Joann Villeneuve: ‘Gilles was ruthless but very conscious of the dangers’

If the death of Gilles Villeneuve at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1982 left Formula One traumatised, it was infinitely harder on his wife Joann. More than 40 years on and the emotion still runs high as she recalls the controversial events of that season. So raw have been the wounds, it is only now she has felt able to address them and time has not assuaged the strength of her feelings.

Villeneuve, his wife and family and his former Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi are the subjects of Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy, the newly released film on Sky Documentaries and Now TV. It is a superb feature, telling the gripping but tragic story of the two drivers whose relationship fell apart over the course of one race in 1982 at Imola shortly after which Villeneuve died and Pironi’s career ended in an horrific accident at Hockenheim. The documentary is even-handed and does its best to put both drivers’ sides of the story, but making it brought back the emotions of the time for Joann.

“It was just too difficult to tell the story before,” she says. “But when I decided this was the time, you realise that the emotions you had at the time are still the same. That the facts are the facts and you can’t change them. Emotions go with those and the biggest one was the betrayal. Sometimes you think: ‘Maybe I overreacted at the time’ but then you realise no, it’s still how I see it today.”

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The film contains a wealth of footage, much never before seen from a different era of racing. In 1982 the turbo engines had become both reliable and fearsomely quick and before the season began Ferrari appeared to have mastered it with the 126-C2 expected to lead the field, pitting Villeneuve and Pironi in a fight for the title.

Villeneuve, 32 and already acknowledged as one of the greats, was in his fifth year in F1 and with Ferrari. His fierce but fair fight with René Arnoux at the 1979 French GP remains one of F1’s finest battles. Enzo Ferrari personally had gone after Pironi and signed him from Ligier in 1981. He was the considered driver to Villeneuve’s more swashbuckling style but they made a formidable team and in 1981 they enjoyed a friendly, if competitive relationship.

It did not last. In the fourth round in 1982, the San Marino GP at Imola, the two leading Renaults retired leaving Villeneuve and Pironi holding a one-two. They vied thrillingly with one another until Ferrari issued their “Slow” order – which remains at the heart of the controversy.

Villeneuve, leading, contended that the order meant to hold station to ensure a one-two. Pironi argued that it meant exercise care but did not restrict overtaking. He duly attacked and passed Villeneuve on the final lap going into the Tosa hairpin to take the win.

Villeneuve was furious. “Before this, our relationship had always been good and I trusted him,” he said. “But I won’t make that fucking mistake again.”

This was the betrayal Joann cannot forgive. “For Gilles, loyalty was such a strong thing that he never imagined it could happen,” she says. “The anger he felt was mixed up with the disappointment he felt at having been deceived by Didier.”

It is impossible to ignore the air of sadness in her voice, that her husband’s reaction was so intense because it was an affront to his inherent sense of fair play.

“Gilles was ruthless as a driver but on track he was very conscious of the dangers,” she says. “Gilles was a fair and honest driver, everyone saw that with Arnoux in Dijon, they were banging wheels but they still had enough respect for each other. That’s what racing was for him, not going against team rules to win.”

At the next round at Zolder, with Pironi just ahead of his teammate in qualifying, Villeneuve went out again to try and beat him in the final 10 minutes. At the Terlamenbocht corner he came up on the slow-moving March of Jochen Mass, who went right, off-line to give Villeneuve room, but the Canadian also went right. They touched wheels and Villeneuve’s car was launched into the air, before cartwheeling into the ground. Villeneuve was thrown from the cockpit and suffered a neck fracture. He died in hospital later that day.

Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi side by side in the pit lane before the start of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1981
Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi side by side in the pit lane before the start of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1981. Photograph: Grand Prix Photo/Getty Images

For decades speculation has surrounded the event, focused largely on whether Villeneuve was trying too hard on the lap, his judgment clouded by his smouldering anger at Pironi. As Alain Prost notes pointedly in the film: “In motor racing emotion is dangerous.”

Forty years on, Joann asserts her belief this was certainly not the case. “He was still angry but when Gilles was in the car he was in a bubble and nothing else could enter it. He was in a racing mode and whatever was happening outside did not really affect the driving. The accident was really a misunderstanding with Jochen. Jochen was trying to get out of the way, Gilles thought he would stay there, it was just a stupid mistake by both of them, it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It might have happened anyway without the Imola event.”

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The sport was left shaken, as was Pironi. At the Canadian GP, he stalled on the grid. Behind him the rookie Riccardo Paletti ploughed into his car at high speed and Paletti was killed. By August at the German GP, Pironi was in with a shot of the title but some were questioning his judgment since the death of Villeneuve. He had already secured pole but during a practice session testing new wet-weather tyres he pushed the car at breakneck speed in the rain.

Unsighted by spray he hit the rear of Prost’s Renault and was launched into the air in an accident similar to Villeneuve’s. He survived but the damage to his legs was such that he would never return to F1. Five years later in 1987, having taken to powerboat racing, he was killed, aged 35, in an accident in the Needles Trophy race on the Solent. He left his girlfriend, Catherine Goux, pregnant with twins. She would later name them, with Joann’s permission, Gilles and Didier. Gilles now works for the Mercedes F1 team.

Today, Joann does have sympathy for Pironi in that she believes he bore a burden after her husband was killed. “I think he was taken aback by Gilles’ reaction,” she says. “I think he thought he could fix it but then with Gilles passing he could not fix it. It was a heavy load he had to carry also.”

But what about her, after all these years, revisiting the events and feelings now? Has it been hard to deal with?

“I feel it’s all part of your bag of memories, some are good, some are bad.” she says, after a thoughtful pause. “Some are wonderful, some are intense. Everything you go through good or bad stays with you and builds you, you can’t throw anything out, it’s all there.”