Joann Villeneuve interview: ‘You still feel the deception and the betrayal’
Amid the plethora of sub-plots to emerge in Formula 1, one constant year-on-year is the often chaotic dynamic between team-mates. Even as recently as Sunday in Saudi Arabia, with a bubbling of tension between Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, respect can quickly shift to animosity. One manoeuvre, one incident, one moment can change everything.
Sky’s new documentary, Villeneuve Pironi: Racing’s Untold Tragedy, tells the story of Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi in Formula 1. The pair were team-mates at Ferrari and, during the early stages of the 1982 season, their relationship soured. The consequences were devastating, with Canadian hero Villeneuve killed in Zolder, Belgium, after colliding with a car in qualifying as he pushed for pole above his team-mate. It was a heartbreaking, sudden end to a short tale, symbolising hostility and bitterness.
But more than anything, as Gilles’ wife Joann says in the film’s opening lines, it is a story about betrayal. A very deep betrayal.
The events of 40 years ago, having spurned numerous requests to tell the tale on the big screen, had to be addressed. The time was now for Joann and her family – including Gilles’ son, 1997 F1 world champion Jacques – to speak out.
“I have to say it brings up emotions that are not very comfortable,” Joann tells The Independent. “I always refused in the past, but this was the right time to do it.”
The 90-minute movie starts by illustrating Villeneuve’s rise from obscurity to stardom. Hailing from Quebec, Gilles met Joann when they were 16 years of age. And as Gilles’ star rose from Formula Atlantic to Formula 1, he took his family with him in a motorhome across Europe. By the latter months of the 1977 season, Gilles’ raw ability had caught the eye of the undisputed godfather of motorsport: Enzo Ferrari.
Gilles won his first race, the Canadian Grand Prix, in 1978. He was an overnight idol. In the film, Joann describes the situation as “like a dreamworld.”
“The strange thing is that you realise that’s happening but you continue the same kind of life we’ve always lived which we enjoyed before Formula 1,” she says. “My kid’s playground was the racetrack so they had a very cool life.
“People saw he was just like them. He was very down to earth, enjoyed having a family – that was endearing to people. He was reachable.”
Gilles’ best season came in 1979, when he finished second in the World Championship to none other than Ferrari team-mate Jody Scheckter. The relationship between the pair was fruitful. But by the end of 1980, with the South African retiring, a new man was thrusted into scarlet red. A Frenchman.
“This feeling overcame me, women’s intuition I guess,” Joann says in the film, about the first time she met Pironi. “I said to Gilles ‘you should be wary of him. What you see is not what you’re going to get.’”
1981, and the beginning of 1982, is then told through the eyes of the actors at the time. The families. The mechanics. The drivers. A good-bad narrative very quickly emerges, with Enzo labelling Gilles his “spiritual son.”
But by Imola – race four of the 1982 season – things took a turn for the worse. With Villeneuve in first and Pironi in second, the pit wall had instructed both drivers to maintain position. Bring it home, in front of the adoring Italian tifosi. Yet what followed was an intense jostle for the lead, with Pironi passing on the last lap to take the victory. Villeneuve, usually so mild-mannered, was furious.
“If you cheat, that’s not racing,” Joann says. “Gilles felt this enormous betrayal by someone he thought was a friend.”
So by Zolder, tensions were at a peak. A peak which, ultimately, was destructive. The crash, the wait, the dreaded news, all told with raw emotion and sombre background music. Crafted with the elegance necessary.
“It was overwhelming,” Joann says. “You feel you have to look strong for the children and you want to look strong for the whole situation. But it was very difficult, to see everything that was happening. I felt I had to be stronger than if it was a public ceremony.”
The grief stretched beyond Canada. Yet just seven races later, Pironi fractured both legs at the German Grand Prix weekend and never raced in Formula 1 again. Five years later, he was killed in an accident on a powerboat near the Isle of Wight.
The overriding notion of tragedy is unavoidable in this tale. Yet much to Joann’s credit, Gilles’ death did not stop the aspirations of Jacques to race.
“How could I say no to Jacques when I had supported his father doing the same thing?” she says now. “I couldn’t bring myself to break his dream. It was more about dissociating both events.
“The pride of seeing Jacques succeed [with the 1997 championship] in something that was so difficult. He had so much pressure and expectations on him when he started and overcame all that.”
Joann, now 71, still watches Formula 1 and last attended the Canadian Grand Prix – at the Montreal racetrack named after her husband – in 2018. She found closure “a long time ago” yet the making of this film, undoubtedly, restirs sentiments. It is a moving watch.
“When you share someone’s life, the memories never leave,” she concludes. “They’re not present 24/7 thank god. I try to put them aside but of course it doesn’t go away.
“You still feel the deception and the betrayal but you can’t live there. I can’t live there.”
VILLENEUVE PIRONI: RACING’S UNTOLD TRAGEDY on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW.