Fascinating F1 Fact:64

If you ask the average F1 fan whether they have heard of Frenchman Jean-Claude Guénard, most will look at you blankly. If you Google the name, you will find a lot about his death, but very little about his life. The problem was that Guénard died in the company of Didier Pironi. There were three men riding in the Colibri-sponsored offshore powerboat that day during the Needles Trophy race in August 1987: Pironi, Guénard and Bernard Giroux. A couple of weeks earlier the trio had won the Arendal race in Norway and had become title contenders. They were running in second place, battling with the Italian boat Pinot di Pinot, piloted by Renato della Valle. As they approached one of the turning points on the course around the Isle of Wight, Colibri hit the wake of a 37,000-ton oil tanker that was passing some way away. The lightweight boat flew into the air, flipped over and crashed upside-down onto the surface of the water, still travelling at high speed. All three men died from severe head injuries, leading to drowning. The headlines the next day talked of Pironi, the former F1 star, while Guénard and Giroux became footnotes in history.

In reality, both had led extraordinary lives. Giroux was a rally co-driver, who had won several big events with Bernard Darniche. He was also a two-time winner of the Paris-Dakar, once as co-driver to René Metge in 1981 and once alongside Ari Vatanen in 1987. He had also carved himself a career as a TV presenter.

Guénard’s relationship with the 35-year-old Pironi stretched back 19 years to when Didier was a precocious teenager, hanging out with a racing crowd (of which his half-brother was a member)in the southern suburbs of Paris. Most were motorcycle racers and the 16-year-old Pironi wanted to be a member of Guénard’s Kawasaki motorcycle team in the 24-hour Bol d’Or race at Montlhéry. Didier’s mother stopped that from happening…

Guénard was 10 years older than Pironi and had begun his motorcycle racing career in his late teens, being help by and competing against Jean Pierre Beltoise. At 20 he won the French National 250cc Championship and that year finished fourth in a one-off entry in the 250cc French GP. Among his rivals was a youngster called Patrick Depailler. Like many motorcycle racers at the time, the lure of car racing was strong and he moved into Formula 3 in 1970, racing a variety of different cars. His team-mates included Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jean-Luc Salomon, both rising stars at the time. He also raced an Alfa Romeo for Conrero in French touring car events, with Depailler as his team mate. He would also compete in some rallies, notably the 1971 Tour de France which he did with Jean-Pierre Jabouille in a Ferrari, the duo finishing second, and he shared an Alpine with Bob Wollek in a European Championship event two years later. By 1971, however, Guénard faced up to the fact that he was probably not going to make it to F1 as a driver, given the number of very strong young Frenchmen at the time. He decided to concentrate on engineering and began working with Jabouille in Formula 3, along with the Alpine engine expert Bernard Dudot. Depailler, Jabouille’s Alpine team-mate, won the title that year with Jabouille third.

The next step was Formula 2, which Jabouille did with the support of Elf, using a variety of machinery before getting this hands on the renamed Alpine A367, which was badged as the Elf 2 in 1975. In 1976, with funding from Elf Switzerland, and aerodynamic help from Marcel Hubert, Guénard reworked the Elf 2 into the Elf 2J (J for Jabouille) and Jean-Pierre romped to the European Formula 2 title that year. This same group would then start working on the Alpine-Renault A500 project, the secret F1 car that would eventually become the basis of the RS01. It was not until January 1977 that Renault admitted that it had an F1 programme – Guénard was named as the project leader. The car began testing in June and made its debut at the British GP and for the next two years the team worked its way through a plethora of problems, largely engine-related, before results started to come, culminating with the team’s famous first victory at the French GP in July 1979. Jabouille and Rene Arnoux would win three races in 1980 before Jabouille crashed heavily in Canada and broke his leg.

He would move to Ligier in 1981 and Guénard went with him, as Renault purged the F1 team of its pioneers and brought in a new generation of boffins. Jabouille’s injury meant that he could no longer race and so the two men worked closely with Ligier’s lead driver (and Jabouille’s brother-in-law) Jacques Laffite in the years that followed. Guy Ligier then asked Guénard to become the project leader for the Ligier Indycar project. He used the then current Ligier JS23 F1 car as a basis for the design with the plans being for Curb Racing to enter the cars, which would be run by Dan Gurney. The car had no development, the money failed to arrive and after appearing at three events, the team gave up on the project.

Guénard departed and took a job with Pironi’s Leader Boats company. At the same time, he and Jabouille created another business, preparing Lada Nivas for the Paris-Dakar Rally, with three cars entered for Jabouille, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Pierre Lartigue, with funding from Pastis 51.

