Guy Ligier died on Sunday. A former F1 driver and team owner, Ligier was a truly remarkable individual. He started with nothing and made three different fortunes in the course of his life. His political connections were legend and played an important role in the success, albeit fleeting, of his F1 operation. He was not helped by his sometimes brusque manner and a wildly explosive temper, but his energy and passion inspired those around him and those who knew him well say he was a charming and loyal friend.
Ligier was the son of a farmer in the backwater region around Vichy in central France. He was orphaned at seven and left school at 14, becoming an apprentice butcher before his military service. He got his breaks in life through sport, initially as a national rowing champion and then as a rugby player who played for the French army and was a France B international. He then turned his attention to motorcycle racing and with the money he won on bikes he was able to buy himself a bulldozer and he set about creating an empire in the world of construction. To achieve this he learned early on that it was best to be close to local politicians and in the 1950s he worked closely with the mayor of Vichy, Pierre Coulon, who spearheaded a major redevelopment programme in the town, hoping to attract more visitors. After that Ligier began working on autoroute construction and other public works projects, including bridges and dams. At its height, his business boasted 500 earth-moving machines and 1,200 employees.
Much of this success came as a result of his relationship with Francois Mitterand, who had a string of influential positions in the region. As Mitterand rose through the ranks of the French Socialist Party so Ligier’s fortunes improved as well.
Guy was already a wealthy man when he decided in 1957 to go motor racing with a Simca 1300. He was still only in his late twenties and in the years that followed he would compete with various different kinds of machinery before aiming for the top by buying a Formula 2 car in 1964. After that he bought a Cooper-Maserati F1 car, followed by a Brabham-Repco and he competed in 12 Grands Prix, scoring a World Championship point in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in the summer of 1967. Ligier knew that he was never going to be a World Champion, but he loved racing and in 1968 he went into partnership with Jo Schlesser to run a team of two McLarens in Formula 2.
Sadly, Schlesser was killed that summer in a Honda F1 car at Rouen and Ligier decided to stop racing and to concentrate on building his own road cars, hiring designer Michel Tetu to draw up the Ligier JS1 sports car, named in honour of Schlesser. All his cars after that carried the designation JS.
Ligier used the sport to promote his automobile businesses and at the end of 1974 he was offered the opportunity to acquire the assets of Matra Sports, which allows him to create his own F1 team, with driver Jacques Laffite and designer Gerard Ducarouge. The Ligier team was quickly competitive and won eight Grands Prix between 1977 and 1981, six of them with Jacques Laffite and single victories for Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi. In 1979 it looked for a time as though Ligier would sweep all before it and win the World Championship, but the team failed to keep up the momentum and was beaten back into third place in the Constructors’ Championship. Ligier’s temper would sometimes see him doing amazing things, such as jumping up and down on bodywork that was not working, and it led to him one day firing Ducarouge, a decision that he would live to regret as the team never returned to the same levels of success, despite having access to all that was required.
Thanks to his influential friends Guy was able to land government money to pay for his racing, notably from the national tobacco company SEITA (of Gitanes fame), but also from FDJ, the French national lottery company, from Elf, the national oil company and from Renault, which was leaned on to supply him with engines whenever he needed them. After Mitterand became President of France in 1981 Ligier was even able to get a new factory and wind tunnel built at the revamped Magny-Cours, which also won the contract to host the French Grand Prix. Those who were jealous of Ligier’s connections often accused him of running illegal funding programmes for the socialists, with some of the sponsorship money being diverted from the F1 team into secret socialist accounts, but no-one was ever able to prove this, although in later years Mitterrand’s image was tarred somewhat by claims of corruption. The connection to Mitterand meant that Ligier was able to get close to other politicians, notably Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy and Michel Charasse.
By 1992, however, the Socialist Party had run into trouble with the electorate and Ligier, upset at being jeered by fans at Monaco, decided that he would sell the F1 team and bowed out, using the money he raised from the sale to invest in a new business selling natural fertiliser to France’s farmers. He made his third fortune as a result. Ligier also built a range of microcars, a project that began because he acquired some tractor canopies that he could not sell and so had them converted into the small cars that do not require a driving licence. Later he would rescue the celebrated Automobiles Martini company and try to break Dallara’s domination of Formula 3 (this project failed), but he went on to create a range of small sports-prototype racing cars designed for gentleman drivers. These were a huge success.
The Ligier F1 team sailed on without him, and Olivier Panis won Monaco in 1996 with a Benetton-lookalike chassis. This was the team’s only win after Ligier left. Eventually the team was taken over by Alain Prost, but it went to the wall in 2002, Alain having failed to use his fame and connections as successfully as Ligier had done a generation earlier.
For Formula 1 fans, however, the powder blue Ligiers of the early 1980s were the real successors of the Grand Prix Bugattis of the 1920s and 1930s, and Guy Ligier was the human face of France’s racing revival. Renault had more money and better facilities, but Ligier beat them for a time. It is for this that Guy will be best remembered.