In many respects Gérard Ducarouge was the forerunner of the modern F1 technical director. The Frenchman, who died recently, is fondly remembered by all who worked with him
Writer: Gary Watkins
Gérard Ducarouge, who has died aged 73, wasn’t really the designer of the line of great Formula 1 cars, from the Ligier JS11 to the Lotus 99T, for which he is often credited. Rather, he was the driving force behind Ligier and Lotus, as well as Alfa Romeo for a short period, a man who led those teams with energy and charisma both in the workshop and at the circuit.
Bruno Giacomelli, who raced under the Frenchman at Alfa Romeo in 1981-82, “never saw him at a drawing board”. He does, however, recall him injecting fresh ideas into the design process and a new dynamism into the race team. The Frenchman would probably have been called technical director if he had been working in F1 today, but in fact he undertook a much bigger role in a less structured era. Guy Ligier, who employed him from 1975 to 1981, probably sums it up best when he says, “Gérard was everywhere, doing everything.”
That was certainly the case at Team Lotus, the team Ducarouge arguably saved – and in double-quick time – when he joined in the early summer of 1983. Team founder Colin Chapman had died six months previously, but lost his focus on the F1 team at least a couple of years before that. Ducarouge, recruited by team manager Peter Warr, came in and restored the organisation’s focus by taking the role Chapman had filled when the squad was in its heyday.
“Gérard basically took over exactly what Colin did in his pomp,” says long-time Lotus designer Martin Ogilvie. “And that’s why Team Lotus became successful again. Tony Rudd was in charge at the time and, as good a bloke as he was, he wasn’t going to turn an F1 team around. We needed someone to show us the way. Gérard came in, we all rallied around and it came good again.”
Ducarouge didn’t have an engineering degree when he joined Matra’s racing department from the aviation industry in the mid-1960s. He would remain with the French manufacturer for the best part of 10 years. He worked on its single-seater programmes, culminating in F1, and had risen to a position where he was running the sports car race team when it claimed a hat-trick of Le Mans 24 Hours victories in 1972-74.
Henri Pescarolo, part of the driver line-up in each of those years with the MS670 3-litre prototype, remembers a “great leader”.
“Gérard was in charge of building the cars, the development and then running them at the track,” he says. “He was an excellent engineer, but he was fantastic at working with the mechanics at the track. Gérard was an important part of our successes with the 670.”
Ducarouge moved over to Ligier when Matra’s racing department closed its doors and handed over a supply of its V12 engines to the fledgling F1 team. There he was “the main man”, according to long-time Ligier employee Claude Galopin.
“Gérard understood motor racing totally,” says Galopin. “He could look at a car and tell what was right with it and what was wrong with it. His job was to run the team, but he also had many ideas that went into the cars.”
Galopin points out that the French squad had few successes after Ducarouge was sacked by team owner Guy Ligier in mid-1981: “The only real times that the team had good results was when Gérard was working there.”
Ducarouge was quickly picked up by Alfa Romeo, and immediately made a difference. The in-house Autodelta squad had been swapping back and forth between the 179C Giacomelli had put on pole for the previous season’s US Grand Prix East at Watkins Glen and the 179D, a car built around a new tub with revised weight distribution while retaining its predecessor’s aerodynamics. Ducarouge put the focus on the newer car.
“After Gérard came in, we did a lot of modifications to the 179D and had an excellent second half to the season, much better than our results showed,” says Giacomelli, who reckons he might have won the season finale at Caesars Palace. “I had a spin early in the race and lost a lot of time. When I got going I could see the Williams of Alan Jones, who was leading, in my mirrors. At the finish, I was only 20 seconds behind in third. That was one of my best races.”
Ducarouge remained with Alfa Romeo, which outsourced the running of its F1 operation to Paolo Pavanello’s Euroracing organisation for 1982, until being unceremoniously sacked after Andrea de Cesaris lost his first qualifying time at the 1982 French GP (when the car was found to be underweight courtesy of an empty fire extinguisher). He wasn’t out of work for long before the struggling Lotus team came knocking on his door. It set him on course for arguably the defining period of his career.
The British team was struggling with its first Renault-engined contender, the slab-sided 93T demanded by Chapman before his death, and Ducarouge instigated the rapid-fire development of a new car.
“Gérard looked at the 93T and decided that it was way too big and was never going to win races,” recalls Ogilvie. “So he looked at the old 87/88 and decided that we could so something with those tubs. He drew some basic bodylines over the first weekend and gave us the guidelines to redesign it.”
He also brought in the people where necessary to complete the five-week design and build schedule of the 94T, which came on stream for the British Grand Prix.
“Our pattern makers used solid wood and P38 [filler], and they were not going to be quick enough for Gérard, so he brought in a chap from France who did it in plaster,” says Ogilvie. “It put a few noses out of joint at Lotus, but he got the job done even though the guy had to take the moulds off the plaster when it was still wet.”
Less than six weeks after Ducarouge’s arrival, two svelte Renault-engined 94Ts were on the grid at Silverstone. Elio de Angelis qualified fourth and Nigel Mansell came through to finish in that position from 18th on the grid, after a new wiring loom was installed overnight. What de Angelis might have achieved had he not inadvertently switched off his ignition on the second lap can never be known.
Ducarouge oversaw the final golden chapter in the history of Team Lotus with Ayrton Senna. He inspired the team in the same way as Chapman had before him, but with a difference.
“Chapman demanded loyalty,” says Ogilvie, “but Ducarouge commanded loyalty. Colin would say, ‘I think we ought to do this’ whereas Gérard would say, ‘I know we should do this’. He’d been at Matra, which as an aerospace company had done a lot of empirical testing. He brought in some golden rules about suspension geometry and camber and castor. I’m not sure he fully understood them, but he put a kind of best practice into place, and it worked.”
The atmosphere under Ducarouge was also very different from the one that Chapman fostered. There were no arguments or tantrums.
“Gérard was a really nice guy,” continues Ogilvie. “Every morning he would go around the factory saying good morning and shaking everyone by the hand. He was always calm and I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice.”
Ducarouge left Lotus in 1989 and went to work for the Larrousse F1 team. He had a short spell back at Ligier and also at Matra, where he worked on a Renault Espace people carrier with F1 running gear.
Ducarouge was never in charge of a team that won the F1 title, but he did come close with Senna in 1986, a year the Brazilian took eight pole positions in the Lotus-Renault 98T. He also looked set to mastermind championship success after Ligier dominated the opening two rounds of the 1979 season at Buenos Aires and Interlagos with Jacques Laffite and the new Cosworth-engined JS11. The title challenge quickly went off the rails, and there’s a story that the team’s chances disappeared along with the cigarette packet – Gitanes presumably – on which the car’s set-up had been scribbled.
The truth was that the venturi tunnels of the JS11 were deforming as result of the massive ground-effect forces generated by the car. Galopin laughs at a story that was probably a bar-room invention of the British press. There’s only one word for it, he says: “Rubbish.”