The Ligier JS11's invisible advantage

Ligier’s canny use of ground effect allowed it to get the jump on the establishment in 1979, but only for the first few races. Mark Hughes explains the brief supremacy of Les Bleus

Jacques Laffite Ligier 1979 Brazilian GP

Ligiers dominating at Brazil '79


Gerard Ducarouge, exhausted by months of off-season toil and the heat of an Argentinian afternoon, was only vaguely aware of the two Lotus engineers looking at his car as the Ligier team unpacked at Buenos Aires, 1979. “I could hear them; I was too tired to listen to exactly what they were saying, but I picked some of it up: ‘Why have they done the suspension like that? It’s a very odd-shaped car.’ Then, just as they were leaving, one of them said: ‘If a car like that ever wins a race, that’s the time I stop motor racing’.”

History does not record what the Lotus engineer did a few days later when Jacques Laffite, having qualified the car over a second faster than the best non-Ligier — the Lotus 79 — took it to a resounding victory in its first race.

The JS11’s debut still stands as one of the most remarkable in the sport’s history. It didn’t luck in to a win — it dominated from the first two places on the grid. What’s more, two weeks later in Brazil, it was yet further ahead as Patrick Depailler backed up Laffite to score a 1-2. In the equatorial sun of those South American races, F1 seemed to have been turned upside-down.

2 Patrick Depailler Ligier 1979 Argentinian GP Zolder

Ducarouge and team celebrate at Argentina

Grand Prix Photo

It didn’t make sense. Ligier was a newish team — it had entered F1 three years before — that was not particularly well-funded. It produced respectable cars rather than front-running ones. It was French, not British: it took long lunches, drank wine as its cars sat unattended, undiscovered gremlins lurking within, while the Brits got on with their oily business. At least that was the perception.

Ligier had always used Matra V12 engines, but the fact that JS11 was the first of its F1 chassis to employ the Cosworth DFV/Hewland package was perhaps a nod towards a less Gallic approach. Even so, Ligier wasn’t supposed to be cutting edge — that was Lotus territory. Ligier wasn’t supposed to be overwhelming in the thoroughness of its detail design and build — that was Ferrari’s job. Ligier certainly wasn’t supposed to pick up the ground effect ball that Lotus had spent the previous two years perfecting, and then run away and hide with it. But in 1979 it did — for a brief, halcyon period.

From the archive

Peter Wright of Lotus was the man behind the ground effect revolution in F1 and, with the benefit of hindsight, recalls: “What Ligier — and later Williams — did was look at the Lotus 79 and then build a version with a decent structure. The 79 had all the torsional stiffness of a wet lettuce; it had a rather flaky structure that was inappropriate to the downforce it generated. While Ligier and Williams did what we should have been doing, we took the view that if some was good, more was better and came up with the 80 which, in theory, had yet more ground effect — but which still had the flaky structure.”

Talk to Ducarouge today — he’s only months since retired from Matra, from where he was plucked in 1975 by Guy Ligier to be his team’s technical chief — and it’s clear that at least part of the JS11’s dominance was an historical accident: “Yes, the car had a stiff structure. But all the Ligiers had, even before this. It was a golden rule that I had learned at Matra with the sports prototypes — they were all very stiff. Ligiers were the same. For this reason they were not light — we were always a bit overweight, but I could see that some of the other F1 cars, lighter than as, had a lot of flex in them.”

Ducarouge was good at suspensions, too. The pre-ground effect Ligiers — JS5, 7 and 9 — excelled in mechanical grip, braking and traction. Stiff structure, good suspension was Duca’s Matra mantra. It stood him well immediately, but reaped spectacular gain when ground effect swirled into town. Suddenly, his was the only car — until the arrival of the Williams FW07 a few months later — with a structure able to take advantage of the aero loads produced.

The little team barely knew what had hit it. “There were only around 30 of us in total,” recalls Dany Hindenoch, the team’s commercial chief. “Our budget was FF16m [£1.6m], which even then was small. We were not a big team; bigger than some, but not as big as the others doing the winning. Argentina was a surprise; we’d had no reference to our competitors before that.”

