Jabouille & Laffitte: A French partnership that goes beyond F1

From skating to Formula One, Jabouille and Laffite have never been far apart. . . .

Twenty-six years ago two young French boys met at a roller skating rink in Paris. The elder was 12 years old, the younger 11. They both went into the Army to do their national service at more or less the same time, although admittedly they didn’t serve together. They both began motor racing in the late 1960s. They married two girls who are sisters. And in the 1970s they rose to the status of Grand Prix winners, acknowledged as two of the best drivers France has produced. Today they work together in the Talbot Formula One team and, notwithstanding their years of rivalry, remain close and sympathetic friends. Their names are Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Jacques Laffite.

Ever since they’ve been old enough to drive, a burning enthusiasm for cars and motor racing has fired both Jabouille and Laffite. They were amongst that enthusiastic band of French youngsters who swept into racing during the 1960s thanks to the combined efforts of Matra and the Elf petroleum company. If one regards Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo as the pioneers of this “new wave” of French talent, then Jabouille and Laffite are very much second generation. They are a product of the great French motor renaissance of the 1960s which had its roots in General de Gaulle’s enthusiasm for projecting France’s image and achievement in the sporting, technical and business world. And today the position that these, and several other drivers, have achieved, testifies to the success of that renaissance.

Jabouille and Laffite were both born in Paris. Jean-Pierre confesses that “I always wanted to be a racing driver – always. I never thought about doing anything else!” Jacques, the fourth in a family of six children, initially tried to qualify as a lawyer with encouragement from his parents. When he decided that he would turn his hand to motor racing his parents, who never so much as owned a car or showed any interest in doing so, showed no enthusiasm for his decision.

It was 1966 when Jabouille started out racing in club events with a Renault Gordini saloon. Laffite trailed round the circuits with him, helping to prepare it, and when Jean-Pierre graduated into Formula Three with a Matra the following year Laffite took over the role of his mechanic. They did all the French Championships together, but they fell out after the race at Nogaro. Laffite recounts the story with a wide grin: “Jean-Pierre told me that we were going to the Mont d’Or hillclimb the following weekend. But I wanted to go off and see my girlfriend Bernadette in Paris. We had an argument and I quit as his mechanic!” What the long-term effects on their careers would have been if they hadn’t had that argument is difficult to say. Anyway, Jacques wanted to “have a go” in the Matra and Jabouille wouldn’t let him. So Laffite went off and arranged his own racing programme for 1969 – and ended up marrying Bernadette, although not for eight years!

Jabouille was edged out of the French Championship when he was beaten by Francois Cevert’s Tecno in the final round at Albi, but Jean-Pierre nonetheless received an offer from Alpine and drove their works F3 car the following season. Meanwhile Laffite enrolled on the Volant Shell course operated by Tico Martini’s racing school at Nogaro; he “graduated” second behind Jean-Luc Salomon who was later killed in the tragic 1970 Rouen F3 race. Encouraged by this racing school performance, Laffite tried his hand at F3 with an under-financed Martini the following year, but his funds quickly evaporated. The following year he was forced to take a step backwards into national Formule Renault racing for the next two seasons, winning the Championship with a spaceframe Martini in 1971.

Meanwhile, Jabouille’s career was making rather better progress. In 1970 he raced in F2 with Elf-backed Pygmees and continued in F3 the following season with Alpine-Renault. By 1972 he was driving for Guildford garage owner John Coombs in an Elf-backed F2 team which ran both Marches and spaceframe Alpine “replicas” dubbed “Elf 2s” in the European Championship. He also drove the works Alpine-Renault 2-litre sports cars in their European Championships and his relations with both Elf and the big national French car manufacturer went from strength to strength as the early years of the decade went by.

By 1973 Laffite had graduated to Formula Three once again, winning the Monaco Grand Prix supporting race in a BP-sponsored Martini. His career then took its predicted route into F2 the following year and by 1975 he was contesting the European Championship in a BMW-engined Martini. One of his rivals that season was Jabouille who by now was running a similarly powered Elf 2 managed by Jean Sage. Although Jabouille managed to score two wins, Laffite clinched the European Championship.

