The Gitanes Ligier works driver is one of the most promising Fl drivers

TWO YEARS AGO he was living in a mobile home on an abandoned airfield in central France, building and racing a modified Formula 2 March. Today he is the Gitanes Ligier works driver and one of the most promising of the Formula 1 newcomers.

Until 1975 Jacques Laffite was virtually unknown outside France. There he had steadily progressed via Formula Renault to become the 1973 French Formula 3 champion nothing very special in itself but enough to get him an F2 drive in 1974. He went quite well in the March in [974, well enough to get an F1 rent-a-drive with Frank Williams. His best year, though, was 1975 in the Elf/Ambrozium-sponsored Martini Mk6, Tico Martini's first-ever F2 car. He was a little lucky at Lisbon, where he won a rain-marred race despite a spin, but at Thruxton he romped home from pole position-and might have done the same at Hockenheim but for engine failure.

At the Niirburgring he not only won but lapped at Fl speeds. At his home circuit, Magny Cours, he was robbed of victory by ignition problems. However, after winning again at Pau and Hockenheim he was virtually home as far as the F2 Championship was concerned. Part way through the season his reversed-port Schnitzer BMW engines, like several other people's, had begun to show signs of unreliability, and ignition problems became a regular reason for retirement. Nevertheless, Jacques refused to soft-pedal even after the championship was won, and his 2nd place at Vallelunga in the final race of the season was harder fought than several of his wins.

Formula 2 came first as far as Laffi te was concerned in 1975. even if it meant missing a G P, but now it is a very different story. U n]ike one or two of the current superstars, he regards six years as a very reasonable time to progress from obscurity to F I. but now that he is there and in a good car he feels he should devote himself to it as much as he devoted himse[fto F2 in 1975. "My aim was to win the F2 championship and 1 succeeded. Now my aim is to do well in Fl. I may possibly do some F2 or sports car races as well but F 1 must come first."

Jacques was born in Paris in 1943. There was no racing whatsoever in his background and no sign of any interest until he reached his 20s and started working as a mechanic for an old school friend, Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Laffite's father was a lawyer and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but after two years at law school Jacques decided he was just not interested. He drifted around Europe as Jabouille's mechanic for two years. first with a Renault Gordini, then with a F3 Matra and finally decided to try racing for himself. He couldn't afford a car as he had no money and no job, but he joined the driver's school at Magny Cours and took 2nd in the Volant Shell competition.

Jacques' instructor at the racing school was Tico Martini, who has nothing to do with the famous drinks firm, but builds very successful small-disp]acement racing cars, most of which are fitted with Renau]t engines. He was sufficiently impressed with his pupil to provide him with an F3 car for a few races in 1969 and Jacques obliged by keeping the car in one piece and notching up a couple of 3rds. For 1970 Jacques moved into FRenault. but didn't do very well because of a lack of funds. "I had one engine and one gearbox, nothing else." Happily. 1971 was slightly better, with two wins and some useful places, and in 1972 he went on to become French champion. It had taken time, but Laffite gaineda good reputation in a category noted for accidents. In 1973 he became the Martini works F3 driver, winning several major races, including Monaco, and becoming French F3 champion.

Things were looking up and for 1974 Laffite obtained sufficient sponsorship to move into F2 with a March-BMW, the first time he had driven anything other than a Martini. [nitially the March was a little disappointing, but Martini modifications improved the handling and Laffite might well have been the 1974 F2 champion but for repeated engine problems, a dilemma which eventually caused him to run out of money.

The secret of Jacques' success in 1975 was testing and teamwork. The Martini Mk167 was a very good car and Jacques became adept at setting it up, using individual corners at Magny Cours to get the handling right for whatever type of circuit was next on the list. Jacques still lives in Magny Cours, "but now in a proper house, a chateau really, with my girlfriend Bernadette and with the Martini Team Manager, Huges de Chaunac. It is only 50 miles from the Ligier factory at Vichy and only two hours from Paris," he says, two facts which seem slightly difficult to reconcile until he points out that he drives a BMW 3.0 CSL! Last year he was given an Alfetta GT for his part in helping Alfa Romeo win the Championship for Makes (he won all three races he drove for them) but he had it only a few days before it was written off in Paris by a large truck.

Until last December it seemed likely that Jacques would be driving for Frank Williams again this year, Frank having just acquired the erstwhile Hesketh team. Then, in a dramatic week which made newspaper headlines throughout France, Jacques was summoned to Paul Ricard to test the all-French Gitanes Ligier, which had a Matra V-12 engine and had been designed and built by former Matra technicians. Jean-Pierre Beltoise had done all the initial testing and it had been announced that he would be the team's driver, but after only a few laps Laffite was significantly quicker. After a great deal of politics it was established that

Laffite would get the drive and there would be a second car for Beltoise. Jacques has already vindicated the choice and looks likely to go on doing so. provided the Matra engine does not suffer too much from the change in airbox regulations.

Unlike some Anglo-Saxon car builders/testers/drivers, Laffite is not so single-minded as to have no other interests. In the winter he enjoys skiing and says without false modesty that he is quite good at it. He is also one of motor racing's better tennis players.

Ironically enough, Laffite has only had two racing accidents in seven years. Both of them have been in the Gitanes Ligier and both have been because of structural failure; a broken wheel in practice at Interlagos and a broken wishbone during Kyalami tire tests. In each case he has stepped out completely unhurt. As a result he is very much in favor of current safety developments, like deformable structures and catch fencing, even though he has no desire to test either again. "I just want to do well in F I, for Ligier and for myself. After that, we shall see. It is all a matter of steady progression, one step at a time. But if I have a good car I know I can win."

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Post 1945 Drivers

Jacques Laffite


written 1976