Villeneuve versus Prost chapter excerpt

Even the press had left the Heidelberg University Hospital when two relatively short, Francophone young men entered the building. Not even a Ferrari representative was seen keeping the nosy parkers at bay.

“I’m not sure if I can allow you up”, the receptionist said sternly when the pair informed about the whereabouts of Didier Pironi’s room.

Seeing Gilles’ apparent nervousness this seemed a logical reaction but then Alain stepped in.

— “Do you have children?” he asked. The receptionist nodded.
— “A boy and a girl.”
— “And does your boy like motor racing? Did he watch the Grand Prix this afternoon?”
— “I’m not sure what you mean.”
— “I’m sure your son would love to have the autographs of two Formula 1 drivers. This man here is Gilles Villeneuve, the famous Ferrari driver!”
— “As is Herr Pironi upstairs…”
— “His team mate, no less. I know it’s late and that we haven’t announced ourselves through the proper channels, but we would very much like to see our friend.”
— “I’m not sure he is able to talk to you.”
— “What’s your boy’s name?” asked Alain, while grabbing a piece of paper from the receptionist’s desk.
— “Klaus…”, she answered, almost with a question mark rather than stating a fact.
— “So, ‘To Klaus’ – with a K, right? – ‘always race for the win’”, said Alain, dictating to himself the words he was writing down on the papier.
— “Alain Prost, Equipe Renault Elf. Here, Gilles…”
— “Maybe it’s best that I accompany you to his room”, the receptionist said.

Catherine was there, of course, who said that Mauro Forghieri had stopped by earlier in the evening. The operation had gone extremely well, she said, although it had lasted for five hours. The doctors told her he could be transferred from the intensive care unit later this week. The receptionist had been right, though. Didier wasn’t able to talk to them. He was fast asleep, the only sound coming from the machines surrounding him.

“But you can go in and have a look”, said Catherine. Hesitantly, the two agreed.
For some five minutes, the two Grand Prix winners remained silent as they stood at the bedside of their rival.

— “Would he hear us?” Gilles finally asked Alain. The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders.
— “Didier?”, the Canadian said, a bit too loud, and he scared himself with the echo of his voice. — “Didier? I never really cared about the championship. It’s yours. You will have it.”

This seemed to have stung the Renault driver next to him, who gave him a very surprised look.

— “Do you really mean that?” Alain whispered acutely. — “Are you mad?”
— “Of course. If it has to be like this, I don’t need all the fuss”, Gilles said out loud.
— “But you were livid with Didier for trying to steal your championship!” Prost’s whispering got an even bigger sense of urgency.
— “Now it’s all changed. I wouldn’t want to beat a guy who’s in hospital anyway. He can have the championship, I’ll go for the race wins instead. That’s all I’ve ever been interested in anyway.”
— “Man, if you get those race wins, you’ll be champion all the same! I know what I’d do…”
— “So you’d steal his title?”
— “That’s not stealing. That’s motor racing! For all I know he could have blown his engine for the next couple of races – that’s not that strange, you know it’s happened to me all the time this season! You keep on winning like today, and you’re champion.”

Gilles seemed taken aback by that argument, and looked at Didier. “Are you sure he can’t hear us?”
— “If you won’t take it, I will”, added Alain, back to whisper mode again, and more to himself than to Gilles. Now it was Villeneuve’s turn to look to his side. Did that guy really say that?
— “And if I was in that bed?”
— “Doesn’t change a thing. I mean, we’re mates, I’m sure you will agree, but once we’re out on the track we’re on our own. With the amount of bad luck I’ve been having I’ll gladly take four wins and the championship.”
— “So at all cost?”
— “Not at all. Bad luck happens in motorsport. Didier just had some spectacularly bad luck. I pity him for it, but he’s one less rival to worry about. I’d also be worried about who would be my team mate next season. You won’t be having Didier, that’s for sure. And I won’t be having René, that’s a fact as well. I’d rather have a number two who is honest and that I can handle. We’re in the same boat on that point.”

A small detail in Alain’s words had caught Gilles’ attention.

— “What do you mean René won’t be with you next year?”
— “Well… he just won’t… And I’d be talking to Piccinini if I were you.”

Catherine Bleynie, Didier Pironi’s girlfriend, was surprised by their expression when she saw the two men leave Didier’s room. Instead of looking sad they looked puzzled. What had they been doing there? What is something with Didier? She rushed inside but found her boyfriend in the same narcoleptic state as she left him one hour earlier.

It couldn’t have been something he had said. So was it something he actually hadn’t said?

Richard Williams read our book and “enjoyed it” :-)

We’re very proud to have learnt that Richard Williams, former chief sports writer of The Guardian, author of books like ‘The Death of Ayrton Senna’, ‘Racers’, and ‘Enzo Ferrari: A Life’, has read our own scribblings, and “enjoyed it”.