Laffite got his first Grand Prix chance driving for Frank Williams in the summer of 1974 and in 1975 his best finish was a second in the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. The following season he was selected to drive for the newly formed Ligier Grand Prix team which was bringing Matra V12 engines back into the F1 arena after an absence of three years. It is a relationship which has out-lasted all current Grand Prix partnerships; in 1981 Jacques Laffite is still driving for Ligier, now under the Talbot banner, in his sixth consecutive year with the team!

With Laffite concentrating on F1 properly during 1976, the way was free for Jean-Pierre Jabouille to win the European F2 Championship. Using a Renault V6-engined Elf 2, he vanquished his arch-rival Rene Arnoux (later to be his F1 team-mate!) in the final race of the season at Hockenheim. Although he was given a third Tyrrell entry for the 1976 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, it was an inconclusive debut in which Jabouille trailed round at the back of the field. Many people wrote him off as F1 material. In some ways they could be understood; Jean-Pierre never looking like an intuitively gifted “natural” driver. But he was smooth, tidy and competent and had other, very important talents. As a test and development driver he had built up a respected reputation. Perhaps, unconsciously, he had done this to compensate for the fact that he wasn’t the most brilliant natural driver in the World. But the level-headed Jabouille was sensible enough to see that and concentrated on polishing other aspects of his ability as a racing driver. He had developed this particular talent to the point that when Renault decided they would enter Grand Prix racing in 1977 with a turbocharged 11/2-litre V6 engine, they didn’t hesitate in choosing Jabouille as their driver.

A few weeks after Jacques Laffite won his first, somewhat lucky, Grand Prix victory in Sweden, Renault’s F1 turbo took to the track at Silverstone to practise for the British Grand Prix. It popped, banged and spat flames from its exhaust pipes. Many people laughed at it. But just under two years later Jean-Pierre Jabouille stood on the winner’s rostrum at Dijon-Prenois listening to the Marseillaise playing to celebrate his victory in the French Grand Prix. At the wheel of a Renault V6 turbo!

In 1980 Jabouille won the Austrian Grand Prix in clever style, running as slowly as he dared to beat Alan Jones’ Williams-Cosworth. He knew full-well that there was a question mark hanging over a batch of Renault valve springs and the Michelin tyres were marginal for their task. So he squeezed home by just over a second to score what was to be the second, and last, victory of his career. Later that season, in Montreal, his Renault crashed heavily during the Canadian Grand Prix. His leg badly broken, Jean-Pierre was consigned to a lengthy spell in hospital.

Meanwhile, Jacques Laffite was establishing himself as a happy, popular and effervescent member of the Grand Prix community. In the Ligier team he had found a sympathetic atmosphere with people who liked him and had faith in him. Although probably better than Jabouille in terms of natural talent, Laffite won races only infrequently. But he had become a respected competitor at the wheel of the Ligier, a man who could catch the leaders at any time if the “established stars” eased up for so much as a single lap!

At the end of the 1978 season, Laffite was joined at Ligier by Patrick Depailler. The Matra V12 engines were replaced by Cosworth DFVs and Laffite opened the 1979 season with victories at Buenos Aires and Interlagos. But the team didn’t maintain this initial momentum and, apart from Depailler’s victory in Spain, met with no more success that season. In 1980 Laffite’s mood changed slightly. Joined in the Ligier team by the competitive Didier Pironi, he felt challenged and perhaps a little insecure. Pironi was faster than him on many occasions and the open, smiling Laffite visage gave way to a furrowed brow and worried looks. “Happy Jacques” was no longer as happy as he should have been and the whole Grand Prix world knew it.

Jabouille takes up the story, “Many times over the past few years both Ligier and Jacques came to me and said ‘is there any chance of you joining us?’ We talked about it when Depailler signed at the start of 1979, but I was too deeply committed to the Renault team. I really didn’t feel I could leave the programme at that stage. I had worked many years in association with Renault and I felt we had a special relationship. I didn’t really want to leave.”

