INTERVIEW

Ligier's new owner Cyril de Rouvre tells all

Cyril de Rouvre is a politician. He should know better than to upset his fellow-countrymen by hiring two Englishmen to drive for the Ligier team. The French media are up in arms. The Union Jack, they say, is now flying over the Ligier factory at Magny-Cours. De Rouvre, the mayor of Chaumont, does not care.

Chaumont is not some sleepy village where being the mayor is an honorary title. It is the main town of the Haute-Marne departement, a bit like an English county town or a state capital.

Cyril de Rouvre smiles a reassuring smile and has a huge blue scarf which he likes to wear a lot. It is a dramatic gesture, something which makes him stand out in a crowd. He is a politician. When you get to talk to him, you quickly realise that there is a smart cookie behind the scarf and yet all that the Formula 1 world knows is that he was a wealthy businessman, some said a bit of a playboy, who took over the AGS team in 1989. It was not a success under his leadership, but now he is back as the boss of Ligier.

So who is Cyril Bourlon de Rouvre? We know he is the mayor of Chaumont. Would he like to tell us more?

"No," he says with a laugh. "The important thing is that I love cars. I love mechanical things. As to being mayor of my town that is not politics. It is just a way of giving something to others."

It is a politician's answer and, in the finest traditions of that profession, he glosses over things he doesn't wish to discuss. He wants to talk about Ligier and the future. He doesn't want to talk about his English schooling, his hotel in Tahiti nor his sugar-beet empire.

"I have done many things in my business life," he says when pressed on the subject. "I had a movie business, I was in aviation, sugar, many things. Now I have sold everything. My life now will be Ligier - and my town."

But why Ligier? After AGS you would think that someone buying an F1 team would look for a successful one. Ligier hasn't been successful for a very long time, and buying the operation will not have been cheap. Rumours suggest that de Rouvre had to pay $40m to pay for it.

"Why Ligier?" he says. "Because I am French. I have owned AGS and it is true that during my time there I was in contact with Gerard Larrousse, in order to put AGS and his team together to do something better, but that was not possible for many reasons. The only other French team was Ligier. I knew Guy Ligier and I made contact with him..." he stops suddenly.

"Excuse me." There is someone he must talk to.

Two minutes later he is back.

"I knew Guy for quite a long time..." he slips back into the conversation without a prompt. Very slick. "... and we were talking. To start with I took 20% of the team and then in November he handed it all over to me."

But why would anyone spend such a huge sum of money to own an unsuccessful Grand Prix team? Is he in it to make money?

"I don't care about making money," he says - as only a rich man can. "I am 47 years old. I have to see what I can do. If I can win with Ligier, it will be great. When I was younger I loved rallying. I loved to drive on the dirt I did some World Championship rallies as an amateur: Acropolis, Portugal, Morocco. I did the first two Paris-Dakars when it was the Abijan-Nice, with the original crew with Thierry Sabine."

It all shouts "Money": an English education and amateur rallying to world championship level. That is wealth.

"My family was not poor," admits de Rouvre, with the kind of understatement which only a British public school education could teach. "My parents had money. I made quite a lot of money myself, but money is not a must for me."

So de Rouvre likes to portray the wealthy sportsman, excited by the challenge of making Ligier a winning team. Why did he first buy a poor team like AGS?

"I became a partner with AGS because through some friends I knew Philippe Streiff quite well. AGS had many financial problems at that time and so I took it over. I thought it was possible to turn the team around, but I discovered it was not possible. With AGS I learned how not to do F1 racing. I had many problems with sponsors which signed deals and didn't pay, things like that. The problem at AGS was that we were starting from so far back. That was why I decided to quit. I passed AGS over to an Italian called Gabriele Rafanelli and he quit after a year as well. It was too difficult.

"I think it is much better to say, "No, I cannot do it" after a while than try to continue. You have to stop and begin again. That is my business philosophy.

"I would never have come to Ligier if I didn't have strong sponsorship for many years to come, to be sure of basic financing. We have the minimum funding that we need to compete properly. We will need more."

