The team that kept France awake
- Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W September 2000 issue
- Patrick Depailler - Committed to life, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Didier Pironi - Pironi's inconspicuous return to F1, by Rainer Nyberg
Cooper-Maserati T81 (self-entered)
1966 Monaco GP (22 May 1966)
Would anyone in the 1966 Monaco paddock have imagined that for the Ligier name the end of the road in Grand Prix racing would come a full 30 years later? Making up the numbers in a Grand Prix suffering from 3-litre engine starvation, the French businessman was expected to be one of the many fly-by privateers of the day who were in and out of F1 before you could blink an eye.
Indeed, Ligier's F1 career as a driver, interrupted by a huge practice smash at the 'Ring, lasted but two unsuccessful seasons. We then had to wait for almost an entire decade, which Monsieur Guy used to race F2 and build sportscars, before Ligier returned to the F1 paddock once more. Not before long, cars bearing the name would become Grand Prix winners and challenge for title glory before a long streak of barren, Laffite-less years set in. After Jacques' retirement Ligier took up some sort of Sauber-like role in the GP field - always there or thereabouts, not looking bad (although sometimes they plainly did), but not looking good either.
At least Ligier didn't fade away the way Tyrrell or Lotus did. In its last season it became a winner again before its last design, now Bridgestone-shod, turned out to be a dangerous outsider for victory, which, alas, it was never to see again. In 1997, the JS45 was a Prost by name but still a Ligier by nature. So really, the spiritual end of the line for Ligier came with the 1997 Canadian GP leg-breaking smash by Olivier Panis, the last of the great French talents to be given a break by the marque.
Grumpy broad-shouldered Guy Ligier, who had been a class rugby player in his time, only became involved with motor racing in his thirties. By that time, he had made a fortune with his road construction company. Always interested in fast cars, he began racing in 1963, through his great friend Jo Schlesser, initially with a Porsche Carrera, before moving on to endurance racing, driving a Porsche 904GT. With money being no object Guy moved into Formula 2 in only his second season of racing. Not entirely untalented, he managed to haul his private Brabham BT10 into fifth at Enna and sixth at Albi and Montlhéry. In 1965 Ligier momentarily diverted his attention to sportscars, racing a Ford GT and winning with it at Albi, but elsewhere success was not forthcoming while he awaited the new 3-litre Grand Prix formula.
Having acquired a pukka Cooper-Maserati T81 Ligier boldly entered the Grand Prix scene at the season-opening Monaco GP. And finished. 25 laps down... And sixth! Still he got no World Championship point for his effort (and this would happen to him twice!) since a new rule had just been introduced that obliged runners to have covered 90 per cent of the winner's distance to be classified - the rule is in place until this day and so Guy Ligier was the first one to fall foul of it... Although not one of the grid's fastest privateers, Ligier's driveshaft troubles during the Monaco race did not give a true reflection of his capabilities, since in qualifying he outpaced Bob Bondurant's private BRM and was only 0.2s adrift of Jo Bonnier's similar private Cooper-Maserati.
With the laps being slightly longer for the Belgian GP and with less race trouble to attend to, he hugely improved on his finishing record at Spa, going on to finish 4 laps down on the winner. In the true privateer spirit he was keeping his nose clean and his car in one piece, racking up useful mileage. In France - as you would expect - Guy really got going and proved himself no dud by taking 11th on the 17-car grid. Yet in the race he would again finish many laps down, unclassified yet again. Same story for Britain, but now he was actually ahead of Chris Lawrence's unique Cooper-Ferrari, plus Bob Anderson and Jo Siffert as well. Amazingly, up until now he hadn't had a single retirement. And that trend continued at Zandvoort, where he again saw the chequered, last of the runners but on the same lap as Bonnier and John Taylor's private Brabham-BRM.
Then came the Nürburging. The daunting Eifel track was to destroy Ligier's finishing record in the toughest of ways, a practice crash resulting in a broken knee-cap and the end of Guy's debut season. The track didn't get to him, however. Returning in 1967, having traded his Cooper for a more competitive Brabham-Repco, he showed his determination by taking sixth from eight cars remaining at the line, having been lapped by Hulme, Brabham and Amon. It was to be his only World Championship point. As a driver, that is.