Then, suddenly, the whole equation changed without warning. Didier Pironi, fed up after disagreements with the autocratic Guy Ligier, announced at the 1980 Italian GP that he was off to drive for Ferrari. Ligier was incensed, Laffite optimistic that Jabouille might be persuaded to join them. At the same meeting, Jean-Pierre got involved in an argument with Renault competitions manager Gerard Larrousse.

“It was at lmola, at the 1980 Italian Grand Prix”, Jabouille recalls, “after I’d had problems after setting the fastest practice time, they turned up the boost on Rene’s car so he beat me to pole position. I told Larrousse that I didn’t think it was very fair. We had a bit of a row and this was precisely the time at which I received the offer from Talbot.

“I must say Larrousse was very fair. He said ‘go away and think about it for a couple of days’. You must remember that I had signed my contract with Renault for 1981 by this stage. But he told me that if I wanted to go after I’d reflected on the situation, then they would tear up the contract. If I wanted to stay, then that was fine.” It is a reflection on the pleasant way in which the French conduct business between one another that Jabouille was eventually released to go to Ligier. Renault then opened negotiations with Alain Prost, a driver who was contracted to the McLaren team at the time, and persuaded him to drive for them in 1982. McLaren were, and still are, absolutely furious about the way these negotiations were conducted.

Jabouille’s subsequent accident in Montreal destroyed any chances he had of racing the Talbot successfully. Still in pain, obviously suffering excruciating discomfort, Jabouille forced himself to drive in a handful of races early this season when it was obvious that he could hardly walk. He smiled bravely when people inquired how his leg was coming on. “No problem!” he would grin, but the grimace on his face every time he lowered himself into the Talbot cockpit told another story. After the Spanish Grand Prix he decided to retire from active driving and take up a position as technical adviser to the team.

Laffite was delighted. He realised full-well that his brother-in-law was suffering badly, but he didn’t want to be the one to tell him to stop. It was embarrassing when Jean-Pierre was three seconds a lap slower than Jacques at Jarama, but Laffite kept joking with him to bolster his confidence. But, as Jabouille admitted, “I had never considered the Montreal accident to be particularly serious. Sure, I broke both legs, but one has healed perfectly. I thought everything would be OK after a couple of races. But I began to realise that I wasn’t making any progress. The movement in my leg wasn’t getting any better. So I had to stop.”

Jean-Pierre Jabouille enters hospital for more corrective surgery this month, surgery that will hopefully restore full movement to his injured right leg. Since his retirement he has been present in the pits at every Grand Prix, listening attentively and calmly to Laffite’s enthusiastic, demonstrative and often amusing explanations as to how the Talbot is behaving. Laffite is happy, Jabouille is happy. “This way I can remain associated with a good team in racing even though I am not able to drive any longer.”

He admits that he feels a little uncomfortable about the way in which Ligier sacked team manager Gerard Ducarouge shortly after his retirement from the cockpit. “But I think that Ligier had been looking for a way to push Ducarouge out and he thought he’d got that excuse in me. But I’m not interested in the organisational side, only the technical work with the cars.” Laffite’s former F2 team-mate Jean-Pierre Paoli now deals with administrative matters as a result!

How does he get on with Laffite? “Absolutely fine. He’s got a good, open temperament, both as a person and as a driver. He’s not a good communicator. He can feel what the car is doing, but he can’t express it. I can translate what he means. Sometimes he gets a bit nervous and agitated over things which are really not very important, but otherwise he is absolutely fine.”

Laffite just grins his happy grin and waves an arm demonstratively. “Now I don’t have to beat him”, he talks of his brother-in-law, “but I do have to listen to him. I’ve always taken his example and advice. When he married Genevieve I suddenly realised that I had got nobody to accompany me when I wanted to go out on the town. So I hurried up and married Bernadette. It’s all his fault!”

When Laffite won the 1981 Austrian Grand Prix, it was Jabouille who argued the controversial choice of successful tyres with Michelin. It’s a partnership based on friendship and respect. The calm, reserved and quiet Jabouille; the outgoing, extrovert, mischievious Laffite. In another twenty-six years, long after they have given up the active business of Formula One racing, they will almost certainly still be “messing around with cars” together. Deep down they’re just another pair of racing enthusiasts.       AH