Monaco, mon desir

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The one that got away
Jacques Laffite: 1983 Monaco Grand Prix

It was a classic, tigering Rosberg win. But his Williams team-mate reckons that he should have got the glory, he tells Adam Cooper

“There are a few frustrating races I remember from the Ligier days, especially in 1979 and ’80 when we had a superb car. Even in ’81, in the JS17, we had a car which was good enough to have made me world champion, but we missed out. But the race I remember as being the most frustrating was the Monaco Grand Prix of ’83, when I was with Williams. My team-mate of that year, Keke Rosberg, won the race — and I was catching him when I retired.

“I had been with Ligier from 1976 to ’82. In my last year we thought we would have a turbo engine from Matra for ’83 to replace the trusty V12. They made an engine with Peugeot, a very nice V6, but in the end they decided not to go with it, so we were left without a competitive engine. And by then you had to have a turbo engine to be a winner. It was that simple.

“I had been at Ligier for seven years and I decided that it was time for me to change. I was nearly 40, so I was not so young! I knew that Frank Williams was working with Honda to have a turbo engine for 1984, and he made me an offer to join Keke.

“I liked Frank (and Patrick Head), so I was very happy to go back there eight years on from when I last drove for him; he had given me my first chance in Formula One way back in ’74. He had nothing back then — I wasn’t even paid! In fact, Count Zenon bought one or two engines for me to give to Frank to help us, but otherwise I had no money. But what was really good about Frank was that all his thinking was about racing. Even with no money, he wanted to go testing and do the right things.

“Keke had been the world champion in 1982, so I thought it was a good time for me to go back to the team. The FW08C we had in ’83 was a good car, but often I had a Cosworth DFV that wasn’t quick enough. I’d say to Frank, ‘Why do you pay me so much, and then don’t give me the best equipment?’

“I didn’t have such a great qualifying at Monaco, and I was seventh. It had been raining before the start, and Keke and I both started on slicks when most of the turbo guys went for wets. Keke got into the lead early on and, after about eight laps, I got up to second.

“After a while I caught him up a bit; I really felt that I was quicker than him. Maybe he was not going as fast as he could because he was leading the race. And at Monaco at that time you really had to take care of your clutch, gearbox and brakes — no over-revving and so on.

“You cannot believe what it means for a driver to win at Monaco. When I started racing I just wanted to win the big races: Monaco, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500. I wanted to win them all.

So I was prepared to overtake Keke, for sure…

“I was catching him very quickly towards the end, but I got a pit signal saying ‘Go slow!’ Finally, I was going too fast and I had a problem with my gearbox. At this time you could shift the gears without using the clutch, and at Monaco you had 4000 gearchanges or something. So it was my own fault.

“When I stopped Frank told me he wasn’t at all happy because we could have had a Williams 1-2 finish, which would have been very good for the team. I agreed with that but, you know, for a driver it’s very important to win in Monaco.

“Frank asked me, ‘If you’d caught Keke did you plan to overtake him?’ I replied, ‘Yes, for sure!’ ‘Even if he was looking for you?’ ‘Yes, the first time I’d had the opportunity, I would have overtaken him.’ ‘What if you had touched?’ Whoa!

“As I said, I knew it was important for the team to be 1-2 in Monaco, and we missed this because I was stupid. It’s easy to say that afterwards, but when you are in your car in Monaco, and you think you are quicker than your team-mate, and you think you will catch him — you go all out.

“I had won in Monaco in Formula Renault and in Formula Three. I loved the track, and to win the GP there… I’d have cut off my own finger!”