Grand Prix Feature: Jacques Laffite

Jacques Laffite, 1979 Argentine Grand Prix

Laffite at Argentina in 1979

Grand Prix Photo

Two recent stories give an accurate indication of Jacques Laffite’s true character. Over the years, Williams team de-briefing sessions have gained a reputation for being notoriously serious affairs in which outbursts of irreverent humour are few and far between. One incident in particular, however, stands out in the minds of various team members. At an early season test session the jaunty Laffite bounded into the Williams motorhome, sat down next to the tight-lipped Williams, slapped him on his knee and inquired “what’s new pussy cat?” The highly charged atmosphere was immediately destroyed amidst gales of laughter. Later, during Canadian Grand Prix practice, Laffite was trying out a car-to-pit radio intercom system. As the Frenchman drove round the Ile Notre Dame circuit, engineer Neal Oatley, whose birthday it just happened to be that same day, heard Jacques’ voice crackling over the air singing “Happy Birthday to you. . . .”

At the start of the 1983 season Laffite “came home” to the team which first gave him his Grand Prix chances way back in 1974. But the two constituent parts of the partnership are now very different. Nine years ago Frank Williams was struggling with a minimal budget, scrappy old cars and a good deal of hope. Jacques Laffite was a wide-eyed F2 graduate, even then over 30 years old, who would save Williams’ bacon in the middle of 1975 when he staggered home second in the German GP at Nurburgring. By then the Williams organisation was down to a single engine and Laffite’s achievement was a major factor in staving off the team’s financial demise.

By the end of last year the roles had changed dramatically. Every young F3 kid who didn’t dream of driving a Ferrari probably dreamed about driving a Williams. Since 1978, when the irrepressible Frank set up on his own again with Saudi sponsorship, he has gradually built up an enviable reputation for impeccable car preparation, splendid reliability and scrupulous efficiency. At the end of the 1982 season he did not renew his arrangement with Irishman Derek Daly, who had stood in alongside Keke Rosberg after Carlos Reutemann’s abrupt retirement earlier in the season, but opted instead for Jacques Laffite.

The writer well recalls standing in the bookshop at Amsterdam airport after last year’s Dutch Grand Prix being quizzed by Frank Williams about other drivers. It was obvious that Daly wasn’t going to be kept on the team’s strength and, indeed, I believe that Williams realised that he’d made a mistake selecting him in the first place — particularly when he had the chance of obtaining Derek Warwick’s services. The conversation kept edging back towards Laffite, though. With a look of studied concentration on his face, Frank mused “you know, given a good car, I think Jacques has got a couple more good years ahead of him, don’t you . . . perhaps even a World Championship.” Williams didn’t need my confirmation, he was already close to making up his mind. Immediately after the Las Vegas race, 38-year-old Jacques was confirmed as Keke Rosberg’s team mate for the 1983 season.

From the archive

For Jacques, it means an enormous change to his life style. He wasn’t too worried about leaving Ligier, because the magic of that seven year relationship was wearing a little thin. He’d experienced good times with Ligier, admittedly, but now he felt it was time for something fresh.

“I think, looking back on it, the great thing about working with Guy was that we had the chance to prove that an all-French team could be competitive. I mean, the Matra engine had raced before, but now it was racing in a French car at a time when British machines were, apart from Ferrari, setting the pace. Ours was the first French F1 car on the contemporary Grand Prix scene, and, inititally at least, I had a good working relationship with Guy Ligier. We had a sympathetic atmosphere in the team and we made a lot of progress. “To start with, however, I lacked race experience. I don’t think that Matra V12 ever had the torque of the Cosworth V8, though I don’t believe there was much in it in terms of out-and-out power. By the end of 1977 I reckon I had sufficient experience to run at the front — that win in Sweden was a great morale booster for me — and my confidence was growing all the time.”

However, the Matra V12 wasn’t the only power unit tried by Ligier over the years. At the end of 1978 the French team owner decided he would switch to Cosworth DFV power. More seriously from Laffite’s point of view, however, he decided to bring Patrick Depailler into the team as joint number one driver. It was a move calculated to produce a degree of tension, and although Laffite opened the season with wins in Buenos Aires and at Interlagos, the situation was hardly what one would describe as cosy. “I remember that as being a particularly difficult period for me,” says Jacques reflectively, “from two points of view. Firstly I felt that the team didn’t really have the resources available to field two number one cars and I wondered if the team was really trying to indicate that they’d lost some of their confidence in me. I suppose that’s a familiar situation for any driver who has been in a single car team, with everybody working for him alone, for several seasons and then finds another rival brought in when the outfit expands to run an extra entry. I never felt that I’d got a problem with Patrick on a personal level, but it was a rather difficult spell trying to adapt my mind to the new conditions.”

