THE TOP 20 F1 GP DRIVERS WHO DID NOT WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP
Brought to you by 'The writer formerly known as BlackJackFan'
Disclaimer: Back in late 2013 my friend put together this ultimate list of F1 drivers who did not make it on to the, err..., ultimate list of F1 drivers. I recently stumbled across the series again, and re-read it. Just as back then it entertained me a lot, with a nostalgic feeling of how I waited impatient each week until the next chapter came.
So I told him about my trip down memory lane and asked if he would object if I was to publish the series on my tribe. Luckily for us he's a reasonable man, and after a trade for my soul to the devil, instead of his, I got permission to share all of this with you (haha).
There are many list about F1 on the internet, but somehow those are always about the same drivers (usually those drivers even end up on the same place, give or take one place). But this one is a bit different. First of all, there's the size of it. Unlike most lists this one has a separate article for each driver, not just the standard 12 sentences summary of a whole career. I know all of you like a good read so, naturally you're allowed to cheer at his point. Secondly, it's based on a different point awarding system than most sites, but more of that later.
So without any further ado I present to you: The top 20 F1 GP drivers who did NOT win a championship.
... was born in 1952, in Val-de-Mame, France. After his engineering studies he entered a race-driving school and in 1972 won the Pilot Elf which had also helped Patrick Tambay and Alain Prost. After winning the Formula Renault championship in 1974, and showing considerable talent in Formula Super Renault (12 wins in 16 races) in 1976, Pironi was promoted to F2 for 1977.
This was a time of new French drivers, all desperate to be the first French World Champion. The previous year’s F2 champion was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, chased by the Martini duo of Rene Arnoux and Tambay. Tambay had now gone in search of a F1 drive, and Pironi arrived to ‘support’ Arnoux. They were up against Ricardo Patrese, Bruno Giacomelli, Eddie Cheever, Brian Henton, Jacques Lafitte, Alberto Colombo, Ricardo Zunino, Keke Rosberg, Elio de Angelis, a returning Tambay, and Alain Prost… all of whom would reach F1, but only two would take the Champion’s crown.
Pironi’s first few races were dreadful – the Martini wasn’t as fast as the March, and the Renault engine wasn’t as reliable as the Hart – but after a strong second place at Vallelunga, Pironi gambled on a one-off drive in the F3 race at Monaco, where the F1 bosses would be watching… and he so obliterated the opposition he was instantly regarded as a future World Champion.
Throughout the year Pironi usually qualified badly, rarely higher than 10th, but was such a keen racer he often completed the first lap up around 5th. But, in the penultimate round at Estoril Pironi was suddenly on Pole, and he led from start to finish. Arnoux was second, and wrapped up the Championship. In the final race Pironi went from eighth on the grid to third in the race, and third in the Championship. At the end of the year Ken Tyrrell signed Pironi to partner Patrick Depailler in F1 for 1978, probably disappointing a number of his peers who might have expected this glory for themselves.
Subsequently, Pironi was probably also disappointed, with six retirements, and 15th in the Championship, and 1979 was only slightly better – another six retirements but two podiums, to rank 10th in the Championship. However Pironi took an Alpine-Renault A442B to a four-lap victory in the 1978 Le Mans race, beating Jacky Ickx in his Porsche 936/78.
Pironi in the no.2 car, at Le Mans '78.
For 1980 Pironi was apparently negotiating with Lotus and Brabham but was snatched up by Ligier, to partner Laffite. In the first race Pironi qualified third; in the second he was on the front row, dropped to 21st after a long pitstop, and finished 4th – after which Ferrari started discussions with him for 1981… In his third F1 race Pironi was on the podium, behind Arnoux and Laffite. The French are coming. The French are coming…
At Zolder, Pironi’s fifth GP, he started on the front row, this time between Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet, and simply disappeared into the sunset when the flag was waved, taking his first F1 victory – 50 seconds ahead of Jones and nearly 90 ahead of Carlos Reutemann… Didier Pironi had arrived.
Although running third in the Championship at the mid-point a string of four retirements from stunning drives finally dropped him to fifth, two points behind Laffite. Ligier came second in the Constructors Championship.
Ferrari, meanwhile, after eleven retirements, and never finishing higher than fifth, languished down in 10th (just behind McLaren…) – not a good omen for the Part II of Pironi’s career, now partnered with Gilles Villeneuve…
Some have wondered why Pironi left Ligier , which was more successful at the time than Ferrari, but Pironi asserted he had been assured there would be no No.1 driver at Ferrari. Additionally it was not all plain-sailing at Ligier: the cars had suffered numerous mechanical failures and in the British GP, for example, both cars had suffered wheel-rim failures – Laffite had mowed down several safety fences and Pironi had pitted with a flat tyre…
“When I came back to the pits Guy Ligier was telling French journalists that one of his drivers would have won if they had more brains, if they’d drive more cautiously and not go over the kerbs so heavily and treat the car better. At that time I started thinking about my future.”
