behind him on the grid.
The two Renaults that were in first and second place were beset by mechanical problems so soon the race was led by the two Ferraris in one-two position with Villeneuve still ahead. In those days, communication to the drivers was done using pit boards and as the racer progressed, the two drivers were told to slow slightly.
The third placed car was well behind them so if the two Ferraris slowed their cars a little they would maintain their places and reduce the possibility of any damage or wear and tear on the vehicles. The trouble was that the two drivers interpreted the pitboard signal in different ways.
To Villeneuve, in the lead, it meant that the cars had to hold position and go for a one-two result. To Pironi, he too understood that they should slow slightly to preserve the cars but didn’t see that this meant that the two cars should race. So he overtook his team mate.
Villeneuve though he had done so simply to give the spectators a little excitement so retook Pironi. But on the last lap, Pironi passed Villeneuve again and thus won the race. Villeneuve was furious. Despite the fact that he and Pironi were the best of friends prior to the incident, he was heard to say that he would never speak to his team mate Pironi again. And he didn’t — ever.
Two weeks later
That had been on April 25th, 1982. Two weeks later, the Formula One circus had moved on to the next race in Belgium. During final qualifying, with only eight minutes left in the session, Pironi had set a quicker time than Villeneuve.
Some people say that after the events two weeks previously at Imola, Villeneuve was driving recklessly trying to beat the time set by his team mate and rival. Whatever the reason his car smashed into the back of a slower car and Gilles Villeneuve was killed.
The 1982 Canadian Grand Prix
Less than two months later Formula One was in Germany. The paddock was still divided as to whether Villeneuve or Pironi had correctly interpreted the ‘slow’ pitboard and some people believed that Villeneuve’s fatal accident had been caused by him trying to out-qualify Pironi.
In Germany, Pironi’s pole position car stalled on the grid. He raised his hand to alert officials but the other cars set off. Most managed to avoid the stalled Ferrari but 23 year old Riccardo Paletti didn’t and rammed the back of the stranded car.
He was injured but alive. Pironi and the FI doctor, Sid Watkins, approached the car to get the injured driver out but it burst into flames. Paletti did not survive.
The 1982 German Grand Prix
Another couple of months passed and the Formula One teams were to be found at Hockenheim for the German Grand Prix. In wet conditions in practice, Pironi had an accident that was uncannily similar to the one that had killed Villeneuve — but Pironi survived. However, the severe injuries to his legs meant that he never raced in Formula One again.
Five years later
For the next few years Pironi had countless operations to repair his badly damaged legs. He wanted to return to Formula One but it was impossible. But his need for speed – and for racing – still survived. He took up powerboat racing.
In August 1987 he was in England, taking part in a powerboat race off the Isle of Wight. The boat hit the wake of an oil tanker and the boat was catapulted into the air. Pironi and the other two men aboard did not survive the accident.
After his death, Pironi’s girlfriend gave birth to twins, Pironi’s two sons. She named them Gilles and Didier.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR