In 1982, Ferrari Formula 1 teammates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi pushed each other over the brink. Desperate for a World Championship at the cost of their friendship, Villeneuve and Pironi sacrificed everything for an edge, and it came at a cost: betrayal, death, and career-ending injuries. Ferrari started 1982 with two promising drivers. By the end of the season, both were erased from the sport of Formula 1 forever. Now, in the same heart-rending vein of Senna, a new documentary titled Villeneuve vs. Pironi: F1’s Untold Tragedy recalls the poignancy of the drivers’ fatal duel.
Villeneuve vs. Pironi: F1’s Untold Tragedy was released earlier this year on Sky Documentaries, so if you (like me) are living in America, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it unless you’ve asked to get your hands on it (or are a VPN wizard). If you’re an F1 history buff, you probably think you know all there is about the fatal rivalry between the francophone Ferrari teammates, but this documentary still manages to illuminate the stories you’ve never heard before.
In particular, this documentary features an elegant portrayal of the loved ones who were left behind in Villeneuve’s and Pironi’s ongoing thirst for victory: the partners, children, friends, and team members.
In my eyes, that’s where Villeneuve vs. Pironi really shines. So often in motorsport, we hear tragic tales of cavalier competitors who fell victim to their own ambitions. We mourn the loss of legends, but primarily within the context of racing, wondering what they would have achieved had the lived, wondering how the sport we love would have been changed.
Rarely, though, do we venture outside the confines of the track. For many racing fans, after the funeral is over, the tragedy is over, only to be recalled on key anniversaries. But for the people who knew that driver, the pain doesn’t end. The sudden shock of death gives way to a lifetime they’ll spend attempting to reclaim meaning, to find a new sense of normalcy, to carry on.
In Villeneuve vs. Pironi, Gilles’ wife Joann Villeneuve is honest and direct about her relationship with her husband and her reckoning with the aftermath of his career. She keenly holds the pain of betrayal Villeneuve felt when Pironi overtook him at Imola, though as the years have passed, she’s able to reflect on its place in her life and the contextualizing she’s done around it. Villeneuve’s daughter Melanie shares that ache, stating that the pain she still feels is “the pain of an eight year old being recycled” rather than being the pain of an adult. Son Jacques makes critical appearances as well, opening up about his conflicted relationship with his father and the struggle of becoming a Formula 1 World Champion with a name carrying such a burden.
Another insightful interview is with Catherine Goux, who became Pironi’s partner in his final years of life. The two had known each other for years but reconnected in the wake of Pironi’s accident at Hockenheim, as she was struggling with her health as well. She and Pironi, Goux says, “were both broken, and we tried to reconstruct each other in the silence of the forest.” The couple chose to start a family in 1987, and after struggling with IVF, Goux found out she was pregnant with twins just before Pironi’s fatal powerboat accident. Hearing from the twins — appropriately named Didier and Gilles — about what it was like to grow up without their father was heartrending.
While every contribution was poignant, I was especially grateful for Goux and her children. For F1 fans, the tragedy of the Villeneuve-Pironi saga is centered around Villeneuve’s death, with Pironi’s career-ending injury completing the story. His recovery and death in another form of racing often come as afterthoughts. Here, they’re both critical elements of a tragic story that encompassed two incredibly promising racers who simply pushed past their own boundaries, no matter the discipline.
Of course, this is still a film, and there’s only so much that can be packed into a roughly 100-minute runtime. Certain details will be glossed over to ease the flow of the narrative, and not everything is going to be fleshed out exactly as it happened. But that’s OK. If you’re a longtime motorsport fan, you likely already know those details, or will be inspired to find them. If you’re new, the emotions will hook you in and convince you to learn more. A film is a story, and the story of these loved ones left seeking meaning in the aftermath of tragedy is one worth being told.