Guy Ligier: Rugby union international who switched to motor racing, first as a driver and than as a successful team principal

In his 12 grands prix outings his best result as a wealthy privateer was sixth at the 1967 German GP, which earned him his sole world championship point

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The Independent Online

Guy Ligier was a tough and passionate competitor who left his mark in more than one sporting arena, and a self-made man who started out with nothing but amassed three separate fortunes over the years.

Born in Vichy in 1930, Ligier was a farmer’s son in rural Vichy who was orphaned at seven and left school at 14 to become an apprentice butcher. An accomplished, muscular rower, he was national champion in 1947 and played rugby for the army and later as a B team international before a series of injuries forced him to give up his aspirations in that sport.

He began racing motorcycles successfully, however, and used his winnings to buy a bulldozer, which set him on the road to becoming a major road constructor. He learned the art of political alliance early on, and befriended the mayor of Vichy, Pierre Coulon, at a time when the latter had a vision to redevelop his town. Eventually, Ligier’s company was instrumental in building France’s autoroute network, as well as dams and bridges; its 1,200 employees operated 500 earth-moving machines.

He began car racing with a Simca 1300 in 1957, drove a Porsche 904 at Le Mans in 1964, and bought himself a Cooper-Maserati to go Formula 1 racing in 1966. The following year he bought a Brabham-Repco from Jack Brabham. In his 12 grands prix outings his best result as a wealthy privateer was sixth at the 1967 German GP, which earned him his sole world championship point.

The following year he ran a McLaren M4A in Formula 2 with his close friend Jo Schlesser; Schlesser was killed in a Honda in that year’s French GP, and having decided to retire and focus on building roadcars, Ligier loyally called his new creation the Ligier JS1. Subsequently, when he acquired Matra Sports’s assets to create his own F1 team for 1976, he retained the JS nomenclature for all of his racing cars.

The first Matra-engined F1 Ligier was nicknamed “the teapot” because of its high air intake but it was fast in Jacques Laffite’s hands in 1976, taking pole position in Italy, and a year later they scored their first grand prix success, in Sweden.

Ligier would win eight grands prix between 1977 and 1981, with Laffite, Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi, challenging for the world championship in the latter three years. It was said that the reason they could not maintain an initial domination with Laffite in 1979 was that the designer Gerard Ducarouge had jotted down the chassis set-ups on the back of a Gitanes packet which he subsequently mislaid.

Ligier exploited his close political friendships, most notably with François Mitterand and prime minister Pierre Beregovoy, to help fund his racing efforts via support from France’s national fuel company Elf, Gitanes (part of the SEITA tobacco giant) and the French national lottery. Mitterand’s election to the presidency in 1981 helped Ligier to build a new factory and wind tunnel at Magny-Cours.

A mercurial character, he was famous for his tantrums and martinet behaviour, and his political connections generated many jealousies which led to accusations that he was running illegal funding programmes for the Socialists. These remained unproven, but by 1992 he had had enough and sold his team to the businessman Cyrile de Rouvre after becoming incensed when he was heckled in Monaco.

By the time Olivier Panis scored the marque’s final success, in the Principality in 1996, Ligier had used the proceeds of the sale to create a new empire selling natural fertiliser, and went on to generate another building a range of microcars which did not require their drivers to be licensed. He also went back into racing car production, selling successful small-bore sports-prototype cars to gentleman drivers for races such as Le Mans.

Later de Rouvre sold the team to multiple world champion Alain Prost, who renamed it Prost Grand Prix. Under that guise it survived until 2002. In all Ligier scored nine grand prix wins, took nine pole positions and set 11 fastest laps, and their highest finish in the constructors world championship was second in 1980.

McLaren’s racing director, Eric Boullier, said of Ligier: “As a child growing up in Le Mans, I was inspired and entranced by his iconic and beautiful pale blue and white Formula 1 cars, driven with panache by such French racing heroes as Jacques Laffite, Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi.

“Ligier was a very French team, employing very French drivers, but it was also very successful on the world stage, winning grands prix not only in Europe but also the Americas. Guy himself was a tough and uncompromising character, but he was also a racer through and through.”

Guy Camille Ligier, rugby union player, racing driver, Formula 1 team owner and businessman: born Vichy, France 12 July 1930; married (two sons); died Nevers, France 23 August 2015.