Jean-Pierre Jarier had the talent to be a regular winner in Formula One, perhaps even a world champion. Instead he scored just three podium finishes in more than 100 starts. Mark Hughes explains why
It was 1996, 13 years since Jean-Pierre Jarier had last raced in Formula One. The Porsche Supercup cars arrived under heavy braking for Paul Ricard’s tight first corner, Emanuel Collard in the lead, the next two side by side. Squeezed onto the outside, Jarier was forced to surrender his claim on second place, and for the next few laps Collard pulled clear as the guy in second held Jarier up. The French veteran – the man who’d been blitzing the F1 field in Brazil ’75 and Montreal ’78 – did not seem to be using his experience well. Each time through, he’d be way quicker into the corner than his opponent, but this would put him smack on his tail by the apex, restricting him to the same exit speed.
Within a few laps, the penny seemed to drop. He held back, allowing himself more room, and got a clear run into the turn. This time, he was breathtaking. It was difficult to believe what your eyes were telling you, the way the rear-engined car was being held in a delicate pre-apex slide without the rear’s momentum overtaking the front, how the forward motion was being maintained, but most of all the sheer difference in velocity between this and anyone else. It was beautiful; a place where physics met poetry. He was hard on the power even as the apex was kissed, the car sitting on its heavy haunches under weight transference and shooting out of that corner like a missile.
The guy in second looked easy meat now as Jarier caught him hand over fist. But just before they went out of sight over a brow, he saw how Jarier was closing and began to move across his bows. As they disappeared, you knew that Jean-Pierre was going to have to lift to avoid contact; but no matter, he’d be able to nail him on another lap. Except that’s not what happened.
Flying bodywork pierced the horizon, and next time through, Jarier was down in about sixth place with no front spoiler, race effectively over.
It was all there in those few laps of a minor race, the enigma that is JPJ: the natural gift that had many observers of the early 1970s convinced he was a soon-to-be multiple world champion; the questionable mental acuity; the stubborn belligerence that surfaced when his obvious skill wasn’t translated into results.
“I think if one of the top F1 teams had got their hands on him,” says Robin Herd, his engineer at March in F2 – where Jarier blitzed the 1973 championship with seven wins – and F1, “and knocked a bit of sense into him, he’d have developed into something very special indeed.” That almost came to be.
“It was just after the French Grand Prix,” recalls Jarier of his biggest career regret, still burning 30 years on. “I’d just won four of the first nine races in F2, and I was getting experience in F1 with March, too. But I made a big, big, big mistake. I was invited by Enzo Ferrari to visit him. I had lunch with him and he showed me the new Fiorano test track. He asked me to sign a contract with him for the next two years. I signed there and then. But one month before, in June, I’d also signed an awful contract with Max [Mosley] in which I got no money and was bound to him forever.
“I thought Max would let me go, but he didn’t. He wanted a lot of money for me from Ferrari, which scared everyone. By September, I still didn’t have the money and Ferrari was still not willing to pay it, so Enzo and myself agreed to split. Max didn’t get his money and I didn’t get the Ferrari drive. Enzo then took on Niki Lauda.” And a new era of F1 history unfolded, without Jarier in the leading role that had previously seemed inevitable.
There is such a thing as bad luck, but there are some people who do seem to run to meet it. Why the hurry to sign a poor contract in June? He was young and naïve, perhaps. Yet remarkably, he made a similarly monumental error as late as 1981.
“Frank Williams had been in touch with me for 1982 because Alan Jones was retiring. Then Frank said that Jones had changed his mind. Then Jones retires after all. Frank calls me again and I have to tell him I’ve signed with Osella. Then Reutemann is talking about retiring, so Frank does a deal with Osella that gives him the option on me up to a certain date. Then Reutemann doesn’t retire. Then a few weeks later, he does! By which time Frank’s option on me is no longer operative.”
Two vacillating Williams drivers, you’re the only quick F1 pilot left on the market and you sign for Osella! When puzzling how come all that talent translated into just three third places in 11 years, you need to take account of such things.
Enzo Ferrari had seen an unpolished diamond back in 1973. Regrettably, that’s what Jarier would remain for the rest of his 10-year F1 career, jumping from one second-rate car to another without the heavy expectations of a top team to instil a discipline that he could never find from within. Jackie Stewart once described Jarier’s talent as “scruffy”, and it was easy to see what he meant.