2 Jacques Laffite Ligier 1979 Brazilian GP

Ducarouge with Laffite

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Ducarouge concurs: “We had no way to know how our rivals compared. We only knew that we had taken Chapman’s idea and tried to take it on a step within our resources and understanding. We didn’t know what everyone else was doing. Argentina was the first time it was clear that we were competitive.”

Unbelievably, nearly every top team had dropped the ball: Brabham, Lotus and McLaren had all produced cars structurally inadequate for ground effect; Ferrari, because of its flat-12 engine, was unable to produce a true ground effect car. So until the FW07 arrived at round five, Ligier had the world at its feet.

“But we were far too small to take advantage” explains Ducarouge. “Not enough people, not enough money. We were living like animals. People would sleep in between the two cars in the garage. And they were tiny boxes, these garages, with nothing to stop others from walking in. It’s easy to be nostalgic but, really, these were not great times.”

From the archive

In such constrained circumstances, Ducarouge’s Matra-honed experience — and that of key men he brought with him, like Michel Beaujon and Paul Carillo — was invaluable. “Ducarouge has a reputation as a brilliant designer,” says Hindenoch, “but most of that was done by Beaujon. Ducarouge was more of a project leader; he was very good at getting people to work together. The combined effect of Ducarouge and the patron role of Guy Ligier made this more like a family. Guy was the father, the rest were the children, and Ducarouge was the oldest child helping bring the family up.”

Despite his background, Ducarouge pushed Ligier into changing from Matra V12 to Cosworth V8: “It was more compact, made it easier to put the weight where you wanted it and, most of all, its consumption was a lot better so that meant the fuel cell, which costs you a lot of rigidity, could be a lot smaller.”

With that critical component agreed upon, Ducarouge, Beaujon and Carillo would make regular trips to the SERA wind tunnel in Paris, where a gifted aerodynamicist, Robert Choulet, was assigned to their project. “It was a very primitive facility compared to today,” says Ducarouge. “There was no moving floor or anything like that. But it gave quite reliable and good information.”

This little group, armed only with a basic understanding of how the Lotus ground effect principle worked and their own ideas on how this might be extrapolated, began work on the JS11. They outlined a car with a cockpit further forward than on the Lotus, giving a more favourable centre of pressure and so reducing the amount of rear wing that would be needed. Within the sidepods its venturis were more extreme in profile than those of the Lotus.

Patrick Depailler Ligier 1979 Spanish GP

Depailler got things back on track with a win in Spain

Grand Prix Photo

“We made a big step when we managed to seal the skirts to the sidepods so there was no escape of air at all,” explains Ducarouge. “At that point, and with the venturi shape we had, we got a big increase in downforce. In actual fact, it was too much.” Too much? “Yes, the downforce became very difficult to control when the pressure got too high. Even with incredibly stiff springs the car would ground out and you’d get a sudden loss of downforce. It would have meant that, at 260-270km/h [165mph], the car would be touching the ground and losing downforce. It would have been very dangerous.”

They had a solution. At a certain pressure, with the car on the verge of ground effect stall, a flap within the venturi would open and bleed off excessive downforce. It was secreted beneath a radiator. Secreted because it was a moveable aerodynamic device… F1 technical illustrator Giorgio Piola discovered it eventually in the following year’s JS11/15. “At Hockenheim, a piece of cloth was left over the radiator to stop me photographing this flap,” he recalls, “and they forgot to take it off and Didier Pironi cooked the engine. Later, at Watkins Glen, Pironi had a shunt. They brought his car back in a truck and, inside, the sidepod was open and I got the picture. It was published in Grand Prix International.”

Ducarouge: “Well, we had to use some tricks, yes. The rules were not as precise as now, and we had to find some way of controlling the pressure.”

From the archive

With his venturis generating masses of ground effect, his secret flaps bleeding off the excess, the car’s super-stiff structure translating it all to the tyres and the rest of F1 fumbling in his wake, no-one saw which way Laffite went at those South American races. Apart from Depailler, that is. Newly recruited into what had always been a one-car team for Laffite, he came in perhaps more highly rated than his compatriot…

“Jacques was not happy about the idea of having a team-mate,” says Hindenoch. “But Guy was telling him how he was the team leader and not to worry. Yet when Guy spoke to Patrick, he was telling him the same thing.”

