There was a certain patriotic elegance about the cars he drove, likewise those that bore his name. Former racer and team owner Guy Ligier has died at the age of 85, leaving a trail of memories with an indelibly French blue tint.
Orphaned at the age of seven, Ligier left school at 14 and commenced his working life as a butcher’s apprentice before discovering an aptitude for sport. He was French rowing champion in 1947 and played rugby to a very high standard, being selected for the national B team before his career stalled following a series of injuries. He then switched to motorcycle racing, winning domestic titles and generating sufficient profit to launch his own construction business. Friendships with local politicians – including Pierre Coulon, mayor of Ligier’s native Vichy, and future French president François Mitterand – did little harm when it came to contract tenders.
He first dabbled with car racing during the late 1950s, but became more serious about it the following decade, when competing in both GTs and single-seaters. In 1966 he drove his own Cooper T81 in selected Grands Prix, before switching to a Brabham BT20. Both, naturally, were French blue. He scored his only world championship point at the Nürburgring in 1967, finishing eighth on the road (but sixth of the F1 cars, behind a couple of F2s). During that same summer, he and close friend Jo Schlesser won the Reims 12 Hours in a Ford France-entered GT40.
Schlesser’s death in the 1968 French GP temporarily sapped Ligier’s appetite for the sport. At that stage he was already looking at building his own sports racer, a project that was temporarily shelved in the wake of Schlesser’s accident. It was reprised the following year and, when finished, was baptised JS1 in his fallen friend’s honour.
Ligier continued to compete occasionally and his early sports racers – pretty cars, all – scored a few wins. Reliability wasn’t always a strength, although Guy Chausseil and Jean-Louis Lafosse took a JS2 to second overall at Le Mans in 1975. By then, however, le patron had greater ambitions. When Matra Sports withdrew from racing at the end of 1974, Ligier purchased the assets and now had a factory capable of supporting a Grand Prix project. Powered by a Matra V12, his first F1 car – the JS5 – made its debut in Jacques Laffite’s hands in 1976 and finished on the podium at Zolder, only its fifth race. One year later Laffite won in Sweden with the JS7.
The marque would be an F1 fixture for 21 seasons, disappearing only when Alain Prost bought and renamed the team in 1997, five years after Ligier had sold his controlling stake. Its apotheosis came in 1979 and 1980, with the stylish JS11 and JS11/15. Laffite won the opening two Grands Prix in 1979 and looked set to mount a serious championship challenge, but in the end he finished only six races – five of those on the podium. His team-mates Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi notched up one victory apiece. Laffite scored two more wins in 1981, when he emerged as a title outsider, but they would be Ligier’s last until Olivier Panis’s against-the-odds success from 14th on the grid at Monaco in 1996.
During his time at the helm, Guy Ligier was equal parts charm and irascibility. Leading French F1 writer Patrick Camus says, “We had some lovely evenings together – and it was a tradition to drink pastis. Every so often he’d invite a small group of French journalists to join him – usually when the team had suffered a bad day at the track, or he wanted to announce something. I guess it was his version of a press conference. You’re supposed to mix pastis with water and ice, of course, but he rarely left space in his glass for anything else. Afterwards, we’d have a small buffet at the track, or else repair to a restaurant. He always wanted to drive, because he hated being a passenger, but if he’d had a few drinks the rest of us didn’t want to be passengers, either…
“I also saw him blow a fuse many times. He once broke a wooden table in the Michelin motorhome because he was angry that Ligier wasn’t being given the softest tyre compounds. And then there was the 1984 French GP at Dijon. Andrea de Cesaris had his qualifying times annulled after his fire extinguisher was found to be empty. Guy’s reaction was to take the extinguisher and attack the race director’s road car with it. On one occasion, when he was irate about something a French reporter had written, he grabbed him around the waist, picked him up and dropped him in a nearby bin.”
Englishman Chris Williams worked as the team’s press officer during the mid-1990s, by which stage Ligier’s role was mostly ambassadorial. “Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore were running things by then,” he says, “but Guy would often turn up at races and give everybody a huge hug, whether he knew them or not. He retained a very strong emotional attachment.”
British engineer Humphrey Corbett joined at a similar time. “I hated pastis,” he says, “but every day at about 5.30pm we were supposed to decamp to the store room for a drink. It had apparently been a tradition from the start. Guy was no longer directly involved, but one day I spotted an elderly chap pottering around outside the factory and asked who it was. Somebody replied, ‘Oh, that’s Guy – he quite often stops by to do a bit of gardening.’ He clearly still cared.”
Having sold the F1 team, Ligier created a new business in the fertiliser industry and turned that into a huge success, before later taking over Automobiles Martini and planning to market Ligier F3 cars. That failed to bear fruit, but the name returned to the track with a successful range of small sports-prototypes and today, under the stewardship of Onroak Automotive, Ligiers score regular class wins in the world’s major endurance events.
Motor racing has been stripped of a character, but his legacy continues as, appropriately, does that JS suffix.