Legends: Jacques Laffite
Not many people have known Formula One from the inside better than John Hogan. For countless years he was ‘the man from Philip Morris’, the man responsible for Marlboro’s involvement in motor racing. He not only did the deals, but along the way became a close friend of many of the sport’s major figures. Also one of the sages of the paddock.
We were talking about drivers one day, and what made them tick. “If you sit next to a driver on a long flight,” Hogan observed, “it’s always much more enjoyable if he’s a number two.”
I knew what he meant. The real superstars of this business, over and above their God-given talents, invariably work harder than the others, thinking of little but making the car quicker, the team more efficient. Wholly admirable, of course, but perhaps wearisome after a time.
Invariably it’s the less obsessed who are the more rounded, the more aware of a world beyond the paddock. To men like Clay Regazzoni and Jacques Laffite, motor racing was merely one of the good things of life, and thus they were able to keep it in proportion. Although, on a given day, each was capable of greatness, neither, in absolute terms, could be called ‘a great driver’, and they knew that.
I remember standing in the pits with Laffite during practice at Watkins Glen in 1979. Conditions were as bad as ever I have seen — so diabolical, indeed, that Jacques and many of his colleagues had declined to go out. The rain was bouncing off the Tarmac; in places the track was flooded.
Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari was running, though, and soon set fastest time. Then his team-mate Gilles Villeneuve accelerated out of the pit lane, and we prepared to hold our breath.
Time after time Villeneuve skittered by at 160mph, a different sort of speed from anyone else, while we looked on, giggling nervously. Eventually his time was announced, and it was 11 seconds faster than Scheckter. Some made light of it, ascribing it to insanity. Laffite disagreed. “No, no, he’s different from the rest of us. On a separate level…”
Jacques himself had come to motor racing late, and was, by his own admission, a drifter until going to the Winfield Racing School in MagnyCours in 1969, when he was already 25. “It was not my idea to go there, but a friend said he would pay if I wanted to try it, so I said OK. I was second in the championship there, then did Formule Renault for two years, then decided I would try to race for a living.
“I had never worked before that! I mean, I had worked in a garage in Paris for a bit, and I helped on Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s car, because he was my friend, but I never worked properly. I lived with my parents, and they gave me something to eat and somewhere to sleep. When I worked, I used the money to go skiing, go on holidays.”
In 1973 Laffite won the French F3 Championship, including the all important race at Monaco. Then in F2 he took the European Championship in 1975. Midway through the previous season, however, his talent had been noted by Frank Williams, and he made his Fl debut at the Niirburgring.
Laffite remembers those days with great affection. “For sure it was hard — we did not have a good engine, a good chassis or good tyres! But actually it was good for me, because it taught me to fight naturally. A lot of drivers have it too easy on the way to Fl; when they arrive there, there is no fight in them.
I loved my time with Frank, always thought he was a very good man. People used to say he was no good at running a team, but when he got money, he got success. I would have stayed with Frank for 1976 if the Ligier offer had not come up.”
The Ligier offer. It sparked a great controversy in France, because when Guy Ligier announced he was building an Fl car, with power from Matra and money from Gitanes, the driver earmarked for the project was Jean-Pierre Beltoise, a veteran revered in his own country. When Ligier signed Laffite, not all of France was impressed.
After 18 months with a down-at-heel Williams team, Jacques was astonished by that first Ligier. ‘The car was so good, so fast. The Matra engine seemed fantastic, but of course I had never had a good Cosworth with Frank’s team. The first season with Ligier was good, on the whole, but we all had a lot to learn, including me. I’m sure another driver, Lauda or someone, would have had better results than me.”
The self-deprecating thing again. Most drivers will chew on a razor blade before admitting the superiority of another, but Laffite would simply give a Gallic shrug. Facts were facts.
Ligier established a reputation for fine chassis, but the screaming Matra V12 lacked the tongue of a DFV. “It was an old design, conceived when tracks were faster, before all these bloody chicanes. You needed a Cosworth.”
In the first three seasons there was but one fortunate win, at Anderstorp in 1977, but in ’79 Ligier suddenly emerged as front-runners with the JS11, which embraced the ‘ground effect’ pioneered by Lotus, and — significantly — had a Cosworth DFV in the back.