In sportscars, teaming up with Jo Schlesser, he took a major victory by taking the Reims 12-hour race. Together, they entered F2 for 1968, racing McLarens, while they were overjoyed with Jo's F1 break at Rouen-les-Essarts on board the controversial new Honda. As we all know, it ended in bitter tragedy and for the moment Guy pulled out of the sport.
For 1969 he was back, though, initially as a driver but then starting off on a sportscar project called JS1 - 'JS' of course being the initials of unlucky Jo Schlesser. As a designer Michel Tétu came aboard, the man who later became instrumental in the rise of Renault as a Grand Prix car manufacturer. His first accomplishment was the JS1 to JS3 line of open-top sportscars, which first raced in 1971. After finishing second in the April 3-hour Le Mans Trial, granting them an entry ticket to the big race, it won the Montlhéry Spring Trophy. Paired with a young Patrick Depailler Ligier then went on to drive this DFV-powered version at Le Mans. During the race it struck big transmission trouble which asked for a lengthy replacement pitstop, so in the end they finished as unclassified runners - sort of the story of Guy Ligier's life as a racer!
Still, they had made their mark. Tétu's design was quite innovative since it made use of an aluminium honeycomb chassis long before this material became "de rigueur" in F1. Although the idea was great, it failed in its execution as the Vichy team couldn't figure out how to feed the loads into the chassis.
After that, Ligier steadily progressed. In the 1974 Le Mans event a Maserati-engined JS2 driven by Laffite and Serpaggi finished an encouraging 8th, and so Ligier decided to continue the project. In 1975, with Gitanes backing, the Lafosse/Chasseuil Ligier-Cosworth JS2 finished second. This proved to be a very important result, for Guy was able to lure the state tobacco company into supporting his Grand Prix bid. Renewing his ties with Matra, which had withdrawn from F1 in 1974 to concentrate on sportscars, Ligier also managed to acquire the services of the rocket factory's super engineer Gérard Ducarouge, whose designs would prove to be instrumental for Ligier's fast drive to the top. Slowly, a new French national team was starting to form.
Ducarouge first persuaded his former employer-turned-supplier into restarting development work for their noisy V12 engine, now only in use in tuned-down form for Matra's sportscars. Then "Duca" penned the stunning JS5, the car following the trend set by Lola/Hill in sporting an overly huge airbox with a surprisingly small air intake. To no-one's surprise, the car soon was dubbed the "teapot". With young-and-upcoming Jacques Laffite picked over experienced Matra stalwart Beltoise, Ligier was an immediate hit on the tracks. At Monza, Jacques put the (now modified) teapot on pole before moving on to even greater things with the follow-up JS7.
At Anderstorp, Laffite put in a commanding display, romping to victory in the 1977 Swedish GP. France had been put back on the map: a French car with a French engine, backed by a French company, and driven by a French driver had trounced the opposition. Within the next two years, now with Cosworth power and a serious two-car team, the great Patrick Depailler also returning to Vichy, Ligier looked to be the team-to-beat in the opening races of the 1979 season, as the new JS11 coped best with the new challenges of ground effects. In Argentina Laffite took pole, win and fastest lap and followed that up with a similar dominant display in Brazil, Depailler making it a Ligier walk-over. Their nearest rival, Carlos Reutemann in the title-winning Lotus 79, was 44s adrift of Laffite. Both the later champion and runner-up from Ferrari were a lap down.
Then followed the long break until South Africa, the US West GP and the ensuing European season - it gave the favourites, who had been caught with their pants down, the opportunity to make amends. Ferrari launched their new T4 challenger while Williams had their all-conquering FW07 waiting in the wings. With the T4, Gilles Villeneuve promptly won at Kyalami and Long Beach, his team mate taking Monaco and Belgium. At Jarama, Ligier looked to be on the rebound with Laffite on pole, and front-row man Depailler winning, but it was a false dawn. With only Jabouille interloping with Renault's first win, the rest of the season the victory spoils were divided between Ferrari and Williams. Then Ligier's flow was further interrupted by Depailler's hanggliding accident.
In 1980 Ligier signed French hotshoe Didier Pironi and again they looked to be real championship contenders. The follow-up JS11/15 was a fine car and Pironi and Laffite took a win each. But the Williams FW07B and the Brabham BT49 weren't just fine cars but exceptional ones while Renault's turbo onslaught was also taking shape. In the end Ligier once more finished third in the constructors table.
