It is with great regret that I must record the passing of Francois Guiter, at the age of 86.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Guiter in Formula 1, not just in France but also across the world. When the Elf oil company was established in 1967 Guiter was named as its marketing manager and he decided to use motorsport to promote the new firm and began investing large sums of money in Matra and later Renault racing programmes. It has been said that he almost single-handedly created the French F1 boom in the 1970s and 1980s. It was Guiter who began to support the Winfield School at Magny-Cours and helped the winners of the Volant Elf competition to move up the motor racing ladder. Elf poured much of its money into Tyrrell and several of the new generation of drivers found themselves racing for the British team, notably Francois Cevert, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Didier Pironi. Ultimately the list of Elf drivers included the country’s first World Champion Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite and many many others, right through until Olivier Panis.
“I would say that it was Jean-Luc Lagardere who started the French revival in motor racing,” the veteran journalist Jabby Crombas said years ago. “Matra was moulding bodies for Deutsch for Rene Bonnet cars and Rene Bonnet couldn’t pay the bills so Matra took it over and Lagardere to his credit said we cannot sell a sportscar without winning races so we’ll go in motor racing. Lagardere started it but it was Guiter who made it all possible.”
Guiter was born in 1928 and was involved with the French Resistance in his late teens. He was a deeply private man who never blew his own trumpet and refused to tell many of the stories of his life. At one point, probably 10 years ago, I asked him if he was interested in writing a book about his life but he declined. This reticence had much to do with his background. During the war he worked as diver and it was said that the fact that he was missing several fingers was the result of an accident while attaching a limpet mine to an enemy ship during one of his missions. He wouldn’t discuss it at all. Later he joined a shadowy military organisation called the 11eme Choc, a commando unit run by the SDECE, France’s secret service. Even today the story of this unit has not been fully told but there were groups attached to the French forces in Indochina and in Algeria in the mid 1950s. The unit was dissolved in 1963. By then Guiter had moved on to work developing underwater photography and filming with the celebrated diver Jacques Cousteau. Guiter made more than 20 films. Along the way there was tragedy when he lost his brother Jean-Claude while diving in water-filled underground caverns.
When he retired from Elf in 1989 he continued to work as a consultant but the company allowed the driver development programmes to fade away over time. Guiter started a new film business with his son Jean-Claude, producing films about the sport.
Guiter was also an important figure in the growth of the television coverage of Formula 1, helping Bernie Ecclestone to spread the coverage of F1 across the world.
Alas, we will probably never know the full story of Guiter’s life… but that was how he wanted it to be.