Book Review: Pironi: The Champion That Never Was

In the first of the Book Reviews Gav Spanoulis gives his thoughts on, Pironi: The Champion That Never Was by David Sedgwick (Pitch Publishing)

One of the most popular books in this household over the years is ‘The True Story of the Three Little Pigs’, which tells the tale from the oft-overlooked perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. Over the years, the ‘other’ perspective is something that has long been brushed aside when it comes to the events of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, which saw Didier Pironi supposedly ignore team orders and take a first victory over his Ferrari teammate, Gilles Villeneuve. This pivotal event in the life of Pironi forms a key part of David Sedgwick’s biography of the Frenchman, but it is a testament to the author that it does not become the main focus of the book.

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Pironi led a fortunate life, although the book is at pains to point out the tragedies that befell the racer. He also explores some of the key points in his life: the close ties to his mother and ‘brother-cousin’ and his rise to Formula 1 from the Elf Racing School, via Renault’s one and only Le Mans win in 1978. These chapters are certainly enjoyable, and Sedgwick does not gloss over Pironi’s climb to the pinnacle of the sport, something many racing biographers are all too guilty of.

Perhaps the most refreshing feature of the book though is the angle it takes on the whole Pironi-Villeneuve history, something the British racing press has struggled to do since that race at Imola and the tragic events at Zolder a fortnight later. It is difficult not to find a tale from the era that favours the Canadian racer heavily (call it the ‘Roebuckification’ of racing history), so Sedgwick was clearly up against it when researching this particular era. That said, there is plenty to suggest – as you would expect – that the situation was not as clear-cut as has been made out by others in the past.

While some of the debate around the “slow” pit sign message is argued around semantics, Sedgwick nullifies a few of the Anti-Pironi theories that flew around at the time (and still do to this day). What precisely led to Pironi supposedly ignoring Villeneuve’s right to the victory will never be known for certain. Sedgwick does not muddy the waters as such; he merely ensures that parts of the mythology are laid to rest. Raising conspiracy theories surrounding Alain Prost and Pironi’s career-ending accident at Hockenheim later in the ’82 season stick with the reader though, despite being unhealthy.

Pironi’s death in a speedboating race was all the more tragic because he was expected to make a return to Formula 1 with Larousse in 1988. The final chapters see the story take a dark turn leading up to these events and you would be hard-pressed not to think that, post-Hockenheim, this was how the Frenchman felt.

Any book about Pironi though will always emphasise the relationship with Villeneuve. Some matters around this era are glossed over though, to the extent that misty-eyed hero worship of Pironi comes to the fore. It is this one area that thwarts a good read becoming a great read. If you want balance (which, admittedly, you do not always get in a biography), read this alongside ‘Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver: The Life of a Legend’ by Gerald Donaldson.

Rating: 3.5/5

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