The following year saw a big change with Talbot taking over Matra and pressing Ligier to drop the DFV in favour of the old Matra V12. The MS81 version hardly had any more power than at the time Ligier dropped the engine three years before. Still, the autocratic Monsieur Ligier thought the association with a major company such as Talbot would do them good. He even went as far as to enter his new JS17 cars as Talbot-Matras (or Talbot-Ligier-Matras), the entrant being Talbot Gitanes. Luckily, Gérard Ducarouge and Michel Beaujon penned a straightforward car, with lines carried through from its DFV-powered predecessors, notably with the sidepod endplates curving upwards in front of the rear wheels - a Ligier trademark since the JS11.
Through sheer consistency, Laffite was in with a shout for the title until the very last hurdle, after taking his second win in the penultimate race in Montreal but a disappointing display in Vegas put an end to that. Second drivers Jean-Pierres Jarier and Jabouille never figured for the team.
Then, in 1982, Ligier's challenge faded abruptly, to the sadness of new signing Eddie Cheever. Not only did the turbo teams take the upper hand, the team was also compromised by the mid-season arrival of the radical new JS19 - the first in line of a series of off-beat Ligier designs that failed to work. It was the first Ligier (or Talbot) not designed by Ducarouge. With the now-in-charge Beaujon daringly parting with Ligier design tradition, the JS19 was a striking visual (and technical) departure from the JS17 and all other Ligiers before it. Its paint job was stunning, the rest of the car wasn't. The driver sat well forward, which produced a seemingly endless engine deck, while the sidepods were extended to well behind the rear wheels in a Lotus 80 sort of way, even supporting an integral rear wing. The idea was obvious: by extending the sidepods the skirts underneath it could also be extended to the tail, thus creating huge amounts of downforce.
Sadly for Vichy, the car in this form was deemed illegal by the Monaco scrutineers - where the car made its debut - and it was again sent away at Detroit where the cars were presented again. Racing the JS17 in the meantime, the team brought back two adapted JS19s at Zandvoort - after which the concept could not prove its claimed effectiveness. It led to the departure of Jacques Laffite to Williams and Talbot-Matra's inevitable withdrawal. The promised Matra V6 turbo never materialised. Now, Ligier were truly on the rocks.
In the sans-Laffite years that followed Ligier was decimated into an also-ran. Opposed to the JS19, which was all sidepods, the bulky Cosworth-powered Beaujon/Gallopin JS21 followed the 1983 rave for virtually sidepod-less cars. Boesel and Jarier went nowhere with the car, effectively ending both drivers' F1 careers. Also, Gitanes greatly reduced its sponsorship contribution.
Gallic pressure - which also saw the arrival of the government-led French lotto as their new main sponsor - led to Renault supplying Ligier with their latest EF15 turbo from 1984 onwards and while the JS23 disappointed, the team crawled back in 1985, with lost sons Laffite and Tétu returning, and Gérard Larrousse joining as team director. Jacques scored 16 points but De Cesaris was sacked after becoming the single biggest line on the team's profit-and-loss account.
More government influence led to the continuing supply of Renault engines and a return from Gitanes for 1986, which was to become the last season Ligier figured as a front-runner. Tétu designed the pretty, low-line JS27, an excellent tool for veterans Arnoux and Laffite to score several good placings. Sadly, Laffite's career was ended by the huge Ghinzani-induced startline pile-up at the British GP at Brands. Without Jacques - who returned to the team years later, acting as sporting director - Ligier were lost.
Ligier himself was lost: ironically having signed the very same Ghinzani, Guy made a deal with Alfa Romeo for its poor 415T light-alloy turbo - a plainly misguided move. Arnoux was lost: he publicly vilified the Alfa engine, leading Turin to cancel the agreement at the last moment. And Tétu was lost: after rushing to adapt his JS29 to the BMW/Megatron engine, which then ursurprisingly failed, he penned the singularly dreadful JS31 for 1988, which Stefan Johansson recently described as the worst car he ever drove. Not having learnt a lesson from the 1986 Brabham BT55 disaster, Tétu created a Judd-engined low-line car that, although looking small from just about every angle, had the audacity to be overweight all the same. The cause was the peculiar component lay-out, created in an attempt to achieve optimum weight distribution. Of course, the downside of the advantage was far bigger, the excess plumbing giving the car ample weight to distribute in the first place!
