Feature: Forty years on – the brief rise of Ligier

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

LP Hartley’s celebrated line can seem especially appropriate to Formula 1. In one such example, rewind 40 years almost to the day and it was indeed alien territory. And not just because then the subsequent 1979 season’s opening round, in Argentina, was already less than a month away (January season starts were common back in the day).

In one partial parallel with now, there wasn’t much dispute over which team was the firm favourite for that forthcoming campaign. Lotus had cruised to the previous season’s titles with the classic ground effect Lotus 79, and few thought it would be dethroned in the short term.

And when everyone gathered for the Buenos Aires season-opener it was from one perspective more of the same. New Lotus recruit Carlos Reutemann looked on form and set a fine qualifying time, plus – imitation being the sincerest form of flattery – a Lotus 79-like Tyrrell piloted by Jean-Pierre Jarier was next up on the starting grid. Reigning champion Mario Andretti in an (actual) Lotus meanwhile was a couple of rows back, but likely would have been up with them too without problems in practice.

But it only looked like more of the same if you ignored the front row. There sat two blue and white Ligier JS11s. Over a second ahead of Reutemann.

People already knew some things would be different about Ligier that year. It moved for the first time to being a two-car operation, Patrick Depailler joining Jacques Laffite, and had also bolted on the mainstream Cosworth DFV having laboured previously with the cumbersome Matra V12. But still this was an operation known for being midfield plodders, as well as for the French operation being based away from the English silicon valley with everything that entailed. That wasn’t expected to change.

Even when its new beautiful JS11 machines rolled off the cargo planes in Argentina they didn’t turn too many heads. Illustrating as much, its designer Gerard Ducarouge overhead the following contemptuous mutters from a couple of Lotus engineers. “Why have they done the suspension like that? It’s a very odd-shaped car… if a car like that ever wins a race, that’s the time I stop motor racing.”

What do they know. The Ligiers on track in the two South American season-opening rounds – Argentina and Brazil – looked magisterial and toured around at the front. Laffite won both and Depailler would have made it two one-twos without late fuel vapourisation in round one. The previously imperious Lotus meanwhile had to make do with two distant best of the rest results. If you want a (loose) modern analogy, imagine Sauber dominating Australia and Bahrain and only then having Mercedes home.

“Man, it was a rude shock, I’ll tell you,” Andretti notes. “I guess we’d cleaned up so much the year before that we figured it would simply continue into ‘79. In Argentina those Ligiers were just so much quicker it was a joke. Gone.

“Then we went on to Brazil, to Interlagos where we’d tested during the winter. Reutemann and I really gave it a go in qualifying – and we finish up third and fourth! It was the same thing...we couldn’t get near the goddam Ligiers. They’d come up with their first ground effect car, and out of the box it just plain jumped over us...”

Laffite doesn’t seek to conceal how easy it was at this point. “In Brazil I set my pole position lap on normal race tyres [this being the age of one-lap qualifying rubber] and with the fuel tanks half-full!,” he reflects. “No problem. Hardly any adjustment necessary to the cars after Buenos Aires. Get in, go!”

Man, it was a rude shock, I’ll tell you. I guess we’d cleaned up so much the year before that we figured it would simply continue into ‘79. In Argentina those Ligiers were just so much quicker it was a joke. Gone - Mario Andretti

And there was another major way in which F1 differed from today. Today is the age of the restrictive rulebook and conformity of course. Forty years ago was a peculiar age of grand aerodynamic discovery and advance.

As noted Lotus had dominated in 1978 with its pioneering exploitation of ground effect underbody aerodynamics and sliding skirts. Its rivals as expected sought to ape it for 1979. Less widely known was that in fact the Lotus 79 had a lot wrong with it, it’s just that its massive advantage from the ground effect had concealed the point.

“Unfortunately the underlying car was not very good,” notes Lotus designer Peter Wright, “it was structurally a bit inadequate particularly as suspension spring rates went up and up and up, it was quite flexible and failed right inside the monocoque in places we discovered at the end of the [1978] year. Also the exhaust system used to fall apart and the brakes didn’t work very well, but Andretti and [Ronnie] Peterson had enough performance that they could win races with it [in 1978].”

Stiff structures it transpired was key to take most advantage of ground effect downforce, and stiffness had been a characteristic of Ducarouge’s cars going right back to the Matra prototypes he’d penned. Almost by accident therefore, combined with a bit of Ligier inspiration (plus one instance of creative interpretation of what was a moveable aerodynamic device), the JS11 wasn’t too far off being a well-sorted Lotus 79.

