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Pironi's inconspicuous return to F1



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Didier Pironi


AGS-Cosworth JH21


Paul Ricard


September 1986


The enigmatic Frenchman, Didier Pironi, came to prominence during the mid-1970s. He started out via Formule Renault in the Winfield School in 1973. Before he was taken up by Ken Tyrrell in 1978, Didier had become French Formule Renault champion in 1974 and the French Formule Super Renault champion in 1976. In his final year prior to F1 he raced in F2 and he finished third in the final standings after scoring a win at Estoril. He also won the Monaco F3 event in 1977.

It was soon clear that Pironi was a gifted driver. He scored 7 points in his first year with Ken Tyrrell. He also won the '78 Le Mans edition together with veteran Jean-Pierre Jaussaud in an Alpine-Renault. He remained with Tyrrell for '79 and he was able to score his first podium at the Belgian GP at Zolder. His break-through season came in 1980 after he had joined Ligier. Ligier had produced probably the best car they had ever built. Zolder seemed to suit Didier because he was able to score his first GP win there. Several other podiums ensured that he could finish 5th in the total standings.

This was enough to convince Ferrari of his quality as a driver. He was signed as a replacement for Jody Scheckter. His new team mate was none other than Gilles Villeneuve. The first year was difficult mainly due to poor chassis mated to developing turbo V6. Still Villeneuve could overcome these deficiencies and won twice during the year. Didier never made it to the podium during 1981. With Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite signed mid-season to design the 1982 car things looked great. The turbo V6 was getting more reliable and powerful than ever. But a sweet season turned sour.

The first setback came at Zolder when Gilles Villeneuve lost his life during the practice for the Belgian GP. Didier Pironi took over as the lead driver and was on his way to the championship with two wins at Imola and Zandvoort. The Imola win was surrounded by much controversy when Pironi "stole" the win from Villeneuve on the last lap. Ferrari had told both drivers to hold their positions but Didier still outmanoeuvred a surprised Gilles and the relationship between the both was never the same again.

Now with five races left of the season the eventual champion Keke Rosberg was trailing by 21 points. Pironi's Ferrari suited the Hockenheim circuit well and he was fastest in first practice. Then tragedy struck the Ferrari team again when Pironi crashed heavily during Saturday morning practice for the German GP at Hockenheim. During rain he rear-ended Alain Prost's slowing Renault at 240km/h. While still in agony and trapped in his car, his only thought was that he now was forced to use the spare car for rest of the event. This gives something about the competitive nature of Didier. However it was soon realised that his career was finished. The accident had badly damaged both of Pironi's legs and he never fully recovered from his injuries.

Four years after the Hockenheim crash it seemed like Didier at the age of 34 was attempting a possible comeback. In September 1986 he found himself at the Paul Ricard circuit at the Riviera, as during the absence Didier had always maintained that he would return to Formula 1 and claim the title which eluded him in 1982.

The team he was testing for was a little French équipe from Gonfaron. AGS was founded by Henri Julien in 1970. In 1978 they built their first Formula 2 car. The first win came in 1980 when Richard Dallest took a celebrated win at Pau. AGS remained in F2 until the series was discontinued in 1984. AGS entered in the replacement series - the F3000 for 1985, but for 1986 they decided that they would try their luck and give Formula 1 a shot, entering Ivan Capelli in the final European races of 1986, as these were the days before mandatory season entries.

The car was the ungainly AGS JH21C powered by a Motori Moderni V6 turbo. The chassis was in fact a modified old Renault RE40 monocoque. Hardly an impressive device but enough to get the feel of a Formula 1 car again. At 83kg Didier was 8kg heavier than during his heydays. After the test Didier commented happily: "I have not lost anything!" He saw the AGS test strictly as an one-off and he did not plan to compete with Ivan Capelli for the race seat at AGS. He added that he wanted to find a 'good and established team' for the future, claiming he was in touch with several teams for a race seat in 1987.

Shortly after this AGS test Didier made an impressive test with Ligier-Renault at Dijon-Prenois. Didier was compared with incumbent driver René Arnoux. He was less than 1 second slower than Arnoux to prove that he was still up to the job. However it seemed like Didier did not convince any of the prominent team bosses because any serious offers never arrived, leaving Didier to look elsewhere.

Powerboating seemed like a good substitute. Together with navigator Bernard Giroux and co-pilot Claude Guenard he took on the twin Lamborghini V12 powered Midial Colibri. A mono-hull with 780hp pumping out from each of the V12 powerplants made this powerboat seriously fast. Unfortunately while competing in the Needles Trophy off Isle of Wight in a round of the World Offshore Powerboat Championship, they hit a wash from the tanker 'Esso Avon' at 90 knots speed and crashed heavily. All three in the crew died instantly.