So it was thank you and goodbye to Tétu, as the team moved to its new base at Magny-Cours without a designer. In the end, Brazilian Richard Divila was signed on, who drew the plain and simple DFR-powered JS33. Carried through into the 1990 season, Arnoux, Grouillard, Larini and Alliot were making up the numbers with it, the same applying to Williams refugee Boutsen and F3000 champ Erik Comas in the single season Ligier used Lambo engines.
Returning to Renault power in 1992 caused a small upswing in fortunes, as Boutsen and Comas started to get some speed out of the JS37 during the course of the season. Still, very little in the way of results was achieved, although Comas outpaced (and outscored) his experienced team mate.
The arrival of the "Brundell" boys for 1993 brought Ligier back to relative competitiveness, as Blundell took Ligier's first podium finish for a long time at Kyalami with Brundle (here in the off-beat livery he tried in Japan and Australia) repeating the trick at Imola and Mark doing it again at Hockenheim. In 1994, the same JS39, now in B spec, was put at the disposal of former DAMS F3000 boys Bernard and Panis, and they took a freak second and third at the German GP, where the field was reduced to 15 cars after one lap, the two Frenchmen not believing their luck after surging through the startline fracas to end up in points-scoring positions already as they crossed the line for the first time.
By that time, Guy Ligier was only involved in F1 by name. Having sold the majority of his stock back in 1992, the team was now totally under the control of Tom Walkinshaw, himself a Flavio Briatore puppet those days. The "Flavour Flav" influence became notable at the end of 1994, when a driver merry-go-round was set in motion that caused the end of Eric Bernard's F1 career. Johnny Herbert, ruthlessly snatched away from Lotus, was put in Bernard's place in the Benetton "B" team, Eric moving over to Lotus. After a single race Bernard was put aside by the cash-strapped Lotus team, which hired Mika Salo, while Herbert was promoted to Verstappen's seat at Benetton. This gave young Franck Lagorce his F1 break, an opportunity he will regret to this day, the political Benetton/Ligier/Simtek environment not being the most helpful of places for nurturing up-and-coming driver talent, as Jos Verstappen will also testify.
In Michael Schumacher's greatest season Aguri Suzuki brought Mugen-Honda power to the TWR-run team but apart from a survivor second place at Adelaide, two laps down on winner Damon Hill, Panis and Suzuki brought little comfort to the struggling team. But whereas Suzuki plainly disappointed, unable to match his 1990 form, Olivier and Suzuki's replacement Martin Brundle at least showed their inherent pace and took handfuls of points each, Martin taking a deserved third at Spa in Frank Dernie's Benetton copy.
With Tom Walkinshaw giving up after just two seasons and diverting his interests to Footwork/Arrows, Ligier had to start over again. Also, for the first time in its history, in what proved to be their final season, their familiar starting numbers 25 and 26 were swapped for the numbers 9 and 10, as the FIA adopted a new numbering format. With Cesare Fiorio at the helm, the team scored its final famous win, Panis heroically taking the monsooned Monaco GP. In JS45 guise, the pretty and rather successful Mugen-engined car was carried through into the 1997 season, with a promising Bridgestone deal at that. With a Ligier JS41 acting as the official Bridgestone test bed during 1996 - 1996 and 1997 TWR drivers Verstappen and Hill splitting the testing chores - Ligier was set to profit from the experience.
Then it was announced that Alain Prost would be taking over the marque, its premises and its sponsorship deals. Most importantly, the Ligier JS45 was to be called Prost JS45. Still, the FIA didn't regard the Prost Grand Prix entry as an entirely new one, as Alain was allowed to benefit from Ligier's 1996 accomplishments.
In its 20 years of existence, Ligier took 9 wins, poles and fastest laps each. That may not seem much but when we restrict ourselves to the Laffite years, skip the misguided Beaujon and Tétu years and start over again when the "Brundell" boys came into play, the statistics compare rather well with, say, Arrows, or Tyrrell in the post-Stewart era. Or with Prost-the-marque! Ironically, Prost's debut season with the Ligier JS45 will remain the team's best season by far.
Also, the 1996 Ligier JS43 wasn't the last Ligier car per se. Today, Ligier is a big name in moped-engined funny cars for the elderly and the physically challenged - it's the business to which Guy Ligier diverted his interests once he sold most of his shareholding in the Grand Prix team. So, nowadays, your grandma can proudly claim she is a Ligier driver before screaming past you down the road...