Thanks for the compliment, Richard!

GPFans’ podcast looks at Senna versus Schumacher

Last week GPFans’ podcast dealt with the 25th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death. Presenters Rob Watts and Matt Scott also talked about the potential Senna versus Schumacher rivalry that never happened. And they briefly discussed our book, too. Make sure to check it out on your favorite podcast platform.

Senna versus Schumacher chapter excerpt

Ahead of the next race, in Brazil, Ferrari formally lodged a complaint against McLaren, Jordan and Williams, accusing the three teams of using illegal braking systems, such a system effectively operating as a four-wheel steering system. The Scuderia were joined by Arrows, Tyrrell and Minardi, while Sauber only identified Jordan in their complaint. The race stewards told the accused teams to disable the system during Friday’s free practice, while they worked on the issue. On Saturday morning the stewards confirmed that the braking systems were indeed illegal. But McLaren wasn’t bothered. They went on to qualify a full second ahead of the competition, while Senna was only fourth, and in the race they finished one-two again, a full minute ahead of the competition, Schumacher again beating Häkkinen.

The Argentine Grand Prix was a different story, however. Although Häkkinen started from pole position, Senna was second, ahead of Schumacher. The latter two scrapped for the first two laps, but the Brazilian prevailed. Three laps later, leader Häkkinen made a mistake going into turn 7. Senna saw a small gap open up and went for it. The cars touched, Häkkinen spun and dropped several places, but Senna was through. Senna made the most of his two-stop strategy, and, once in the lead, used his light fuel load to create a gap. By the time the Ferrari driver stopped for fuel and fresh tyres, he held eleven seconds over Schumacher. The German took the lead for a number of laps, but when he also pitted, Senna was back in front. Again, Senna made use of his lighter car, and over the next dozen laps he increased the gap to more than twenty seconds. At his second pit stop, Senna had a large enough lead to stay in front. Even an off due to a late rain shower couldn’t keep Senna from winning the race, ahead of Schumacher, and his Ferrari team-mate Salo.

After three flyaway races, the Formula One circus returned to its European heartland for the San Marino Grand Prix. It was now four years since that dreadful weekend, and after Senna and Schumacher had attended the drivers’ briefing, the German addressed the fact.

– “Formula One has come a long way since ‘94, hasn’t it?” Schumacher said.
– “It has, and I’m happy for it”, Senna replied. “Maybe Roland didn’t die in vain after all.”
– “I don’t think he did.”
Senna was quiet.
– “What are you thinking about?” Schumacher queried.
– “I was thinking about that weekend. About Rubens, Roland, those spectators and mechanics, as well as my own accident, and what it has come to mean to me.”
– “What does it mean?”
– “Well, about a year ago I talked to Alain about it. And he explained to me his own experience, which is similar.”
– “Which is?”
– “It was about Pironi’s crash at Hockenheim in ‘82.”
– “What did that have to do with Prost?”
– “It was Prost’s car that Pironi crashed into. He was one of the first to arrive at the scene, even before Sid was there. He saw everything. He heard the doctors talk about amputating Pironi’s legs. He pleaded against it, which saved them.”
– “Wow, I didn’t know that. And how did Prost take it?”
– “The experience changed him. It changed the way he raced.”

Schumacher stopped. Senna stopped, too. He turned to his rival, who asked: “Has your experience changed you?”

Senna stared at Schumacher, surprised by the straightforwardness of the question, and by the fact that, of all people, it was Schumacher who had asked it. “I’m not sure”, he said.

The conversation was cut short by the Ferrari press officer, who needed Senna to attend a team meeting. When they walked off, Senna looked over his shoulder, to Schumacher. He felt awkward about their talk. About Schumacher’s last question. About the fact that he had had no answer. Senna had been preoccupied by his racing, the past few years, but he was sure that he would find out whether that weekend, that season had changed him, and how.

Excerpts from all chapters published during 2019

On Wednesday 1 May it is 25 years ago that Ayrton Senna lost his life at the San Marino Grand Prix, while Wednesday 8 May marks the 37th anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve’s death at Zolder.

Stirling Moss’ career-ending crash at Goodwood took place 57 years ago on 23 April, on Sunday 26 May it is 64 years ago that Alberto Ascari was killed at a Monza test, and Dick Seaman died 80 years ago at the Belgian Grand Prix on on 25 June.

To commemorate Senna, Villeneuve, Moss, Ascari, and Seaman, in the course of 2019 we will publish excerpts of their respective stories, straight from the book, both on this site as well as on 8W. Here’s our schedule:

  • Wednesday 1 May: Senna vs Schumacher
  • Monday 1 July: Villeneuve vs Prost
  • Sunday 1 September: Moss vs Clark
  • Friday 1 November: Ascari vs Fangio
  • Tuesday 24 December: Dick Seaman

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