Jacques’s season began sensationally with pole position and comfortable victories at Buenos Aires and Interlagos. At that point, as he said, it would have been easy to believe the championship was going to be a stroll, but “I knew motor racing better than that…” He didn’t win another race that season.
To some degree, Ligier, running two cars for the first time, had taken a risk in assigning the second to Patrick Depailler, for although Laffite got on well with him personally, a degree of ‘needle’ was inevitable. Here was a French team with two French drivers, each keen to assert his superiority, neither restrained by team orders.
After Jacques’s wins in South America, Patrick led all the way in Spain, his team-mate shadowing him until his gearbox broke. Then came Zolder, where they qualified one-two, and, as Laffite smilingly admits, threw the race away. The two of them had a no-holds-barred battle, resolved when Depailler went off the road. By then, however, Laffite’s tyres were cooked, and Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari came through to scoop up a fortunate win, with Jacques second.
“Zolder really showed the problem we had,” said Jacques. “Patrick and I raced for the lead as if we were in different teams. Alan Jones’s Williams was our only problem, and he retired. But I couldn’t afford to let Depailler get away; I had to keep with him, and by the time he crashed my tyres had gone off and there was nothing I could do to stop Schecicter. We could have finished one-two, no problem.”
Ultimately he was fourth in the championship, and also in 1980, winning at Hockenheim, and ’81, with victories at the Osterreichring and Montreal. The following season, though, Ligier were wretchedly uncompetitive, and when Frank Williams offered Laffite the opportunity to return, he accepted at once.
It was typical Jacques: a wholehearted commitment to his new job, including the renting of an expensive house in Stoke Poges — “Stock Poj” — so as to be near the factory, in Didcot.
The return to Williams, though, was not a great success. Invariably Laffite was outpaced by Keke Rosberg, and failed to make the podium all year long. “I loved having Jacques as team-mate,” said Keke. “Lovely guy, unbelievably laid back. He’d signed a two-year contract, and at the end of the first year Frank told him he wasn’t satisfied with his results, and was halving his retainer for ’83. Jacques just said, Or…”
The ’84 season, in which even Rosberg finished only eighth in the championship, was a very poor one for the team. At the end Laffite was out, in favour of Nigel Mansell. Whereupon — what else? — he returned to Ligier. Sometimes he was competitive, sometimes not, until his Fl career ended apallingly at Brands Hatch in 1986, with a massive first corner accident.
After the race had been stopped, I walked down to the grid. Warwick, Brundle and Dumfries were in a huddle, and their tone was light-hearted: “Look, Johnny, you don’t have to try and win it at the first comer, you know,” Derek laughed. The Lotus had chopped over the Brabham’s front wing at Paddock.
At this point none of the trio knew of the plight of Laffite, still trapped in his car away down the road. “Oh, no, not Jacques…” said Warwick. “Why him?” And that was how everyone felt, for he was as good as unique in grand prix racing in having no enemies at all. There was great relief when it was established that his life was not in danger, but he had suffered the terrible leg injuries so common in that era, when the driver sat between the front wheels.
There was now a long spell in a Paris hospital, and Jacques — typically — rented an expensive apartment nearby, so that friends coming to visit him would have somewhere to stay! Once he had recovered, it broke his heart that, at 44, a return to Fl was out of the question, but he continued to race in the French touring car championship for years, and these days, working in PR, is a fixture in the Fl paddock, still smiling.
Not long ago I had dinner with him, and it was a delight, even if I found the notion of Laffite and PR a novel one, given his reputation for saying just what comes into his head. When he got on to the subject of cheating in Fl, a colleague suggested he should keep his voice down. “But why?” Jacques enquired. “Everybody knows…”
Even in his own era Laffite somehow seemed out of his time, one who should have been in Fl when cars were front-engined and their occupants put fun before money. “You know,” he said, “everyone in France assumes that I must have a lot of money — 13 years in Fl, and all that But, you know, in my last year, 1986,I was being paid two million francs (then about $300,000). OK, it was a lot of money, I know, but nothing compared with what they get now — and, anyway, I always spend what I have! What is the point of saving millions? Life is for today, no? “Until my accident, I had no thought of retirement, none at all, and • it was the same with Clay. He loved motor racing for itself, and not just for the money. I swear to you I would have raced for nothing if I had had to. I loved competition. C’est tout.”