20 February 2018
Fascinating F1 Fact: 85
Force of character is a key element of success in Grand Prix racing. Racing teams need strong and inspiring leadership which is why the sport has enjoyed so many colourful characters over the years. Few of them were rounded individuals, but they made things happen – and got the job done.
Guy Ligier was just such an individual. He could be brusque and unfriendly and had an explosive temper, but his energy and passion were sources of inspiration for those around him. This drive came from a troubled childhood, which resulted in a burning desire not just to be rich and secure, but also to be recognised as a success.
He came from lowly roots, the son of a cattle farmer from Vichy. He lost his father in 1937, at the age of seven. In 1940 Vichy became the capital of unoccupied France, but the government there was collaborationist, although it drew many of the country’s rising political stars to the town, including François Mitterand, who spent a couple of years there, before switching to join the resistance. It seems that Mitterand may have known the Ligier family from this era, but he would not become important to Guy Ligier until much later.
At 14 Guy left school and became an apprentice butcher, although his life revolved around sports, initially boxing and then rowing, as a member of the Club de l’Aviron de Vichy. This led to him becoming French Junior Rowing Champion in coxed pairs in 1947. At the same time he played rugby, for Racing Club Vichy and then for the French Army, when he was doing his national service, and finally the France B international team. Too many injuries resulted in a new passion in 1954: motorcycle racing. This would continue for six years and in 1959, riding a 500cc Norton, he won the French national Inter title and competed in the French GP, won that year by John Surtees.
When he wasn’t racing motorbikes Ligier was digging ditches and moving earth, renting a digger. His first business was with his brother-in-law, the second with Pierre Coulon, the mayor of Vichy, who was in the process of redeveloping the town of Vichy, hoping to attract more visitors. Ligier bought his first digger with prize money from his motorcycle racing and soon had plenty of contracts, including work on a dam across the Allier to create a rowing lake, which would host the European Rowing Championship in 1967. There was further work creating a sports centre and soon Ligier was expanding to autoroute construction and other big public works projects. At its height his business employed 1200 people and boasted 500 earth-moving machines operating from a large base at Abrest, just south of Vichy. The company build hundreds of kilometres of autoroute and was also involved with the new Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
With money no longer a problem Ligier did his first car races in a Simca 1300 at Montlhéry in 1957 but then turned to single-seaters with a Formula Junior Elva-DKW in 1961. He didn’t really get going until 1964 when he raced a Porsche and was signed by Ford France to race a Brabham in F2 with team-mate Jo Schlesser. Ligier was too old (and too busy) for a serious racing career but he scored good results in sports car races and in 1966 bought himself a Cooper-Maserati F1 car and raced in five Grands Prix. That year, he and Schlesser became the exclusive importers of Shelby products in France, but the year ended with a bad accident. Schlesser refused to allow the doctors to amputate Ligier’s leg.
Guy was back in action in 1967 with a Brabham-Repco and scored a point in Germany. He also won the Reims 12 Hours, driving a GT 40 with Schlesser. With Ford reducing its racing involvement in 1968, Ligier, Schlesser and José Behra started their own team called Ecurie InterSport running a pair of McLaren F2 cars. Then disaster struck: Schlesser was killed on his F1 debut Ina Honda at Rouen.
Ligier quit the sport.
He began to build his own sports cars, hoping to set up a car company, but when this was hit by the oil crisis, he turned the business into a company fabricating cabins for tractors and then producing micro cars that did not require driving licenses.
Motor racing was still a passion and his good relationship with politicians (useful in the public works business), particularly with rising star Mitterand, led to access to government money for a sports car team and that led Guy to buy the assets of the Matra F1 team (but not the engines) and launch into an F1 adventure as a team owner… with his cars always called JS, after his pal Schlesser.