The Wanderer returns

Jacques Laffite is back with Ligier. He is fulfilling a different role nowadays, and he finds that Formula One is an entirely different world.

The principal reason for Jacques Laffite’s presence in the French resort of Isole 2000 was to take part in some ice racing for Opel. But it was entirely in keeping with the character of the man who, as soon as an F1 qualifying session was over, would leap out of his car and head straight for the nearest golf course, that he should have bunked off to do a little skiing when he happened upon Tom Walkinshaw…

The chance meeting would eventually lead Laffite to return to Ligier, the team for whom he contested 128 Grands Prix in a 176-race career which ended abruptly when the Frenchman’s Ligier JS27 was tipped, ferociously, into the guardrail at Brands Hatch at the aborted start of the 1986 British Grand Prix. His legs badly broken, Laffite’s F1 career was over just as he was on the point of overhauling Graham Hill as the most enduring Grand Prix driver of all time. “I’d never thought of quitting racing before the shunt,” he says. “Maybe I would still be racing F1 today! But after my accident things weren’t too good at Ligier. In 1987/88, the car wasn’t competitive, and if that’s the case you have to take far more risks with it. It’s more dangerous. And after an accident like mine…”

It ruled out any idea of a comeback for him, and it also prevented his planned swansong in the United States. “I had envisaged an Indycar programme. I was thinking about leaving F1, perhaps at the end of the ’87 season, so that I could race in America for two to three years. The accident put paid to that.” Instead, he continues to compete in his home country’s touring car championship, for Opel. “I still enjoy it. If I didn’t, I’d stop. I’m still competitive by nature. I’m not three seconds per lap ahead of the rest, but I don’t want to be three seconds off the pace. I’m not really a racing driver any more. I’ve got last year’s car, not the best equipment, but I’m happy to have it, happy to be racing and to have someone to race against. It gives me a lot of pleasure.”

He combines this role with the Walkinshaw-inspired move to add to Ligier’s PR team the man who contested the marque’s first Grand Prix (Brazil 1976, after Guy Ligier had finally preferred him to Jean-Pierre Beltoise), and the man who has scored six of its eight victories since.

“Tom didn’t really know about the press in France at all, so he made me a proposal, and I accepted. At the moment, we’re just seeing how things go. It’s a completely new experience for me. I’m learning, and we’ll decide at the end of the year whether or not to continue, whether we’ll take things a stage further. It’s nice to go to Grand Prix and have something to do there. If I had nothing to do while I was here, I’d rather stay at home and watch it on TV.”

Earlier in the summer, Ligier celebrated its 300th Grand Prix, appropriately enough on home soil at Magny-Cours. Naturally things have changed enormously since the team was originally built up around Laffite. Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore are now in charge, and contemporary racing cars feature equipment that was nowhere near invented when Laffite was forced to quit F1 let alone when he started. Yet he can still detect a flavour of the old Ligier in today’s set-up.

“In the early days it was incredible. There were about 16 of us when we started in 1976. The mechanics were used to Le Mans (where Ligier used to enter his own sport prototypes) and maybe two-three other races per year, but that was it, nothing that bore any relation to F1. The arrival of Matra, Gerard Ducarouge, Jean-Francois Robin helped… They were all very professional, with lots of F1 and sports car experience. We had one truck, a 300 square metre workshop… complete artisans, but fantastic. What Ligier achieved in 1976 and 1977 was amazing.

“Today, there are a number of similarities, apart from the fact that it’s still based at Magny-Cours. There are mechanics there who I’ve known for 10, 15 or 20 years. The biggest change is that Guy Ligier’s not around any more, but the arrival of Walkinshaw and Briatore is a good thing, because it has ensured the team’s survival. The fact that Tom is British is fine by me. He knows motor racing inside out, he understands F1, he gets on well with Briatore and the Benetton engineers, and he acts as intermediary between the two. The technical help which Benetton brings is beneficial.

They spend more money now, there are more mechanics, there’s been a big technical evolution, but that’s only normal. The ambiance is a little different, because there’s more work to do, everything has become more professional than it was for me, but not much about the current F1 really surprises me.”

Not all of it is to his taste, however. “The most astonishing thing for me about modern F1 is that there are three or four big teams, very rich, who are lapping Silverstone in 1m 28s, and there are other so-called F1 cars doing 1m 37s. Around 10s from the front of the grid to the back; it’s not right. It’s not good for racing. It means simply that there is just too big a gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

“I don’t see the need for all these exclusive contracts. Why? The best thing for Formula One would be to have 26 or 30 cars which actually work, with two or three seconds maximum across the field.”

