Didier Pironi was a Formula One driver who won 3 races, achieved 13 podiums, and scored a total of 101 championship points. He also secured 4 pole positions. He was killed racing a powerboat.
An inspired, yet ultimately tragic figure, Pironi was driven on by a motivation to become France's first World Champion driver. Circumstances conspired to thwart his ambition just at the point when it seemed he had the 1982 title in his pocket. A huge practice crash in preparation for that year's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim left him with serious leg injuries which invalided him out of the sport.
An Elf protege, Pironi came to prominence by winning the 1977 Monaco F3 supporting race and was promoted into F1 by Ken Tyrrell the following season. Benefiting from the same Elf-sponsored drive to promote young French motorsport talent hat bequeathed the likes of Patrick Tambay and Alain Prost to Formula One, he participated in 72 grands prix, debuting on January 15, 1978.
Two seasons with the underfinanced Tyrrell team demonstrated enough promise for Guy Ligier to sign Pironi to the rather erratic French team in 1980, a season in which Didier recorded his first victory, in the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, as well as several podium finishes. Indeed, such were Pironi's performances that as early as the second race of the season, Enzo Ferrari expressed an interest in the Frenchman's services, which he secured for 1981.
Teamed with the fearsome Gilles Villeneuve, Pironi was rather shaded in his first season with Ferrari; for someone so preoccupied with becoming the first French driver to win the Formula One title, the events of this year may have played a role in the turbulent and unhappy 1982 campaign. Establishing a fine rapport with the senior members of the team, Pironi arguably exploited this good relationship in the aftermath of the notorious San Marino race where he is widely thought to have duped Villeneuve into conceding victory by giving the impression that he would follow his Canadian team-mate through the final lap, only to unexpectedly power past Gilles into the Tosa hairpin. Pironi's friendship with senior members in the team resulted in his dubious story of "engine problems" for both cars gaining widespread currency, much to Villeneuve's chagrin. The Canadian would be killed in qualifying at the following race, and his furious state of mind is often considered a contributory cause to his accident.
With a fast, reliable car, the title looked to be Pironi's for the taking, but the Frenchman's own state of mind underwent severe stress with the antipathy directed toward him in the wake of the Zolder tragedy, the breakdown of his marriage and observing first hand the death of Riccardo Paletti in the Canadian Grand Prix, the young Italian ploughing into Pironi's stalled Ferrari on the starting grid. Some of these events may have resulted in the over-confidence and arrogance that team members are reported to have observed in Pironi's behaviour at subsequent events (including an absolute certainty that he would win the title), and in such a mindset he unnecessarily lapped a drenched Hockenheim in a meaningless practice session at the German Grand Prix at high speed. Passing Derek Daly's Williams, Pironi, unsighted, smashed into the back of Prost's Renault, triggering a horribly violent accident with ghastly echoes of that suffered by Villeneuve. Pironi survived, but injuries to his legs meant he never raced again in 1982 Despite the accident, he still finished runner-up in the 1982 championship, a reminder of what might have been.
In 1986 it looked as if Pironi would make a come back. He tested for the French AGS team, and proved that he was still fast enought to be competitive in Formula One. But when he could not find a seat in a good team in 1987 he turned to powerboat racing.
Pironi had been linked with watersport since his youth. He was a university swimming champion, appreciated water-skiing or enjoyed life on-board his parents' yacht. While he was in Formula One he imported Italian Abbate speedboats as well as Lamborghini engines to France.
During his convalescence after the accident at Hockenheim he had become even more involved with boats and founded a company called "Euronautique-Leader" at St. Tropez and 5000 square metres of hangars, for the repair and preparation of boats, were built. Euronautique-Leader raced three boats in the 1986 European Offshore-Championship, an Abbate 41 for Pironi, a Conquest 39 ('Rocky') and a Cigarette 38. All three were powered by Lamborghini. Didier drove the 1986 season to learning more about offshore racing. He also learned about the unpleasant side of the sport when he broke four ribs in an accident during his first race near Villanuova in Spain.
In 1987 he competed in the World Championship, together with his navigator Bernard Giroux, a two times Paris-Dakar winner with Ari Vatanen, and throttleman Jean-Claude Guénard, an ex-Ligier engineer. The boat, the 'Colibri' was revolutionary. Completely made of carbon fibre it was the lightest boat in the fleet, built at the French shipyard of ACX.
In early August 1987 came his first big success, winning at Arendal in Norway. Pironi and his team became the top-competitor for the title. Among the congratulations there was even a telegram from Enzo Ferrari.
Totally enthusiastic they went on to England for the race off the Isle of Wight on August 23rd. Just after the start the 'Colibri' was already in the top five, shortly moving into second place. A duel between the 'Colibri' and the Italian boat 'Pinot di Pinot', piloted by Renato della Valle, developed. As the two boats rounded a buoy, 'Colibri' stayed on the throttle and took a narrower line. Unfortunately they hit a wave produced by the nearby Esso-tanker, 'Avon'.
The ultralight 'Colibri' took off, went end over end and crashed down onto the water which was as hard as concrete at that speed. While the boat was only slightly damaged. Pironi, Jean-Claude Guénard and Bernard Giroux wrere killed instantly. Their bodies were brought back to the Isle of Wight by Navy helicopters.
Didier Pironi was buried at Grimaud near St.Tropez a few days later. His wife Catherine was pregnant with twins.