Reader's Why by 'Uechtel'
The picture shows Frenchman Guy Ligier, one of Formula 1´s most faithful supporters, first as a driver with limited success, later to run perhaps the most substantial mid-field team of all. Here he is making his Grand Prix debut at the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix.
The former rugby player came into motor racing relatively late at the age of 33. Stimulated by his close friend and partner Jo Schlesser, with whom he ran a Ford performance dealership, he drove a Porsche Carrera in 1963. He soon moved into endurance racing and in 1964 he appeared in Formula 2, he and Schlesser entering their Brabhams under the Ford (France) banner. His connection to the American automobile concern later allowed him some drives in a Ford GT sports car in 1965, with the highlight being his victory at Albi.
With the new 3-litre rules coming into effect for Formula 1 in 1966 everybody would have to start from scratch. Even some of the works teams were ill prepared to the new formula, either using hastily patched up designs or having to be content with their old cars and only slightly enlarged engines, only three manufacturers having genuine 3-litre designs, Ferrari, Brabham (with Repco engines) and Cooper. So this seemed a convenient moment for Ligier to enter the Grand Prix scene.
The Chipstead Group, which was also general importer of Maseratis into the UK, had taken over the Cooper company early in 1965. So when it became clear that the long-time engine partner Climax would not support the new formula, it was adjacent to ask the Italian company whether they could supply suitable power units for the Cooper Grand Prix programme.
So the nine-year-old V12 engines, being initially designed for the old 2,5-litre front engined Grand Prix car and raced only once (1957 in the Italian Grand Prix with Behra), where dusted off and updated into 3000cc form, now fitted with fuel injection and transistor ignition. At the London Car Show in January 1966 the first British 3-litre Formula 1 car could be seen, the Cooper-Maserati T81. It was the company´s first monocoque design and in best Cooper tradition it was announced that the car would be available for customers, too, the works team retaining for their own use only three of the six chassis that were built altogether. The remaining three cars were sold to Rob Walker (for Jo Siffert), Jo Bonnier and Guy Ligier.
So at the start of the first Grand Prix of the World Championship, here at Monaco, Ligier was one of only seven lucky drivers who had a full Grand Prix machine at their disposal in a field of 16 starters. But in the streets of the principality engine power counted not that much, the tightness of the circuit favouring also the smaller cars. And the Cooper really was a "big thing" as can be seen on the photo. It was well overweight with its 610 kg (the rules requiring a minimum weight of just 500 kg!) and despite its huge bodywork the air intakes of the mon-struous engine reached well into the airstream, indicating that it really was a design of the fifties. In fact, it was titled by its drivers as "the beast"...
Here at Monaco the T81 suffered further disadvantages to eat up its power advantage of 360 hp because of its inherent oversteer, the car being not yet fully developed, and the available trans-mission ratios would allow the use of only three gears in most parts of the circuit.
Consequently the race was won by one of the uprated cars of the previous formula, a BRM P261 in 2-litre form in the hands of Jackie Stewart, and only four cars being classified, none of them fitted with a 3-litre engine. "Our man" on the photo would have finished sixth if there had not been a new rule requiring that a driver had to cover at least 90 per cent of the race distance to be classified as at the end he was some 25 laps down due to a long pit stop when he had to change a drive shaft joint.
Later in the season Ligier crashed during practise at the Nürburgring, severely injuring his knee, so he was out for the rest of the season. He returned into 1967 and replaced his Cooper with a more competiti-ve Brabham from the British Grand Prix onward. As a satisfaction for his 1966 desaster there, he scored his only World Championship point at the German Grand Prix but had far more success in sports car racing winning the Reims 12 hours with Schlesser.
So it was a tragic loss for him when Schlesser had his fatal crash in the 1968 French Grand Prix with the new ill-developed Honda RA 302. Ligier had meanwhile returned to Formula 2, recognising that his talent would not be sufficient to Formula 1, but after the death of his friend he retired for the rest of the season.
He appeared again in 1969, this time in touring car races, but at the same time he began slowly to enter the constructor´s camp, building his own prototype sports car which had its debut in 1970. This sports car program-me led him finally back into Formula 1 in 1976, when the Matra-engined JS5 (all his cars were given the initials of Jo Schlesser) had its debut season in the hands of Jacques Laffite.
The team had its best seasons clearly in the years between 1979 and 1981 when Laffite was a real challenger to the title but thereafter the descent began until finally the team was taken over and renamed by Alain Prost in 1996.