If that aspect of the business dissatisfies him, talk of modern circuits sparks a sudden raising of the voice, and a bout of firm table-tapping. “Today, they build circuits for L-drivers, not real drivers. It’s very difficult to spot a talent like Schumacher, Prost or Senna, because if you go off there’s usually nothing worse than a gravel trap for you. If you spin, there’s no danger. Before, you could tell a real driver. If there was a 170-180 mph turn before a braking area faced by a wall… not everyone was capable of coping with that. Today we have chicanes everywhere, which is sad, because that’s not racing. Today, there are people who arrive in F1, some good, some not so good. They’re reasonably on the pace straight away, but to me they’re not real drivers. It’s sad. There’s no originality in modern circuits: they’ve no soul, but they are safer. Obviously I’m happy at least that fatalities are rare, but this has always been a dangerous sport, and those of us who have done it did so because we liked the danger. Nowadays there’s far less risk and anybody can jump into a car and go quite quickly. If you need to brake at 100 metres, you brake at 100 metres, and if you make a mistake you know you’ll just end up in the sand.

“In my day, if you made a mistake you hit the barriers. If you over-revved, the engine would blow up immediately. Nowadays, there are electronic guards against that. Where are the subtleties of driving? It’s a big problem. If I revved to 10.500 instead of 10,300, next lap boom! To go quickly, you had to be precise 10,300, no more. Nowadays, if you don’t know how to change gear skilfully, it doesn’t matter. As a result, it really is difficult to spot the genuine talents, but they do exist. Schumacher is the proof of that.”

In the past, Ligier was renowned for having the kind of money necessary to win, but somehow never finding quite the right ingredients. The best example was probably 1979, when Laffite won the opening two Grand Prix of the season… but scored only 18 more points in the remaining 13 races.

“We had a good car, but we couldn’t develop it because we didn’t have the money. We started with a car that was on the pace, very competitive, but we stayed where we were. Brabham and Williams reeled us in. It was a simple question of wind tunnel work. If we’d had the money to do it, we could have fixed the problem and won the championship. “Ligier has always had reasonable budgets, but it has won a few Grands Prix. Today, looking at Ligier’s infrastructure, I believe it is in a position to win races, but perhaps not straight away. There are so many things which need to be just right: car, driver, engineers. And the technology is difficult to master. Look at McLaren this season. Or Arrows. In 15 years of F1, they’ve never won a GP, although I think they always used to have a similar budget to Ligier’s.

“Today, Ligier probably has 230M FF. That’s a lot of money, but the salary scale is much higher in France, and so is the overall cost of preparing. In England, we could probably get by on the equivalent of 160-170M francs. Go and ask Williams what its budget is. The answer won’t be 230M FF. The same with McLaren, Ferrari or Benetton. We’re on the next level down.

“But it takes more than just money to achieve results. Originally, Guy Ligier’s principle was that we raced to win, and if we won we could afford to continue winning. The team could have operated with less funding, but it would have been less competitive. And once you lose competitivity, it’s so difficult to regain momentum. It’s impossible in F1 to take one step backwards in order to take two paces forwards. You have to strive to maintain your standards.”

There are several other things which Laffite admits to finding particularly frustrating about modern Formula One. “I’d like to see drivers going off to play golf together or whatever. I’m not talking about a non-stop party, we never did that, but everyone sits behind closed doors. There are all these wonderful, spacious paddocks with very few people in them. You can’t bring your mates in, there are fences everywhere. I can understand the need for security round the pits, but if you had an extra thousand people in the paddock itself, what difference would it make? I’m sure there are people who don’t come to F1 any more because they are fed up with all this stuff. Overall, there’s a lack of charisma in the F1 paddock. The drivers are as much businessmen as sportsmen. It’s a shame.”

So, could Jacques Laffite exist as a modern F1 racer? Damon Hill recently remarked that he couldn’t recall what his golf handicap was. He could find the occasional hour to play a set of tennis, but golf… no way. Laffite smiles whenever the subject is raised, but he insists he could cope.

“You could find time to play if you wanted to! By 1984/85 it was already becoming difficult to find time to go off and play golf. but I always managed to find time if it was something I wanted to do. But it’s true, I was the only one who managed to sneak off to play straight after practice. It was a special case. I had a special way of working with the team, whom I’d known for nine years. Our relationship was very laid-back. And, technically speaking, there was far less to analyse than there is today. Now, it can help a driver to spend time poring over things.

“It was more dangerous in my day, but perhaps it was a little easier in some ways…” S A