NEWS FEATURE

Ligier's woes in 1991

The 1991 season was always going to be an interim year for Guy Ligier's team -- an excuse which has been used far too often in the recent history of what is, effectively, France's national racing team.

In the autumn of 1990 it was announced that Ligier would have Renault V10 engines in 1992, with Lamborghini V12s replacing Cosworth DFRs in 1991. The team, which has not been anything more than a midfield runner in recent years, seems to have a charmed life -- thanks mainly to Guy Ligier's links with the French government.

The pressure to perform, however, has been intensifying and, over the winter, Ligier began rebuilding his team in preparation for 1992. Philippe Alliot and Nicola Larini were fired and replaced by ex-Williams star Thierry Boutsen and young French hope, 1990 International F3000 champion Erik Comas -- both on two year contracts. Frank Dernie was hired from Lotus as technical director, his task being to build up the team's technical facilities and staff in preparation for 1992.

Dernie arrived too late to have much imput on the design of the Lamborghini-engined JS35, which was the work of a young and strong design department at Magny-Cours headed by Michel Beaujon, Claude Galopin and Brazilian Richard Divila.

The JS35 chassis suffered from the need for a large oil tank for the Lamborghini engines and the car was bulky and overweight from the start.

The first JS35 ran with only a fortnight to go before the first race and, after some teething troubles with the clutch, proved to be reliable.

Neither Boutsen nor Comas had an easy time at Phoenix. Erik failed to qualify and Boutsen retired after an unspectacular afternoon, running in the midfield.

In Brazil both drivers made the race but Comas retired after 50 laps and Boutsen was a miserable tenth.

As soon as the team returned to Europe, there has been a flurry of activity at Magny Cours with both Divila and Galopin being fired.

The firings come as a result of the lack of immediate success. The JS35 was clearly not a front-running car, an embarrassment for Ligier who was under pressure to justify the extraordinary backing his team received from the French government through Elf, Loto and Gitanes Blondes.

At Imola with young English engineer Steve Clarke and Beaujon working as race engineers things were better, pre-event testing having found a few suspension tweaks. The drivers continued to complain that the JS35 lacked grip, but in the wet, they were quick. Boutsen finished seventh and Comas ninth. It should have been better and an opportunity to score all-important points was wasted. As the season progressed such opportunities became increasingly rare.

The pressure to perform increased as the team had slipped by now to 12th in the pre-qualifying stakes and was facing the possibility of dropping into pre-qualifying after the British GP. At Monaco, the Loto decals disappeared from the cars.

Monaco saw Boutsen finish seventh and Comas 10th and the mid-summer races in North America produced two eighth places: one for Comas in Montreal and the other for Boutsen in Mexico, where Comas again failed to qualify.

Dernie, in the meanwhile, was working on a modified JS35B chassis which ran for the first time in FOCA testing at Silverstone. The changes were an improvement and the team went to Magny-Cours optimistic that, at its home track, a good result would be possible. Comas qualified 14th with Boutsen 16th.

The race was none too successful. Thierry had worked his way up to 10th place when his bodywork broke loose and he had to pit for repairs. Comas had tyre troubles and soon joined Boutsen at the tail of the field. They finished 11th and 12th -- another opportunity lost.

Silverstone was another disaster with Boutsen retiring and Comas again failing to qualify. The team, however, had escaped the threat of pre-qualifying. In Hockenheim Comas was fortunate to emerge unscathed from a major accident, while Boutsen finished ninth.

Ligier caught everyone by surprise just before the Hungarian GP when he hired Gerard Ducarouge from Larrousse to work alongside Dernie. Ducarouge took over the development of the JS35B, leaving Dernie to concentrate on three other projects: an interim car - the JS35R - to test Renault engines over the winter; the JS37; and the restructuring of the team and recruitment for long-term research and development projects. In an effort to speed this up, Dernie had talks with Adrian Reynard about acquiring data from the defunct Reynard F1 project.

The JS35B continued to be a difficult car and, when Brabham-Yamaha scored a point in Belgium, Ligier slipped to 13th in the pre-qualifying stakes -- the next team to drop into pre-qualifying.

The remainder of the season continued to be frustrating, with the Ligiers proving to be reliable but not quick enough. After Williams-Renault it was a frustrating season for Boutsen, but he kept his head down, hoping for better things in 1992.

Comas, moving straight into F1 from F3000, had to contend with lack of experience and circuit knowledge. This was noticeable in the early races where he found it very hard to adapt to qualifiers -- which resulted in his failures to qualify.

As the season progressed he proved to be consistent in races and, on occasion, showed Boutsen a notable turn of speed. By season's end, however, Erik was out of favour with the team, and it seemed that, in recent Ligier tradition, he would not be retained.

The Ligier team, which has extraordinary resources and facilities, remains one of the enigmas of the F1 paddock. It seems that the team is always more keen to find a scapegoat rather than solve problems.

The team, undoubtedly, has a superb pckage for the 1992 season, but it remains to be seen if it has the management to use this effectively.

As long as this "witch-hunt" mentality remains the team will never produce the goods. Despite constant change of technical personnel, the problem remains and, increasingly, it is clear that the top management may have to go, if the team is ever to return to the leevl of competition it enjoyed at the start of the Eighties when Jacues Laffite, Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi were all race winners.

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