Imola, World Championship, Ferrari: how can we not go back to the 1982 Grand Prix? That April 25, a sunny Sunday, is engraved in the collective memory for the fratricidal duel between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, drivers behind the wheel of a Ferrari that seemed to have already graduated with the world championship by the end of that year. The single-seater was the 126C2, the 6-cylinder turbo engine finally roughened compared to the previous year, when its explosion of horsepower and its abrupt incurability when exiting the corners went hand in hand and needed a tamer rather than a pilot. , so as not to cross over all the time. The tamer of ’81 had been Gilles, capable of two miracles in Monte Carlo and in Spain. Two transparent driving prodigies translated into as many victories, then buried by the still poor reliability of the Reds who in the rest of the season had to succumb to Williams and Brabham fighting until the photo-finish in Las Vegas, where Piquet became champion.
At the beginning of ’82, Ferrari was ripe to play for that title. The turbos were frightened, also very strong but fragile until the whole of the previous year. The English teams, on the other hand, were late on the turbo road; some would not have had it before 1983, and this in Maranello was seen as a help of destiny. But in this technical equation, no one could predict the political turning point that would have marked the championship. Or at least its initial part.
It starts in South Africa, the first race of the season. Introduction of the super license, drivers who consider it detrimental to their professional weight especially in the negotiations with the teams, and a sensational strike complete with a paddock left on board a minibus, like a school-bus, to retire to a residence, away from the press and photographers but above all by the FIA, the federation led by Jean-Marie Crossbows that super license has imposed. Results: tarallucci and wine. Realizing that without pilots the GPs cannot stand, Balestre fires and flames first, sifting out threats and tearing up symbolic paper super-licenses in front of the objectives; then he capitulates to milder claims, reassures the pilots led by Pironi and is able to compete. With Prost’s victory over Renault.
Race 2, Brazil. The script seems to repeat itself, with Prost in Pole. But at the start is Gilles’ Ferrari that takes the lead from second place on the grid. He keeps it for 29 laps, when – with the tires now on the canvas – he has to give in to an attack by Piquet who with a suddenly unbearable Brabham overtakes him sending him off-track, followed by retirement. The GP is won by Piquet, who faints from the heat after the arrival. Behind him Rosberg on Williams. So Prost. But after the checks, all hell broke out. On many single-seaters a suspicious tank: the approximately ten liters of water it contains are, according to the teams, to cool the brakes; but in reality it is a kind of ballast, which at the end of the race (when the tank is topped up to the brim) allows single-seaters with aspirated engines to comply with the regulatory minimum weight. Renault and Ferrari appeal against Williams and Brabham, but get no results. They threaten to appeal to Brazilian sports justice, and if necessary also to the FIA court. The match therefore remains sub-judice.
Race 3, Long Beach. Between the sidewalks of the Rimini in Los Angeles the turbo has blunt weapons. The greater agility of the single-seater with aspirated engine seems to be the right card for the Grand Prix, which in fact celebrates the victory of Niki Lauda, in the third race with the McLaren that he has chosen for the return to the race after two seasons away. With the Renault in trouble Villeneuve consoles himself with the third place, but the commissioners return to the spotlight and disqualify his Ferrari that Mauro Forghieri, in the search for more aerodynamic downforce, had equipped with an unprecedented double rear wing. Double with the two profiles not parallel, but mounted one after the other; slightly staggered and strange to look at, but undoubtedly effective reaching practically the entire width of the Red.
At this point, everything for Villeneuve seems to be getting more difficult than expected just a few weeks earlier. Gilles can’t wait any longer: he’s 32, this is his fifth season in Ferrari; in ’79 he was the Jody Scheckter’s faithful squire then champion at the end of the season despite being probably slower than his teammate; in the following two seasons he undertook a heavy and endless technical development work; he almost certainly warns that many in Maranello no longer love him as they used to and turn up their noses in front of the many mistakes (see Brazil), the many excesses of adrenaline on the track that have made him perhaps the most loved driver ever by the general public , but also the most expensive in terms of economic damage for the team.
It is in this state of mind that Gilles arrives at Imola, race 4 of the championship. And it arrives on a flying carpet: on April 20, the highest degree of justice of the FIA judged the protest by Renault and Ferrari in Brazil to be adequate and canceled the first and second place of Piquet and Rosberg in that race with a stroke of the pen. This time the strike is not like in South Africa: it goes all the way. The English teams, those once defined as ‘garage owners’ decide to desert the Imola GP. Only the so-called ‘legalist’ teams will race, Ferrari and Renault in the lead. In fact, the two turbocharged teams compete on their own, until the two French single-seaters stop due to technical problems. And this is the final chess move, the one that sets up for Gilles la chessboard full of pitfalls of a Grand Prix that he now considers to be his, only his. The rest is news: exactly 40 years away, a geological era in the world of racing, yet still today engraved in the collective memory. Two Renault stopped, Gilles is in command and his partner follows him closely: there is only to drive carefully to the checkered flag, and finally the championship will be able to take the turn expected for a lifetime. But Pironi suddenly attacks and goes to the head. Gilles thinks it’s all cinema and takes back the first position with a breathtaking braking that sends the red people into rejoicing. He is calm, Villeneuve: the ‘slow’ sign has been displayed from the pit wall, which he interprets as ‘maintaining positions’. Pironi thinks differently and attacks the Tosa again, disappearing in command to never get caught.
The rest is as vivid as it happened yesterday. Villeneuve feels robbed: his friendship with Pironi suddenly ends, he will never look him in the eye again. But at the top of the podium in Imola it is the other who celebrates and Gilles’ eyes are overflowing with a rage full of cracks. He demands clarification and a condemnation from the team: this will not come. After days, Enzo Ferrari will freeze him with a “After all, Ferrari scored a double, and this is the important thing“. Ferrari coach Harvey Postlethwaite will say worse: “Gilles wanted the victory to be brought to him on a silver platter, but the other is also a pilot …“.
So Zolder. Pironi suddenly in front of Villeneuve when the qualifying rounds are just a short distance away, and this too seems a disgrace given that it has almost never happened before. Gilles rushes to the track even though he knows he no longer has new tires available. Then the patatrac in the Terlamen grove, jumping at prohibitive speed on the rear wheels of Jochen Mass’s car and flying towards the sky, then dismembering itself in a catastrophic bounce on the asphalt. The body of the pilot in disjointed flight and finally stationary on the ground, very far from the point of impact, but in a completely unnatural posture that clearly anticipates what the medical verdict will formalize in the evening. A death verdict.
Everything ends like this: Gilles Villeneuve, the most beloved driver of all time to the point of becoming synonymous with that unique emulsion of extreme speed and courage, leaves this world on the destructive thrust of an unhealed wound, that of Imola. But in reality it has severed all politics: without those fake tanks of Jacarepagua, without that disqualification of Brabham and Williams and without the strike of the British teams at Imola, the Santerno GP would never have been reduced to that triumphal parade of the two Ferraris towards the checkered flag. Gilles could not have demanded anything, he could not have lulled himself into his dream and then be crushed 13 days later in Zolder.