Mike Knight had seen the very same trait when, as chief instructor of the famed Winfield Racing School at Magny-Cours, he was obliged to kick a 19-year-old Jarier off the course.
“He had the most fantastic feel for a car,” Knight says of Jarier, “but he would insist on indulging in it; he would come through the first corner – which at the time was a fast right-hander with trees and hedges to the side – in a heart-stopping manner. We hadn’t been going long at the time, but we’d already seen some horrific accidents because of the pressure people put themselves under because of the prize [a paid-for season of Formula France] that was on offer. I remember taking him to one side and saying, ‘It’s obvious you’re bloody fast, but it would be incredibly helpful if you would drive in a way that isn’t going to give us a whole load of grief from the other guys on the course’. We felt he had enough ability not to have to do this in front of everyone. But he just didn’t see where we were coming from at all and continued to do it. So in the end, yes, we kicked him out.
“Jean-Pierre just didn’t seem capable of doing anything other than in his own way, 100 per cent. What we saw, I think everyone saw. The French have that wonderful saying c’etait plus fort que lui – he just couldn’t help himself. That was how he was, that was how he did it, and he really couldn’t understand what anyone else was tying to tell him. I think that got in his way all the way through his career.
“He didn’t achieve what he should have. But to get as far as he did was absolutely amazing, really, and testimony to nothing more than that amazing talent, because everything else about him mitigated against him making it. It was quite a flaw. The very good guys tend to play to their strengths, and either work on their weaknesses or move away from them. He didn’t seem to do that, and yet he achieved what he achieved. And that was quite phenomenal. I just thought he was massively gifted – but with this very frustrating blind spot.”
The racing course came in between Jean-Pierre’s activities as a law student at university, and a motorsport reporter for Echappment. His interests were always diverse, more so than his financial circumstances really allowed for. Raised by a doting mother and grandmother who ran a hotel and restaurant in the Paris suburbs, he was indulged by the former to the extent that he persuaded her to sell her existing road car and buy instead a Renault 8 Gordini. With this, he took part in a one-make race series in 1967, a couple of years after his Winfield disappointment. He’d previously tried his hand at bike racing at Montlhery, leading all three races and winning one.
“I then met a man, Marcel Arnold, who had a big Paris furniture business. He was already helping Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and then he began to help me,” explains Jarier of the vital early benefactor who got his career on track. It’s easy to imagine how Jarier’s outgoing personality smoothed this rocky road. Everyone who’s ever worked with him attests to his charm, and he relates his story today with great humour, pausing to laugh – sometimes at his own expense, sometimes at the startling nature of his talent, at feats he seems to feel were almost nothing to do with him, so easy did they come. Can a man be too gifted for his own good?
With Arnold’s help, Jarier established himself as a front runner in Formula France in 1968 and French F3 in ’69 and 70. In a race at Clermont-Ferrand, he caught the eye of Herd: “I was just watching the start and the guy’s personality came through the body language of the car-just the aggression and confidence he had. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, the guy’s got something’. I don’t know really how you choose drivers, but there was just something about the way he took that start. You could see the confidence and control. Wonderful.” Works F3 assistance followed, as did some F2 races with March in ’71, the year in which Jarier made his F1 debut, too (see sidebar).
“The big change, the thing that took me from amateur racing to professional, was Le Mans in ’72,” says Jarier. With the Arnold team short of funds, Rene Bonnet spoke on JPJ’s behalf to Luigi Chinetti and got him a run in a NART Ferrari Daytona at the Sarthe. “I was quickest of the team, and from there I drove for Chinetti in America, and won races with Sam Posey.” Upon his return to France, there was a works F3 March waiting for him, this a prelude to that stunning 1973 F2 season.
“It was a great time for me. I tested all winter in the March-BMW, and also in the 2-litre sportscar – and even the F1 car. I moved to London and gave up my law course. I was testing three times every week. I got all my experience there and Robin was my teacher.”
Herd agrees: “It was a terrific year. Yes, the car was good, the engine was good, the team was good. But Jarier was bloody good, too, never less than 100 per cent effort.” March ran him in non-clashing F1 races, “but we were just maintaining a presence there. We did that on about £5000.”
