The newly founded animosity between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi was maybe the unintended catalyst for one of the most tragic and saddening occurrences in world motorsport. At the next race on the Circuit Zolder in Belgium, the two Ferraris were off the pace, with Pironi having set the team’s best time which was only good enough for sixth. Villeneuve was just a tenth down in 8th position. Perhaps out of anger at being behind his greatest enemy, the Canadian decided to go for a second consecutive fast lap rather than slowing down for a cool down lap as most drivers would have done. This tunnel-visioning may have been the reason why he failed to react to the much slower March of Jochen Mass, who was moving off the racing line so that Villeneuve could stay on it and set a fast lap. In both moving to the right of the tarmac, the 126C2 collided with the rear of Mass’ 821. The Ferrari caught the grass in an awkward manner, causing it to tumble dreadfully in the cold Belgian air. As the vehicle rapidly disintegrated, the inanimate body of Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was thrown viciously into a wire fence. He would never regain consciousness again. Regarded as one of the best drivers to never win a championship, his life was cut agonisingly short, robbing him of the ability to realise his true potential.
The Monaco Grand Prix was certainly not a place to go if one wanted to forget this terrible tragedy. The late Canadian had not only lived in Monaco, he had also won the 1981 rendition of the race. The Ferrari team decided to only field one car out of respect for their (and many others’) fallen hero. Not a single soul in any of the grandstands, hotels or swimming pools even could have remotely expected to have their moods uplifted by what was quite possibly the craziest Formula 1 race ever witnessed!
The initial stages of the race were quite ordinary, with not a great deal of overtaking as has been customary of the street circuit since its inception. The Renault of Rene Arnoux lead for the first 14 laps before spinning out, generously giving the prime position to his teammate Prost. The Renault cars seemed to work well on the tight twisty nature of the track, and Prost swiftly extended his sizeable advantage. But then rain started to fall, and all hell broke loose…
Prost took a little too much speed out of the Chicane du Port with a mere 3 laps remaining, taking himself out of contention. At this stage only 8 cars were still circulating the track, everyone else having crashed out or had some sort of mechanical failure. This was about to drop even more. Riccardo Patrese took the lead, and held it until the second-to-last lap where he span at the hairpin and stalled his Brabham. 2 cars overtook him, being Pironi and de Cesaris in that order. Surely that’s enough of the mishaps? Not quite. On the final racing lap, the two racers ahead of Patrese, as well as Derek Daly a further lap behind, all ran out of fuel, meaning they were not going to make it to the chequered flag. The only driver who would be able to complete all 76 laps would be Mr. Patrese, who had by some miracle managed to bump-start his car back into the fight. Everyone waiting in the pit garages had began to doubt that anyone would make it to the end, but eventually the distinctive blue and white livery of the Brabham-Ford crossed the line. All in all only 5 cars saw the waving black-and-white piece of fabric on that Sunday. We could be sure that Gilles Villeneuve would have enjoyed the race too.
After the first round in North America, being the poorly managed and regulated Detroit Grand Prix, the teams and drivers crossed the border to the north into Montreal. The circuit had been renamed as the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (from the Ile Notre Dame) to keep him in the hearts of Canadians and F1 fans the world over. The sombre tone of the weekend would be far from improved however, when another fatal accident occurred at the very start of the race. Polesitter Pironi stalled his Ferrari at the start of the race, meaning all the cars behind him had to swerve away from their racing lines to avoid hitting the rear of the 126C2. Unfortunately, the young Italian driver Riccardo Paletti, who was participating for Osella in only his second race in F1, saw the stationary red vehicle too late and went into the back of it at around 110mph. Due to the fragility of the race cars back then, Paletti’s torso was completely crushed by the gearbox of the Ferrari and he had also suffered a number of other internal injuries. His chances of survival were not helped by the fact that a fire broke out as medics and stewards tried to extract him from the Osella. It took over 25 minutes to get him out, by which time he had succumbed to his wounds. This was the first time that 2 drivers had lost their lives in one season during race weekends since 1973, when Roger Williamson and Francois Cevert died in separate accidents at Zandvoort and Watkins Glen respectively.
Going back to Europe, John Watson for McLaren held a huge ten point lead from Didier Pironi, who had 20 points. This advantage was completely reversed by the start of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim; Pironi had gotten a triple-threat of podiums with a victory at Zandvoort while Watson was unable to muster a single point owing to 2 retirements and a 9th place. Now the Ferrari driver, who had recently acquired a teammate in the shape of Patrick Tambay, had a 9-point lead with 5 races left on the calendar. The Ferrari package was still looking very strong, so it was really his championship to lose…
The weather in Germany was extremely unpredictable, with parts of the racetrack being dry and others wet. Another disadvantage of ground effect was that water would get sprayed from under the side pods, creating an all-encompassing mist which made it very difficult to see cars in front. Pironi, already having taken pole position, was still pushing his car to the maximum to test out a new compound of wet tyre that Goodyear had developed. In passing Derek Daly’s Williams, he was unable to see Alain Prost’s Renault further ahead in front of a cloud of mist, ploughing into its rear at high speeds. The whole front of the 126C2 was destroyed, along with Pironi’s legs which were now fully exposed to the elements. With multiple major fractures in both legs, the championship leader would be unable to race in Formula 1 ever again, let alone the rest of the season. Would he be able to hang on to the driver’s crown?
Well Watson was certainly not putting up enough of a fight; he retired at Hockenheim and the Osterreichring and simply did not have enough pace at Dijon-Prenois to close the gap any further to Pironi. However, a certain Finnish racer by the name of Keke Rosberg was starting to see his consistency as well as reliability of his Williams pay off. Just as the injured Ferrari Frenchman had done in the previous three races, Rosberg managed a string of 3 podiums with a single victory at the Swiss Grand Prix. Now the flying Finn had taken the top spot!
At the next race in Italy, Rosberg was unable to score any points languishing down in eighth position, while John Watson had managed fourth place. This left him with a chance, albeit a slim chance, of winning the driver’s crown if Rosberg again didn’t come in the top six and Watson would win the final race at a new venue, being Caesar’s Palace in Nevada, Unites States.
And boy did he try his absolute best. He had qualified behind Rosberg out of the points, but managed to pick up the pace as the race progressed, getting passed his championship-leading rival as well as several other drivers. He got past the ailing Prost and was closing on the leading car of Michele Alboreto, before vibrations from his worn tires halted any further progress. His heart no doubt sank when he crossed the line in 2nd place. It didn’t matter anyway as Keke had brought his Williams home in 5th place, clinching the driver’s title 5 points ahead of the Northern Irelander. This made Rosberg the first driver to win a driver’s championship having only won a single race, after Mike Hawthorn all the way back in 1958. Meanwhile Ferrari had secured the constructor’s crown, which was considered fortunate given the fact they had lost both driver’s over the season.
So there we have it. 1982 was a tumultuous tale of highs and lows, peaks and troughs, rough and smooth. However it cannot be doubted that it kept all followers thoroughly enraptured throughout as they went on an adrenaline-packed ride of emotions, echoing the joy and suffering felt by the drivers themselves…