My Greatest Race: Jacques Laffite

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Argentinian Grand Prix, Buenos Aires, 1979

It wasn’t his first Grand Prix victory, but it was the first that Jacques Laffite felt he had earned. And, as he now recalls, it looked as if Ligier had it all to come.

I’ve always considered Argentina in 1979 to be my first real Grand Prix victory. I’d won in Sweden in 1977, but only because of Mario Andretti’s problems. But Argentina was so good for the Ligier team; we’d stopped working with Matra on our engines, had built a new car, and gone out and won our first race with it. When we came back to France after the race everyone in the country knew that there was at last a very good team in F1, and some very good drivers there, all working for France. It was good for motor racing, and the start of a very successful time for us.

Guy Ligier had made some big changes for the ’79 season. We changed from Matra to Cosworth, and Patrick Depailler came on board as the second driver. It was really difficult for me because I had been on my own in the team for three years. I knew Patrick was a very good driver, but did we have enough money to run two cars at the same level, with good drivers?

Gerard Ducarouge designed the JS11, our first ground-effect car and I was surprised that the car was immediately very competitive. We had a very good test at Paul Ricard in December; the car was quick, I was quick, and Patrick was quick, and I suddenly understood why the Lotus 79 had been so fast the year before. It was so easy to be fast. All the corners were flat!

So I was very happy with the car when we set off for Argentina. We had struggled with one problem in pre-season testing at Paul Ricard; at very high speeds the car was a little bit bumpy, because the underwing was a little bit too short and the car was very hard on the suspension. We modified this in Argentina on the Thursday, and the car was perfect.

It was difficult with those cars to obtain a good balance between high and low-speed handling but we obviously did because I was 1 sec faster than the others. In fact I was on pole by a second from Patrick.

After all the hard work to get pole I didn’t help myself by fluffing the start. At this time races were started with a flag. It was difficult when you were on pole, because the Clerk of the Course was always watching you! I dropped down to fourth, and I had to pass Jean-Pierre Jarier and John Watson. It took a little bit of time to catch Patrick who was leading, as he was braking very late, but I overtook him at the end of the straight after 10 laps.

After that it was easy, because the track was not so difficult. I was alone in front, I had no problems, my car was really good. Patrick was behind me but I was able to edge away. Unfortunately he had a misfire at the end and he dropped right back.

Guy Ligier wasn’t there to enjoy it – in fact he wasn’t in Sweden when we won either. I remember in the evening we had a dinner at the Sheraton with all the team… which was probably only 15 or 20 people. We were very happy. We had a long break before Brazil, and I was able to play golf and do some fishing. It was perfect.

We arrived in Brazil as favourites after our success in Buenos Aires, and the car was quick immediately. I had more opposition from Patrick, but I took pole by nearly a second again. I had a tougher race this time because it was warmer and the track was more difficult to drive. The left before the pits was flat, but it was really difficult to do it. During the race Patrick was always behind me. Every time he caught me I’d go flat on this last corner, and take about a second. He left me alone for a couple of laps, and then he’d catch up again. But a few laps before the end he let me go.

After these two wins I thought we could do something very good in that season, but in fact I didn’t win again that year. There’s a famous F1 myth that Ducarouge lost the settings we had used in South America, but we had the set-up, we knew exactly how the car should be. The only thing that changed was the underwing. In those first two races it was aluminium, and when we went back Ducarouge decided to make it in fibreglass. He made this wing very light and saved some kilos.

The problem was that we had so much downforce that the new wing was flexing. The car was just undriveable. When I stopped in the pits to check what was wrong, the wing had bent back to normal. We couldn’t understand it. In the wind tunnel we would have seen it immediately. But Guy had a problem with the owners of the tunnel we were using and we didn’t go back until the end of August.

Williams unveiled the new FW07 that Spring in Long Beach. I had a look, and the wing was made from honeycomb material. I told Gerard, and he said, “I know what I’m doing.” I just thought, “Well, I’m not the engineer.” Our car was still good at Jarama. I was on pole and only lost the race by overrevving as I tried to pass Patrick. But there were no high-speed corners on that track, and also we had a new wing again, and when they were new they had less deformation. The worst problem was on high-speed tracks, and there were a lot of them in those days!

Soon after that Patrick’s hang-gliding accident shook the team and I had Jacky Ickx as a team-mate, who hadn’t been driving a good car for several years. The Ligier was so difficult to drive, and it was such a big change for him. Maybe if Patrick was still there it would have been easier to find the problems.

It was disappointing not to challenge for the title, but Argentina is a big, big memory for me. It wasn’t just the win; it was the whole deal, with Patrick joining the team and everybody thinking that he’d leave me in the shit. Victory, pole position, lap record – everything was perfect.

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