Tank battle

The worst car I ever drove

By putting a fuel tank between the engine and gearbox and having power steering and having power steering, the Ligier JS31 was the most avante garde car on the 1988 F1 grid. But as Stefan Johansson discovered, it was also hopeless

Stefan Johansson’s was a strange Grand Prix career. The Swede drove for Ferrari and McLaren, a privilege accorded to few, but was saddled with some pretty terrible cars during a 12-year stint lasting from 1979-91. His Fl first experience, for instance, was not a happy one.

“The Shadow DN11 is right up there,” smiles Stefan today. “That was a classic. The most powerful car I’d driven before was an F3 car I’d never even done any testing! It was a bit of a handful to say the least. I realised that things weren’t quite as they should be. “We went to Brazil and those were the days when Interlagos had that really fast left-hander after the pits. I remember vividly it moved so much the steering locked solid in the middle of the corner. The rack just jammed! You could just about make it round flat, but you had to have the radius right when you turned in, and if you didn’t you had to come off the power and try to gather it up again. They discovered afterwards that the wheelbase on the left side was about 2ins shorter than the right side

At the other end of his career Stefan drove both the AGS and the infamous Footwork-Porsche, whose engine looked like it might power a London bus. But the worst of all came straight after his single season at McLaren. “There are many with good stories, but the funniest was the 1988 Ligier. It was a very late deal. They had Rene Amoux in one car, but they hadn’t sorted the other. I got a call a month before the first race, and went down there and we arranged to do the deal.”

Ligier never had much luck in the turbo era, and this season marked a return to `atmo’ power with a Judd V8, as also used by Williams. Stefan was not put off by seeing the new JS31 in progress, despite the fact that the innovative car represented a gamble fora mid-grid team.

Rather than build a straightforward, nimble machine to challenge the teams still using turbos, designer Michel Tetu went to town. He broke with established practice and put a 70-litre tank between the gearbox and engine. It was linked to tanks in the sidepods, containing the remaining 120 litres. There was no tank in front of the engine. The plan was to improve weight distribution, compromised by rules which moved the pedals back. Indeed, the cockpit was too tight for intended second driver Christian Danner, which is why Stefan was called.

Rivals scratched their heads but another Tetu innovation proved more enduring it was the first F1 car to have power steering, a feature which even 12 years later some teams have yet to utilise. “Ligier’s great era had been with the Cosworth cars, and we had high hopes for it. It was a very trick concept to have the fuel tank between the engine and gearbox, but aerodynamically they missed the boat

“You know within three laps when you drive a new car whether you’re going to have a long year or not. The first time I drove it was at Magny-Cours, and you could tell that it was going to be difficult But still you always think `It’s probably this, that or the other.’

“But after three tests, when you’ve tried all the basics and still not got anywhere, and the car isn’t responding to changes, you know you’re in trouble. I think the aerodynamics were fundamentally wrong.” And the fact that the trick systems meant the car was 30kg overweight did not help. At the first race in Rio, Johansson qualified 21st, and nothing he did seemed to make it go round corners any better.

“There was a restart, because Senna had a problem on the grid. I was almost on the back row, and I asked Michel ‘How long have we got?’ He said, `It’s probably half an hour, so you can get out of the car.’ I was dying to go to the toilet. I walked down past the whole grid to get down to the start/finish box, where the loos were. So I’m standing there taking a pee and the next thing I hear are all the engines revving up… “I went back out, and they were pulling away fium the grid again, as it was just a five minute delay. So I was running down the grid, charging along. I’ll never forget Derek Warwick he had tears coming down his face. I jumped in the car and drove off, belts flapping around, and had to try do them up…”

After all that excitement Stefan brought the car home in ninth and last place. That turned out to be his only finish of the year; the season was peppered with DNQs and retirements, and only once did he qualify in the top 20, hauling the thing to 18th at Detroit And he had to watch his former team, McLaren, win 15 of the 16 races.

“It was a tough year. We had several races where we didn’t qualify, and that was hard. Both Amoux and I were used to running nearer the front It was a combination of things, but we never got close to getting a handle on it.

“We were trying to soldier on as well as we could. We did as much as we could in testing, but when you have a bad car you have a bad car, and theres not much you can do with it It was obviously very demoralising.”

The extra tank haunted the team all season, and the JS31 had one final, cruel trick to play on its creators. “We would have scored points in Australia in the last race,” says Stefan. “I was running sixth with a few laps to go but we ran out of fuel…”