Guénard’s desire to compete led him to becoming the throttle man with Pironi.

Jean-Claude Guénard is buried in the cemetery of Saint Pierre et Saint Charles in Villeneuve-le-Roi.

25 thoughts on “Fascinating F1 Fact:64

  1. Thank you for these, Joe, I’ve been really enjoying them, and it underlines why I follow the sport – the sheer depth of history. It’s great to get this little tidbits out in the open where hopefully they’ll remain to be found rather than simply lost.

  2. This is why Joe towers above other F1 journalists. As a big big motorcycle racing fan I’m now going to pour over the 250cc history books for Patrick Depailler..

  3. Really enjoy the F1 facts Joe, thank you.
    I have seen this boat at Manoir de l’Automobile at Lohéac in Brittany, France.
    A brilliant motor museum with an exceptional F1 collection!
    I will get to visit the museum again in May and this time when viewing Colibri I will have a much better understanding of the men that piloted her. Thank you.

  4. Another great piece about F1 related history. Didier Pironi’s time in f1 was a couple of years before I got into it. How good a driver was he and was there ever any chance of him returning to F1 before the powerboat crash?

    1. No, he could not return to F1 properly as his legs were very bad. He had so many operations trying to get back. It was very sad. I think he lived in pain all the time. Having said that, he seesm to have had a pretty exciting life with his powerboats and a rather complicated love life.

    2. If I may Colin, I remember watching the 1977 Monaco F3 race where Pironi won impressively (in my humble opinion). If I remember well, there were lots of incidents, not least at the start but Pironi was uncatchable on what was a one off drive for him that year. Pretty impressive. I also remember that before his crash at Hockenheim in 1982, with his Ferrari becoming more and more competitive the general feeling was that he was on track for becoming World Champion. Maybe not as outright fast as Villeneuve, I think he was quite a tidy driver and would have been a worthy first French world champion. Without wanting to encroach on Joe’s great and fascinating posts, an interesting fact about Pironi is that Nicolas Sarkozy, as a young mayor of Neuilly, officiated at Pironi’s wedding in 1982!

  5. What an informative post Joe! You took us right through French motorsport in the late 60s, 70s and 80s and gave us an idea of the enthusiasm the country had for all kinds of motorsport including the Dakar (the enthusiasm for that still continues). I never knew that many of the French F1 stars started out as motorcycle racers and one, Patrick Depailler, even competed in what would now be called the intermediate class in MotoGP! I never knew Jacques Laffite was Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s brother-in-law, though I do know of Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s brother-in-law, Francois Cevert. France was saturated with motorsport back then. Too bad the country’s road racing passion kind of died out after Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, though now it is reviving with Romain Grosjean and Pierre Gasly. Jules Bianchi was the pioneering star of this revival but unfortunately he was taken out way too early.

  6. Some of your F1 fans have to be forgiven if they ignore the name of Marcel Hubert, kind and modest engineer whose career has been much more effective in sports and prototypes cars rather than F 1. One thing he was proud of was that, even its cars had been crashed, they never killed their drivers… He died last year.

  7. I’m intrigued by your perception of Pironi vs Villeneuve and the aftermath of the 1982 San Marino GP.

    Many people have taken Gerald Donaldson’s Villeneuve biography to be the truth. In addition, Niger Roebuck wrote a book about the Canadian legend – as well as many articles. But being a close friend of Gilles I always felt he was biased.

    I know this rivalry happened before your time in F1 began but I wondered if you’d ever had talks with individuals that changed the popular perception.

    I still remember John Hogan having very differing views of the dynamic between Pironi and Villeneuve..


    1. I do not imagine that Pironi would have beaten in a straight fight that day. Thus I doubt it was a straight fight

      1. There’s no doubt Pironi was growing stronger and perhaps more influential within the team but we only need to take that event’s qualifying difference between the two of them to see that there was still a huge difference in outright pace.
        We could compare this to Damon Hill up against Ayrton Senna early in ’94, the gap was huge and Damon was fairly gobsmacked as Senna’s speed as he had fared quite well against Alain in 1993.
        However I wonder if Didier knew he was beaten on pace so could he have begun to sacrifice qualy to work on race pace set ups, whereas Gilles just wanted to be fastest regardless?

  8. This series of Fascinating Facts is absolutely the most riveting stuff I have read in 40 years of following the sport. Bravo!

  9. Thanks for this one Joe. I heard the news around the time it happened, but never recalled that the cause was oil tanker wake. Prompted me to conduct further research.

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