Laffite on Depailler

After three years of being the sole driver at Ligier, Laffite was suddenly faced with an equally fast Frenchman
By Rob Widdows

My God, I had so many! Which one will I choose, huh?” Jacques Laffite is talking about his myriad team-mates, recalling a long racing career that brought him many accolades as well as painfully broken legs in a crash at the British Grand Prix which ended it all. Now he hobbles around the F1 paddocks as a commentator for French television. A keen fisherman and golfer, Jacques is one of the good blokes of Grand Prix racing.

“Patrick Depailler was my friend and also my enemy. He was very quick, you know,” he says forcefully. “He came to Ligier when I was used to being on my own there, so I was not so happy at the start. But he was a very quick driver.”

We are going back to 1979. Jacques had been with Ligier since 1976, the French team running a single car until Depailler joined from Tyrrell during the winter of ’78. Guy Ligier, encouraged by Bernie Ecclestone to field two cars as FOCA began to develop the show that has become the F1 we know today, had found the money and wanted another French driver.

“He was one of the fastest drivers in France at that time and so it was more interesting for the team to take someone like that. And anyway, Pironi wasn’t available and Jabouille was with Renault. I had been on my own at Ligier since the start but I knew Patrick very well and it was interesting for me. We had travelled together a lot when he was driving with Tyrrell so we were familiar, and I think Guy thought it would be a good comparison to have another driver. I mean, he knew I was quick, but we never had any comparison with another man in the same car and the money was now there to do that.”

It was difficult for Jacques to adjust, and to accept that the team no longer revolved around him. He’d had plenty of team-mates at Williams but the Ligier team had become his own. “It was not because it was my team so much, it was more that I was worried we did not have enough money to run two cars, so I said to Guy, ‘We’ve made a mistake, not because we take Depailler, but because there is not enough money to make it work.’

“We had so many new things: more mechanics, a T-car which we never had before, and it was very different with three cars and so many more people. But we took the JS11 to Ricard in the winter of ’78 and straightaway it was bloody quick; the second lap through Signes I was flat, so I felt better after that. The ground effects were working well and I could see why the Lotus had been so fast during the previous season.”

But now, with a good car, he had to form a working relationship with Depailler, wanting to make sure they worked as a team, especially as he knew that the other Frenchman would be right on top of the game.

“I said to Patrick, ‘We are not here to fight, we are here to work. The car already seems really good and we will have success as long as we develop the car together, as a team.’ I told him, I don’t care who wins, you or me, and he said ‘OK’, and we started the season with a very quick car. But we were not totally prepared; we didn’t really have enough people for two cars. But we started fantastically – I won the first two races, and Patrick was not happy at all because he felt his car was not so good as mine, did not have so much downforce, even though he was qualifying at the front with me,” Jacques recalls,.“But I told him it was not so simple, there were so many variables with the skirts and the downforce, and that he would win some races. We had a chat about it and I told him to concentrate on the car and not to blame me, or the team. Like all drivers coming into an established team, like Alonso at McLaren, he wanted to prove that he was the quickest.”

By the end of April, at the start of the European season, Depailler had got himself organised and won the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, starting alongside Laffite on the front row and leading all the way. Things were looking good for the Ligier team, with Depailler and Laffite now fighting Gilles Villeneuve for the world championship. But Jacques thought he should have won at Jarama.

“I made a bad start from pole and Patrick got away in the lead,” says Jacques, “but we were a second a lap faster than anyone else. We were leading the championship and I thought the team would let me pass. It was crazy, we were racing each other, but the order never came. So I thought, OK, I will try to pass him and it all went wrong. I made the move on the inside of a corner – I should have waited until the exit – and the g-forces in the cockpit caused me to make a mistake in the gearchange, I went to third instead of fifth, and WOOP the engine blew up. I thought, shit, I am stupid, and I just wanted to pack up and go home. But I wanted to be there for Patrick’s victory – it was difficult, he was my team-mate but we were very competitive also.”

Jacques pauses for thought, then goes back a step. “When Patrick was with Tyrrell we spent a lot of time together, with my wife, with his girlfriend, and we were good friends. But when he came to Ligier the relationship was different. We were still friends, but it’s strange because on the track I wanted to beat him, to get the better of him, and then when we had dinner later it was another kind of friendship. He was very nice with me but he wanted to prove that he was quick. Maybe it was a little strange after the race at Jarama, and I told him it was not necessary always to fight with each other, that we had to try and win the championship for the team as well as for ourselves. Then later we had problems with the car and we were not winning any more.”

A couple of days after the Monaco GP at the end of May, where Depailler finished fifth, he went home to Clermont-Ferrand. There was a month’s break before the next race in France and he wanted to practice his new-found passion for hang-gliding. Circling in the valleys of the Puy de Dome, he crashed into the side of the mountain and broke both his legs and his ankles. His 1979 season at Ligier was over; even his career looked in jeopardy. Little support was forthcoming from Guy Ligier, who claimed that the hang-gliding was a breach of contract. Depailler loved the adrenalin of danger. He’d already had a huge accident while riding a motorcycle, and there were those who questioned his commitment to racing. But he was sorely missed by Ligier which took on Jacky Ickx, by now at the end of his powers, to see out the season with Laffite.

“Maybe I did not need such a quick driver as Patrick as my team-mate; maybe I thought I should have been team leader, and I know I was good enough to win the Championship that year,” says Jacques. “But Ligier and Gitanes did not see it that way and they wanted Patrick. I will not change my mind on that: I was confident I could do the job. But, yes, we did miss Patrick in the team after Monaco. He was always pushing, always trying to be quicker – like Hamilton with Alonso – but Ickx did not know the car so well and he was a very different style of driver. So really, after Patrick’s accident, I was left alone in the team. Unfortunately, it would have been better to have had Patrick still in the team, rather than Jacky, but there it was…”

So how was their friendship at this time? How had they worked each other out as team-mates?

“It was OK. Patrick was an intelligent man, and we had a good relationship. No, it was not so bad, it was still a friendship,” smiles Jacques. “We had been cycling together, travelling together. But he was very motivated, always quick. We had the same approach to driving, the way we used the brakes, how we made the entry into the corner, and my style was not so far from his, so we could work together. Not like with Keke Rosberg at Williams. That was difficult because Keke always loved the car to oversteer while I hated that, and with Pironi it was always very hard, he was so political. But with me and Patrick we had very few problems like that, and we could communicate. I was never political, that was the difference between me and most of the others at that time. Patrick was a little bit political with the team, and with the sponsors, but not in such a bad way.”

The two Frenchmen were never to be re-united as team-mates. While Jacques stayed with Ligier for the 1980 season Depailler went to Alfa Romeo where he struggled with an uncompetitive car until he lost his life in a horrible accident while testing at Hockenheim in August of that year. Too many lost their mates in this way.