To the surprise of a great many in F1, since taking over at Ligier de Rouvre has not had a big clear-out of old Ligier personnel.

"When you are on the outside looking in you have opinions, when you are on the inside sometimes things are different. If what you see from the outside is not what you get then there is something to change, but up to now I haven't seen any point in changing. The team is very good. We have very skilled people at each level and the proof of that is that when I took over in November nothing was done. Now we have a new car. I don't see the point in changing the men, because I think they are good."

And there is no plan to change Ligier's name. No desire for De Rouvre Racing?

"No. McLaren is a name but there is nobody called McLaren in the team now. Ligier is a name in itself. The fact that Guy is not there is not a problem for me. Ligier is a wellknown name in F1 so we have to keep that name."

On the subject of McLaren, was de Rouvre involved in the talks between Guy Ligier and McLaren last autumn?

"I wasn't involved at all, but I knew about it. I never met Mansour Ojjeh (of TAG/McLaren) or people like that."

But he did do a deal with Williams for a supply of the Williams semi-automatic transmission or was that one of Guy Ligier's deals?

"I did that deal with Frank. The reason is very simple. For many reasons Ligier had ups and downs last year. The necessary decisions were not taken so we did not have a gearbox which would be ready - and reliable - in time for the new season. We had to find one and buy it. I prefer to buy the best. We had good talks with Frank and it was easy to do the deal. We have the same engine, now we have the same gearbox. Everything matches."

Yes, there is even a matching set of British drivers: Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell. That caused some uproar in France when it was announced - two British drivers in a team sponsored by the French government.

"We didn't pick them because they are British, we picked them because they are good. The British come over to France and pick French drivers if they think they are good. I don't see why I shouldn't do the same thing the other way around. It was a decision I took after a great deal of thought. I knew there could be a problem with the French media, but it is my decision and I stick to it. I think it is the best decision for Ligier."

In the team's contract with Elf there is a clause which states that the team must have a driver who finished the previous season in the top eight in the World Championship. Neither Erik Comas nor Thierry Boutsen qualified when contracts and money were taken into account there were just two possibilities: Martin Brundle and Mika Hakkinen.

"I had discussions with people for Hakkinen but I don't think he is free, so Martin was the one. He knows how to get results and has a lot of experience. We chose Mark because of his technical ability. We needed someone who could tell us how the car feels and, more than that, how it compares to the top teams. There were two drivers who could tell us that: Damon Hill and Mark. You know where Damon is, there was only one choice left. I think it is a very good thing to have someone who has driven for Williams and McLaren and who knows how to compare the cars."

In recent days Erik Comas has been very vocal about being left out of Ligier. Is it true that Comas asked too much money?

"When you are the head of a company you have to put all the elements together and make the decision," says de Rouvre politically. "Of course money is part of that - otherwise I would have hired Alain Prost and Jean Alesi.

"I couldn't hire Yannick Dalmas because he is not an Elf-supported driver and that would have been important if the drivers had been French. It is not important if the drivers are not French.

There is one French driver included in the 1993 package, test driver Eric Bernard.

"Eric didn't drive in 1992 because of his injuries. We want to give him the chance to get back to F1 and in order to do that we are going to have him doing a lot of our testing."

So, realistically, what does dr Rouvre think his Ligier team can achieve this year?

"The target - and I'll be very disappointed if we don't do it - is to have around 30 points in the championship. You can always dream of doing even better but it is wiser to stick to reality. If we can get something like 30 points that will be good."

It all sounds very reasonable, but there are a couple of question marks. How can one man run an F1 race team and be a mayor of a large town at the same time. Will he be living in Magny-Cours?

"Luckily," he laughs, "I am a helicopter fanatic. I will be half in Chaumont and half in Magny-Cours. Chaumont is my family "nest". I am the mayor because I saw things were not going the way they should and I felt the only way to change that was to do it myself.

"I don't have any bigger political ambitions"

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