Pironi in the 1980 Ligier.
Enzo Ferrari later recalled, “As soon as Pironi arrived at Maranello, he won everyone’s admiration and affection, not only for his gifts as an athlete, but also for his way of doing things – he was reserved while at the same time outgoing.”
Pironi was chosen by Enzo Ferrari himself. Unlike Villeneuve, who had been a suggestion by others, Enzo wanted Didier. He liked the driver so much that when Jody Scheckter, after winning the title in 1979, said to him that he would retire after an other year, Marco Piccinini was ordered to finalise the deal with Pironi. The deal was made during March 1980. But for months no-one except for Enzo, his son Piero, Piccinini and Pironi would know about this.
1981: Villeneuve: 8 retirements, 2 wins, 1 Pole, 1 Fastest lap, 7th in Championship. Pironi: 7 retirements, 1 4th place, 3 5th places, 13th in the Championship. Incidentally, Villeneuve’s younger brother, Jacques Snr, was entered into the final two races in Canada and America by Arrows but he failed to qualify…!
This writer has previously written extensively of the tragic 1982 Season, and of the rivalry between these two great drivers. Villeneuve retired in the first two races, was disqualified from the third, came 2nd to Pironi in the controversial fourth race, and crashed in practice for the fifth… and was killed. Pironi took a second victory, two 2nd places, two 3rd places, and was leading the Championship race… before also crashing (in Germany), and being seriously injured, ending his motor-racing career…
He was finally placed 2nd in the Championship, just five points behind Keke Rosberg, having missed the last five events – so close to that elusive title: First French World Champion.
Months after the accident, when Pironi was back on his feet, he was received by Enzo Ferrari in his Maranello office. Enzo presented him a trophy with the inscription 'To Didi Pironi, the true champion of the 1982 season.'
As for San Marino and Zolder, to even suggest Villeneuve’s death two weeks after Pironi’s victory, was somehow Pironi’s fault, is vindictive nonsense. Others have even tried to imply that Pironi’s later accident, which horrifyingly seemed to mirror Villeneuve’s, was some kind of karma…
These two men were great racers and, like Senna, Fangio, Vettel, Nuvolari and many others, were not content to sit back if they thought they could pass the driver in front of them. When a driver opts for a safe second place, whether for personal or mechanical reasons, at that moment he ceases to be a racing driver. We admire all these drivers for their ability and willingness to take chances, braking later, passing on the outside of a corner, refusing to give up, and just exciting our senses. “Motor Racing Is Dangerous” We’ve all seen the signs. Pushing a car, and also themselves, beyond the limit causes accidents. It can also have dreadful and tragic consequences.
These are no more the fault of someone else than the fault of the man who stepped on the butterfly…
However, the signs of their rivalry had been there from the beginning, just not for the public eye. It was the 1982 San Marino GP that brought it to everyone's attention...
The two Ferrari drivers could not be more different. Gilles was the guy who came out of nowhere, speaking the French dialect of Quebec. Living in a caravan when he was poor and, after becoming rich, he still lived in the same caravan. Didier on the other hand came from a wealthy family. He was an importer for Abbate boats in France. He collected classic cars and he always travelled with a personal chef besides him.
One thing both men did have in common was their need to search for the absolute limit. All of the time. They once had a race between them, heading to Maranello. One in the sky, in a helicopter, and one on the road, in a Ferrari. The one in the helicopter would follow the exact same roads as the Ferrari beneath him would do, except for the tunnels. The winner of this race? Not common sense, that's for sure...
A little later the re-match would go from the French border to Maranello, but this time in hire cars. They went flat out, wrote both cars off and would finish their race in Maranello, by taxi!
In his five-year F1 career Didier Pironi had three wins, ten more podium finishes, and four poles. He was a fully committed racer and came so close to his dream as a young man of being France’s first World Champion. Four years, and fifty-two surgeries(!), later Pironi tried a comeback. Ligier wanted a replacement for Laffite and apparently McLaren, Brabham and Ferrari all offered him a test-driver role, but Pironi wanted to race, and wanted a car in which he could win.
He tested both an AGS and a Ligier, and his times were considered sufficiently competitive to make a comeback, but Pironi’s insurance policy had paid out substantial sums of money specifically on the grounds that he was unable to race in F1. Thus a return would have been very costly to him, because he would have had to repay the money. Instead he turned to Power Boat racing, and the following year he was killed in an accident off the Isle of Wight. A few weeks after his death his girlfriend gave birth to twins. She Christened them: Didier and Gilles!
Intelligent, generous, unfortunate...
To be continued, next Saturday.