It helped also that in the same moment a few of Ligier’s likely opponents got it wrong simultaneously. McLaren didn’t learn the same lesson on stiffness while Brabham went down a blind alley with its BT48. Lotus made a similar mistake with its Lotus 80 introduced a few rounds in, which it quickly abandoned to return to the by then fully exposed 79.

But Ligier’s South American double triumph was as good as it got for the team. It only won one more race that year, and sank to a distant third in the final constructors’ table with Laffite the lead Ligier but fourth in the drivers’ standings.

We were far too small to take advantage [of the car]. Not enough people, not enough money. We were living like animals - Gerard Ducarouge

There were peculiarities that explained some of this decline. In the two rounds that followed South America the Ligiers weren’t quite on point due to new underfloor material flexing, though that was swiftly sorted.

Team-mates Laffite and Depailler also often raced each other, and it cost. Laffite while chasing leader Depailler in Spain missed a gear and buzzed his engine then in Belgium they between them fumbled the race to Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter. Depailler crashed; Laffite ate up his tyres.

And the year’s peculiar points system – the season was divided roughly down the middle and only the four best scores from each ‘half’ counted – meant squandering of victory opportunities was particularly regrettable.

Then Depailler counted himself out from mid-season by breaking his legs hang-gliding. His previous employer Tyrrell had made sure to forbid in his contract such dangerous activities which Depailler had a penchant for. Ligier hadn’t thought to…

Veteran Jacky Ickx was brought in in his stead at sponsor Gitanes’ behest, but he was no longer up to the task of driving such a high downforce brute.

There also is that early on when Ligier dominated what would become its most potent adversaries had yet to emerge. The Ferrari 312T4, which took the Scuderia to the 1979 title double, didn’t debut until round three – and while its wide flat-12 engine didn’t allow full ground effect exploitation its Michelin tyres and more general consistency and reliability made up for that. While the Williams FW07 which proved the genuine real deal of making good on the Lotus 79’s starting point didn’t appear until round five (of only 15) and even then didn’t get reliable until after the year’s halfway point.

Yet these don’t provide the full explanation, particularly given that mid-year the Ligiers were qualifying behind some of the very cars it had creamed in the opening rounds.

Even though the technical people knew it [changing the sidepods] wasn’t the way to go, Guy [Ligier]’s force of personality sent them in a different direction and it took until the end of the season before the car came good again - Dany Hindenoch

One theory has it that Ducarouge had written the cars’ set-up on the back of a cigarette packet, which he subsequently lost… Sadly though it seems that is a fable.

But it does in a way hint at the real reason, as does the fact that Ligier’s leap to competitiveness was such a surprise in the first place.

"We were far too small to take advantage [of the car],” notes Ducarouge. "Not enough people, not enough money. We were living like animals…”

“There were only around 30 of us in total,” adds the team’s commercial chief Dany Hindenoch. “Our budget was FF16m [£1.6m], which even then was small. We were not a big team; bigger than some, but not as big as the others doing the winning.”

And in that intimated mid-year dip again something peculiar was happening at Ligier. To do with its notorious boss Guy Ligier. The imposing ex-rugby player could be charming, but he could also be combustible. To put it mildly.

“What happened is that Guy was under a lot of pressure,” Hindenoch continues. “He could see the opportunity of maybe becoming a bigger, better-funded team. But he needed results and they had faded a little by mid-season.

“He had an idea that we needed to revise the aerodynamics of the cars and had got it in his head that the sidepods [vital in ground effect design] needed to be a different shape. Gerard disagreed, and in a rage Guy destroyed all the existing sidepods and said, ‘There, now you have to make new ones’.”

Other things were going on too. The team’s setting-up instruments had become inaccurate. It was unable to rebuild Depailler’s car accurately after his Belgium crash – its chassis jig perhaps had become distorted. It also mid-season abandoned its windtunnel for a government facility – a move apparently associated with the politically connected Guy – which in turn meant the car lost its baselines established earlier in the year. Then once those new sidepods appeared it took three more rounds to support their additional download with revised suspension.

“Even though the technical people knew it [changing the sidepods] wasn’t the way to go, Guy’s force of personality sent them in a different direction and it took until the end of the season before the car came good again,” Hindenoch adds.

By that time Ligier’s championship chance was as good as done.

Laffite’s words sum the whole matter up. “We were quick [in the first two races] – very quick – and we did not really know why. We just thought we had the best car ever built, and it would be quick everywhere, but no...and when we were off the pace, it was the same thing: we did not really know why!

“During the season we began to test all the time, with different cars and all kinds of modifications. We lost our way, went round in circles, confused ourselves. Eventually we tried to go back to the beginning, set the car up exactly as it had been in South America – and we could not do it. Still, it was good while it lasted...”