Ironically, given the tug of love between March and Ferrari for Jarier’s 1974 services, he became a free agent anyway, on account of March’s (shortlived) withdrawal from F1. With Lauda already pounding around Fiorano, Jarier joined forces with the emerging Shadow team, and F1 began to see the potential of the man for the first time. He might have won Monaco that year had his car not suffered intermittent electrical problems – he was leading eventual winner Ronnie Peterson when the problem first occurred. But it was in the first two races of ’75 that Jarier’s F2 spark fully reignited in F1. Alas, it led to nothing in terms of hard results, the DN5 breaking on its way to the grid in Argentina and within 30 miles of a dominant win in Brazil, both times after having set pole.
The car’s designer, Tony Southgate, recalls Jarier as having “an extraordinary degree of talent, even by the standards of a top F1 driver. But I always thought he was a bit lazy. He liked having a good time and a good life. He had this massive driving ability, he could do anything with a car. But to use that to go forward you’ve got to put a lot of effort in. He liked to be eating, drinking and womanising. He would have been perfect for the 1930s.
“I liked him a lot. He brought a nice French taste to the team. He’d talk about wines and things. He said the only real wine is red; white wine is like your afternoon tea. He was a serious wine drinker.
“When we launched the DN5, it was at some fancy cafe in Paris. Jarier was taking me and Alan Rees there in a 6.9-litre Mercedes. It was raining, it was a narrow but quick road with cars parked on either side of it. He saw the place just as we passed it and, without even stopping his conversation, he handbrake-turned the car through a perfect 180 degrees and drove the other way. The width of the available road couldn’t have been more than a few inches longer than the car. Seeing that sort of talent close up is quite awesome.”
Shadow ran out of money and Jarier left at the end of 1976 – the highlight of his year being closing down on Lauda’s Ferrari for the lead in Brazil before spinning on freshly spilt oil.
He reappeared for ATS and drove marvellously to score a point on the team’s debut at Long Beach in 1977. But this wasn’t the sort of gig his talent warranted. He quit part-way through ’78: “I thought for sure my F1 career was over at this time.” He returned to sportscars where the successes had always racked up.
“Then Colin Chapman called me.” Just as Herd’s rigorous testing regime had brought a temporary discipline to Jarier that produced devastating success, Chapman represented a man that Jarier would have willingly subjugated himself to.
“Colin filled you with energy, because he had so much of it himself. You believed totally in him. It was a fantastic experience, unlike anything I’d ever had in F1. To have done a season like that would have been a dream, but he had already signed his two drivers for 1979.”
So Jarier had just two grands prix in F1’s fastest car, the Lotus 79, filling in for the late Ronnie Peterson in America and Canada. This was sufficient, however, for him to show us what a driver he might have been had a top F1 team got him. Both times the car broke, but his fastest lap at the ‘Glen was 2sec quicker than anyone else’s, this without having sat in the car before practice. At Montreal, he was annihilating the field from pole, a field that included his world champion team-mate, Mario Andretti. “That,” remarked Jackie Stewart at the time, “was a drive of perfection – the sort of performance that I or Jim Clark would’ve been proud of.”
Jarier served five more years in F1 after that stunning showing, but never again in a decent car. Two years at Tyrrell proved only that he was at least as quick as Didier Pironi. During his stint at Osella he often had the previous non-qualifier halfway up the grid, but always it broke.
He stood in for the injured Jean-Pierre Jabouille at Ligier early in 1981, and without ever having driven the car before, and after six months of inactivity, was second-fastest in the opening practice at Long Beach. He finally drove for the French team full-time in ’83, but the JS21 was DFV-powered just as the turbos had turned up the heat. He got one last chance of glory at Long Beach that year and blew it, tangling with Keke Rosberg’s Williams in a car that was on the right tyres (Michelins) and way ahead of the McLarens that ultimately finished first and second.
“I had three opportunities of staying in F1,” Jarier explains, “but with small teams. I knew I was just as fast as I had been in 1974, but I no longer wanted to do F1 on those terms. I’d lost too many friends for that: Francois Cevert, Roger Williamson, Peter Revson, Tom Pryce, Carlos Pace.”
Which is why he continued in Porsches and GTs. This was a sideshow shadow of his great days, but it was relatively safe and he was enjoying himself immensely. You can still see him there now, and once in a while, when the moon is in the correct alignment, he turns on all the old skill and you can marvel again at the artistry, take yourself back to Interlagos ’75.