That little partnership was abruptly terminated mid-way through the 1979 season when Depailler was badly injured in a hang gliding accident during the F1 calendar’s mid-season break. Laffite recalls his subsequent single-minded recovery with a degree of obvious admiration, a triumph of mind over matter which seems such a tragic waste of effort, in retrospect, as Patrick was to die in an Alfa Romeo testing accident at Hockenheim the following summer just as he’d recovered to reach peak physical fitness at last.

For the 1980 season Laffite’s partner at Ligier was the introspective, almost dour, Didier Pironi. By that time Laffite was warming to the idea of working within a two-car team and freely acknowledges that he had no problems whatsoever with Pironi.

“I think I’d got the message that having a team-mate was something of an advantage with interchange of information,” he remembers, “and, of course, you’ve got to remember that Pironi was significantly less experienced than I was.” But while Jacques accepted the principle that a two car team was better than a one car arrangement, he always seemed happier at Ligier when his number two was his junior. He enjoyed his season in partnership with Eddie Cheever, for example, but wasn’t in the least daunted with his reversal of roles when he joined Williams. After years of holding sway in his pre-eminent position with the French team “where everybody always used to say that the whole thing is built round me”, he relished the challenge of a fresh environment at the start of this season.

From the archive

“I love the racing as much as ever,” he says happily as he reflects back on a career studded, so far, with six World Championship Grand Prix wins, “but the political aspect of the business is something which irritates me. When I first started racing in 1974 we used to practice, race, then have a walk round the paddock and chat with everybody. Now there’s no time for that sort of thing. If I’m not at a team debriefing, then I might be at a PRDA meeting or a meeting with FISA. That’s something that is rather tiring, but when we’re all out there in our cars on Sunday afternoon, then is the time that I really enjoy myself. I’m strapped into my car, away from all the irrelevant problems and you are aware that a degree of sportsmanship still exists within this increasingly professional business . . .”

The disparity between turbos and normally aspirated engines is also a factor which worries Laffite who feels that it will be better when everybody has a turbo. “I’ve always thought it was ridiculous to have a situation where some people have turbos and some people don’t”, he explains firmly, “because it tends to show up people in a disproportionately good light. Think about 1981. Patrick Tambay drove alongside me at Ligier and there’s no doubt he’s a good driver. Then he got picked up by Ferrari mid-way through 1983 and he’s now a contender for the Championship. Until we get our turbo, there is no way in the world that I’m ever going to get near him. But his good fortune, for which I’m happy, don’t misunderstand me, enables him to attract a lot of attention. But is he better than me? Is he better than Keke? The fact of the matter, of course, is that as long as there are cars running with a 100 bhp advantage over the normally aspirated machines a woman could beat us in one of those cars. I’ll be much happier with the situation when everybody has a turbo and we can get back to competing among ourselves on the basis of driver ability alone. . . .”

At Williams, Laffite has been a gentle starter. In Brazil he was suffering quite badly with the after effects of ‘flu and didn’t show well in qualifying at all. Then came the race and he flew up through the field to take a strong fourth place at the chequered flag. In Long Beach he virtually matched Rosberg’s practice time and the two Williams FW08Cs started from the second row behind two Ferrari turbos. At that stage of the season there were no team orders in effect and, after the race, a brief glimpse of Laffite’s usually masked streak of steely determination came to the surface. After Tambay and Rosberg had tangled during their battle for the lead, Laffite and his team-mate ran down to one of the corners in side-by-side formation. Unfortunately Rosberg found himself rammed from behind by Jarier’s Ligier and punted into the wall — hard! Once the race was over, there was some discreet grumbling from the World Champion to the effect that if Laffite had eased off then he, Keke, could have slipped back into line ahead of the Frenchman and wouldn’t have been shunted by Jarier. Laffite’s glance flashed his instant reaction to this suggestion: Jacques didn’t reckon he’d been brought into the team to help Rosberg win a second World Championship. “If I can win a Championship this year for myself, then that’s what I’ll be out to do,” he asserted firmly, “at my age I may not have very many opportunities again in the future. . . .”

For 1984 Jacques Laffite will face the Grand Prix world from the cockpit of a Williams-Honda turbo. He will be 40 years old and, it is said by those who are close to him, may well be starting his final season in Formula One. His exile from France, as much to escape the penal tax system instituted by the Socialist administration as to be close to the Williams factory, has seen him assume the role of an English country gentleman in his beautiful, rented country house near Stoke Poges, once the home of millionaire engine bearing magnate Tony Vandervell, the man who spawned the Vanwall Grand Prix car. Away from the cockpit a light-hearted life of fishing, golf and simply spending time with his wife and two daughters occupies Jacques Laffite’s days. He works at making life one long holiday for himself, but that fact shouldn’t mask the fact that he loves his motor racing with a passion. When he’s finished with Formula One, most people expect him set up home in the USA where he may well try his hand at CART, IMSA or even perhaps NASCAR. He won’t turn his back on the sport simply because he has tired of its most publicised category. — Alan Henry