Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi on the racetrack, Villeneuve Pironi doc

Villeneuve Pironi Review: An intimate portrait of a tragic rivalry

Torquil Jones’ grizzly documentary presents the F1 drivers’ rivalry as a tragedy of their own making.

Formula One racing is, by design, a self-destructive sport. Cars are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible, often forgoing safety for speed, and the simplest mistakes can cause the deadliest crashes. But the destruction isn’t just physical.

Most racers view the danger as merely a side effect of the sport. What matters most is crossing the finish line first at any cost. As the velocity goes up, so too does the passion and, subsequently, the ego. This drive, both literally and figuratively, can lead to greatness. It can also spawn arrogance, betrayal, and hatred. 

Enter Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, former teammates on Team Ferrari and the subjects of Villeneuve Pironi, a staggeringly intimate portrait of their short-lived but controversial rivalry. F1 partners butting heads is nothing new, but those who have recently taken to the sport following its explosion during the pandemic would be wise to seek out this sobering history lesson.

In contrast to the polish of many modern sports documentaries, director Torquil Jones’ grizzly, brutal portrayal of festered resentment and competitive ambition presents Villeneuve and Pironi’s partnership as a tragedy of their own making.

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Those new to F1 get a proper introduction to the pair and their early days. As recounted by a wide variety of family members, crew mates, and other F1 icons, the two were both deeply charismatic drivers determined to be champions.

Paired during the 1981 season, the two drivers began as friends; Villeneuve, a beloved Canadian racer and four-time Grand Prix champion at that point, welcomed Pironi, an up-and-coming star with a Grand Prix and Le Mans win under his belt already. However, after sitting in other racers’ shadows year after year. Pironi became close with Ferrari’s senior leadership, seeding the potential for a shift in power. 

Call it an obvious comparison, but Jones’ Godfather-level politics set the stage properly for the two’s falling out at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1982. After finding themselves firmly cemented in first and second place respectively, Villeneuve and Pironi were told to maintain rank by their crew.

Eager to claim a victory, Pironi overtook Villeneuve for the first place win, causing treacherous friction between them. At the following Grand Prix two weeks later, in an attempt to qualify higher than Pironi, Villeneuve crashed his vehicle and died from his injuries.

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There isn’t zero fun to be had in the film—the guys were charming after all—but this is a cautionary tale first and foremost. One act of ego leads to another, which leads to more and more as Pironi’s life continues. You initially get the sense the filmmakers are siding with Villeneuve but, as the story goes on, there’s a clear sympathy for Pironi, a man who kept chasing the high his entire life even after severe injuries to his legs.

Jones’ cold colour palette and lack of stylistic fanfare grounds the events in a gravely serious tone that helps elevate this story beyond the genre’s conventions. One key visual choice was presenting the film in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, a deeply cinematic approach to a largely archival documentary. The footage is scaled to a taller ratio and black-barred to meet the width requirements of 2.39, resulting in tighter framing and a more personal engagement with the material.

These clips are frequently combined with reconstructed inserts, such as the undercarriage view of a winding F1 track or a champagne bottle’s fizz sprayed like a hose post-race. Shot only partially in-focus, they are an injection of fleeting memory amidst trauma as captured on camera. When rapidly edited in succession, it’s visceral. When given room to breathe, it becomes heartbreakingly nostalgic.

It isn’t until the final fifteen minutes of the documentary that things look more hopeful. Pironi’s twin sons, one of whom shares his father’s name, see his story as one of overcoming adversity. The film’s final note is from Villeneuve’s wife, Joann, who quantified her husband’s legacy as having lived life to the fullest. It’s a bizarre note to end on as everything in the film has presented this story as harrowing.

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To try and turn things around with a silver lining, as healthy as that may be realistically, rings hollow. The film is far more effective when viewed for what it is: a powerfully potent look at the darker side of an entire racing industry through the lens of just one broken friendship. 

Villeneuve Pironi had its World Premiere in the Game Face Cinema section of DOC NYC 2022. The film is currently seeking distribution.



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