Revue Villeneuve Pironi: Intimate portrait of a tragic rivalry

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Formula 1 racing is, by design, a self-defeating sport. Cars are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible, often giving up safety for speed, and the simplest mistakes can cause the deadliest crashes. But the destruction is not just physical.

Most runners see the danger as just a side effect of the sport. What matters most is crossing the finish line first at all costs. As the speed increases, so does the passion and subsequently the ego. This will, literally and figuratively, can lead to greatness. It can also breed arrogance, betrayal and hatred.

Enter Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, former Team Ferrari teammates and subjects of Villeneuve-Pironi, an incredibly intimate portrait of their short-lived but contentious rivalry. Head-banging partners in F1 are nothing new, but those who have recently taken to the sport after its outburst during the pandemic would be well advised to seek out this sobering history lesson.

Unlike the polish of many modern sports documentaries, director Torquil Jones’ grizzly, gritty portrayal of festering resentment and competitive ambition presents Villeneuve and Pironi’s partnership as a tragedy of their own making.

Newcomers to F1 are given a proper introduction to the pair and their debut. As a wide variety of family members, teammates and other F1 icons have recounted, the two were both deeply charismatic drivers determined to be champions.

Paired up in the 1981 season, the two riders started out as friends; Villeneuve, a beloved Canadian racer and four-time Grand Prix champion at that time, welcomed Pironi, a rising star with already a Grand Prix and a Le Mans victory under his belt. However, after sitting in the shadow of other riders year after year. Pironi became close to Ferrari’s top management, seeding the potential for a power shift.

Call it an obvious comparison, but Jones GodfatherTop-flight politics properly set the stage for the two 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 their rank by their crew.

Eager for a win, Pironi passed Villeneuve for first place, 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 of his injuries.

There’s no fun to be had in the film – the guys were lovely after all – but it’s above all a cautionary tale. One act of ego leads to another, which leads to more and more as Pironi’s life goes on. At first it feels like the filmmakers are siding with Villeneuve but, as the story progresses, there is clear sympathy for Pironi, a man who pursued his whole life even after many serious leg injuries.

Jones’ cool color palette and lack of stylistic fanfare ground events in a gravely serious tone that helps elevate this story beyond genre conventions. One of the main visual choices was to present the film in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, a deeply cinematic approach to a largely archival documentary. The footage is scaled at a higher ratio and black strikethrough to meet the 2.39 width requirements, resulting in tighter framing and a more personal engagement with the material.

These clips are frequently combined with re-enacted inserts, like the undercarriage view of a winding F1 track or the effervescence of a bottle of champagne sprayed like a post-race pipe. Shot only partially in focus, they are an injection of fleeting memory amid trauma as captured on camera. When quickly edited in succession, it’s visceral. When given space to breathe, it becomes heartbreakingly nostalgic.

It is only in the last fifteen minutes of the documentary that things seem more optimistic. 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 his life to the fullest. It’s a weird note to end on because everything in the movie presented this story as heartbreaking.

Trying to change things up with a silver lining, as sane as that might realistically sound, rings hollow. The film is much more effective when seen for what it is: a powerfully powerful look at the dark side of an entire racing industry through the lens of a single 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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