Saturday 27 November 2010

Looking back: 1979 - not the march de triomphe for Ligier

OK, I'll admit it. I first had the idea to write something on Ligier's 1979 season sometime after the Brazilian Grand Prix this year, in which Red Bull had refused to 'nominate' one of their drivers for the championship or to impose team orders. It was to be a cautionary tale of a frontline team with two competitive drivers losing out on a championship by allowing them to race each other, to the point that they damaged each other's hopes.

The Red Bulls then inconsiderately won both the drivers' and the constructors' titles. But the story of Ligier in 1979 is sufficiently compelling to be worth recounting nevertheless, and the lack of team orders is but part of it.

To cut a long story short, the Ligiers ran away with the opening two races of 1979, before gradually fading to become also-rans by the season's end with, on the face of it, an unfathomable rate of decline. As is usually the case in F1, the reasons for this decline are not straightforward.

First, some background. The Ligier team, run by ex-rugby player Guy Ligier, entered F1 at the start of the 1976 season, buying out the assets of the defunct Matra team and leading the latest attempt by an all-French team to conquer the sport, even kitting the cars out in evocative blue.

They initially had clear, if modest, success with two podium finishes for their one driver, Jacques Laffite, in their first year and claiming their first win the following season. However, come the end of 1978 Ligier ended up sixth in the constructors' table with but two third places that year, and like everyone else were miles behind the Lotus 79s with their full ground effect car.

It was therefore to everyone's surprise that in the opening two rounds of the 1979 season, in Argentina and Brazil, the Lotuses had to settle for best of the rest behind the new Ligier JS11s. A long way behind. World Champion and Lotus pilot Mario Andretti takes up the story: 'Man, it was a rude shock, I'll tell ya. 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 (Andretti's team mate) 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...'

The Ligiers, with Laffite joined by Patrick Depailler, the team for the the first time being a two-car operation, looked magisterial as they toured around at the front throughout the first two rounds. Laffite won both, and only late fuel vapourisation in Argentina for Depailler deprived them of two one-two finishes. Laffite made no secret of how easy it was at this point: 'In Brazil I set my pole position lap on normal race tyres (this was the age wherein super-sticky qualifying tyres, good only for one quick lap, were available) and with the fuel tanks half-full! No problem. Hardly any adjustment necessary to the cars after Buenos Aires. Get in, go!' Those who saw him casually wave at backmarkers as he lapped them, as well as the way he barely participated in much of Friday and Saturday's practice sessions in Brazil, his pole position set, did not doubt Jacques's words.

All of a sudden, it was difficult to see who could deprive one of the Ligier drivers of the championship, even at this early stage. Autosport called Laffite 'the top contender for the 1979 title', while both Autosport and Car and Driver magazines reckoned that only the soon-to-be-introduced Lotus 80 could possibly beat them.

It did not work out that way however, for Ligier or for Lotus. It transpired that Laffite did not win another race that season, while Ligier only took one more win, Depailler claiming the Spanish race at Jarama. The championships were instead taken by Jody Scheckter and Ferrari, while Laffite trailed in fourth in the drivers' table and Ligier a distant third in the constructors'.

So, what happened? Even in the modern era of intensive development programmes it's hard to fathom how such an early advantage could be squandered. As is usually the case in F1 though, it was down to a combination of things.

First to deal with the point where we came in, on team orders. As mentioned, in 1979 Ligier were for the first time running a two-car team, and somewhat unusually for the time did not nominate either as 'number one'. This did cost the team further wins, and further points, without question as Depailler got onto Laffite's pace after the first two rounds. In Spain the Ligiers were again running clear at the front, racing each other like they were in different teams, only for Laffite to put himself out having buzzed his engine after fluffing a gear change (selecting second instead of fifth) while chasing his team mate. In Belgium they both destroyed their tyres racing each other, resulting in Depailler crashing out and Laffite fading to finish second behind Scheckter. Had the Spanish race been engineered for Laffite to win, then come the halfway point of the season he would have been leading the table rather than trailing Scheckter by six points. This could have provided greater momentum for the second half of the year. Laffite, and others linked to the team, certainly felt Ligier disadvantaged themselves in the championship fight by not appointing a clear number one driver.

But the flip side to this argument is that the early part of the season with the two drivers racing each other was much more fruitful in terms of points than was the second half of the season, which Depailler missed having smashed his legs in a hang-gliding accident. He was replaced by veteran Jacky Ickx, who was never near Laffite's pace. That year's Autocourse annual noted a couple of negative consequences of this for Ligier, one is that 'the second Ligier was never able to take points from the drivers that most hurt Laffite', as well as that in the absence of a competitive team mate 'Laffite appeared to lose the stimulus that produced the extra tenths'. And in any case it is something of a detail, as the Ligiers clearly dropped off the pace of the Williams, Ferraris and others in the second half of the season, regardless of whether or not their drivers were pushing each other along.

One particularly outlandish theory has it that Ligier designer Gerard Ducarouge wrote the cars' settings used in the first two races the back of a cigarette packet, which he subsequently lost! How I'd love that to be true...

It seems more likely though that the Ligiers dropped off the front running pace for similar reasons that they'd been able to leap to competitiveness over the Lotus to begin with. 1979 was an unusual year, in that it was the season that the ground effect had become de rigueur in F1. Further, it became clear rapidly that the ground effect was not something merely to be bolted onto a chassis, it was a new science to be explored. The downforce generated by the cars quickly multiplied over time, meaning that competitive designs could become effectively obsolete very rapidly.

The designers learned from each other as new strides in ground effect technology were made. One of the main reasons that Ligier were able to leapfrog the Lotus 79 was the greater downforce they garnered from having an extremely rigid chassis to withstand the downloads of the ground effects, which some other teams speedily honoured by imitation. To an extent Ligier were also disadvantaged by showing their hands early by introducing their 1979 design from the first race, allowing many teams who had yet to introduce their 1979 spec cars to 'learn the lessons' in their own designs. The Ferrari T4 and Williams FW07, introduced a few races into the season, learned the lessons particularly well and set the pace for much of the season.

Ligier did not help themselves either. By mid-season their setting-up instruments had apparently become inaccurate, they switched wind tunnels at around the same time, and also apparently produced new, cheaper 'productionised' sidepods that weren't as stiff as the previous ones. Once they worked out where the problems were the season had almost finished. Laffite complained of a lack of grip in mid-season races, and the JS11s were suddenly barely quicker than the Lotus 79s they'd beaten so comprehensively earlier on.

What's more, at this stage of history ground effect wasn't particularly well understood even by F1 designers. Why some cars were quick were quick and some not, and why some cars varied in competitiveness from race to race, mystified most of them much of the time. This mystification is apparent in Laffite's comments on how Ligier's season developed: '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 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...'

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