Ducarouge: “I think Patrick expected to come in and be faster. He was very upset when Jacques was quicker in those first two races. He was thinking that I was doing special parts for Jacques’ car. I had to tell him, ‘Look, take the other car, we can swap numbers’.”

Depailler knuckled down and, at Kyalami and Long Beach, was marginally ahead of Laffite. But Ligier won neither of these events. The material of the underfloor had been changed; it was flexing and vital ground effect was lost.

That was corrected, and by Spain the cars were back on song, Laffite and Depailler again qualifying 1-2. But by now Ferrari had introduced its 312T4, not a true ground effect car but close enough that its Michelin tyre advantage could make up the rest. That and Gilles Villeneuve, who had won the two races the Ligiers lost. As the circus headed to Europe, the championship was shaping up into a Ligier vs Ferrari contest, but there was no question of team orders. Depailler won in Spain, with Laffite missing a gear and blowing his engine as he tried to pressure him. In Belgium, they again battled furiously: Depailler crashed out while leading and Laffite, compromised by tyres worn out in his intra-team battle, was passed by the victorious Ferrari of Jody Scheckter.

Patrick Depailler Ligier 1979 Belgian GP Zolder

Crash at Zolder wasted opportunity for Depailler

Grand Prix Photo

After the next race Depailler broke his legs in a hang-gliding accident. It was a blow. “It was Gitanes who insisted that we take Jacky Ickx as replacement,” reveals Hindenoch. “Guy was furious — he just didn’t want him.” Ickx was past his best in an F1 car and never qualified within 1sec of Laffite, but Jacques himself was now struggling, qualifying behind cars that had been nowhere near him in South America.

There’s a story that the team simply lost its set-up sheets — a piece of Gallic carelessness, said the Brits. “It’s nonsense,” says Ducarouge. “Just a story. I might even have gone along with it, but that isn’t what happened.”

From the archive

Hindenoch: “What happened is that Guy was under a lot of pressure. He could see the opportunity of maybe becoming a bigger, better-funded team. But he needed results and they had faded a little by mid-season. He had an idea that we needed to revise the aerodynamics of the cars and had got it in his head that the sidepods needed to be a different shape. Gerard disagreed, and in a rage Guy destroyed all the existing sidepods and said, ‘There, now you have to make new ones’. Even though the technical people knew it wasn’t the way to go, Guy’s force of personality sent them in a different direction and it took until the end of the season before the car came good again.” By which time the title, and any hopes of the boosted investment that would have followed, was a broken dream.

“Yes, Guy could be a scary man,” laughs Ducarouge — nervously. “Sometimes he was totally charming, other times he was horrible, shouting at everybody and going completely mad. People were scared of him. I was the only one there who didn’t move back when he was like this, but even I was scared inside.

“So everybody caught us up and we couldn’t develop. Not enough money or people. The job was never finished. Never. There was always more to do.”

Laffite ended 1979 in fourth. For ’80, the cars were developed to have stronger gearboxes, revised aerodynamics and outboard rear brakes to free up the airflow through the venturis. And there were again days when they were untouchable — such as Didier Pironi’s win at Zolder. But without the resources, this could never be consistently repeated. “I think we lost the ’80 title by not having as good a relationship with Goodyear as Williams had,” says Hindenoch.

Jacky Ickx Ligier 1979 Brazilian GP

Ickx struggled with car as team form fell away

Grand Prix Photo

“Yes, plus the cars were worn out,” adds Ducarouge. “We had to use the same chassis as in ’79 — and they were finished. They would crack and leak, and we just patched them up. We couldn’t afford the time to test our wings.”

The window of opportunity was over. It had been gifted the team when the skills of a small nucleus of ex-Matra men honed in long-distance racing happened to dovetail perfectly with the new ground effect phenomenon. Ultimately, there weren’t enough men in Guy’s little team to hold onto that opportunity, not enough money in the coffers. C’est la vie. Pass the wine.