A sponsor dies - an industry follows...

So Francois Mitterand died. I guess not many motor racing journals will carry obituaries for the former French President. They should, because with the possible exception of the Marlboro bosses - Mitterand was responsible for pouring more money into Formula 1 than anyone else on the planet. When he gave orders companies such as Elf, Antar, Loto, Gitanes and Renault obeyed and paid. Do not be mistaken into thinking that Mitterand was a great racing fan. He wasn't. But he did look after his mate Guy Ligier with vast sums of French government money. It is up to the historians to figure out why...

As Mitterand dies so too, it seems, does the French motor racing industry - despite the fact that Renault continues to fly high in F1.

A week or two ago nearly a third of the staff of Ligier came back from the Christmas break to be told that there were no jobs for them. No-one dares to mention it at the moment, but there is worse to come for those who are left at Magny-Cours. The future of Ligier - if it has one at all - is at TWR's Leafield headquarters in England. The remaining Ligier staff cannot expect to be included in Tom Walkinshaw's F1 dream and as Ligier comes apart so too will Mitterand's Magny-Cours "Technopole".

The Ligier firings come in the wake of a steady decline in the French motor racing industry. All three French Formula 1 teams: Ligier, Larrousse and AGS have come apart. Business logic dictates that the French companies involved in F1: Renault, Peugeot, Elf and Total cannot afford to back French teams. Success is demanded and so they must ally with the British. The French chassis men, the aerodynamicists and the managers have all moved abroad or simply disappeared. Gerard Ducarouge, Michel Tetu, Michel Costa, Michel Beaujon and Claude Galopin have all slid into relative obscurity and only Andre de Cortanze remains. Jean Todt is at Ferrari.

Things have slid to such an extent that not even a household name like Alain Prost can convince people to put together a French national team. DAMS and Apomatox may dream of F1 but without the support of French industry it will be impossible.

To appreciate why this is happening one needs to understand the complicated relationship which has existed between the French government and French motor racing in the last few years.

The French will tell you - perhaps with a hint of chauvinism - that France is the home of the sport, dating back to the Paris-Rouen reliability trial of 1894, acknowledged as the first motor race in the world.

The Automobile Club de France (ACF) dates from November 1895 and all the great early racing events were organized from Paris to other European cities. The first Grand Prix was the Grand Prix de l'ACF at Le Mans in 1906, won by a Renault and the French automotive industry led the way in the early years of the sport with such great marques as Panhard, Darracq, Talbot, Renault, Salmson, Peugeot and Ballot. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Bugatti, Delage and Delahaye dominated European racing but by the mid 1930s the French had been eclipsed by both the Italians and the Germans. After World War II French interest in international racing had all but petered out: Simca and Gordini struggled and the death of Jean-Pierre Wimille in 1949 left France with no really big racing stars.

It was government money which kick-started the industry in the late 1960s when Matra embarked on motor racing with backing from the state oil company Elf. Much of the credit for France's success in recent years belongs to the man Elf chose to head its motor sporting activities: Francois Guiter, who pumped huge amounts of money into young French drivers and sponsored first Matra and then Renault's racing activities. Renault played an important role too, establishing Formula Renault and the Renault 8 Gordini Championship, a cheap way for young racers to start out in the sport.

At the same time Renault's engineering offshoots Gordini and Alpine began producing a new generation of racing engineers. The French new wave had begun.

Guy Ligier was a modestly successful driver in the 1960s. He was briefly in F1 but was never really quick enough. When he stopped driving he decided to build his own racing cars. Taking over the remains of the Matra F1 operations and getting backing from the French government-owned Gitanes cigarette company, Ligier entered F1 in 1976 with driver Jacques Laffite

Jacques was to win the Swedish Grand Prix in 1977, the first Frenchman driving a French car, powered by a French engine to win a World Championship GP. Laffite was followed through the ranks by a stream of other young drivers either supported by Elf, or by the other oil companies keen the challenge Elf's position: Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Rene Arnoux, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Didier Pironi, Patrick Tambay and Alain Prost. This explosion of driving talents was matched by a gradual building of Renault activities. The company won in F3, then F2 before turning its attention to Le Mans. When that was won in 1978 it was inevitable that Renault would have to concentrate on F1. In 1979 both Ligier and the Renault factory team were winning F1 races.

It was the start of a Golden Age for the French, with the Ligier and Renault teams right at the front. But by 1984 no championships had been won, Ligier had slipped from being a competitive force and the Renault F1 team was beginning to break up. The French drivers had moved elsewhere: Prost to McLaren, Laffite to Williams, Pironi, Tambay and Arnoux to Ferrari. Depailler was dead and Jabouille had retired after badly injuring his legs.

Renault closed down its team at the end of 1985 although team boss Gerard Larrousse went on to set up his own team.

Ligier remained financially stable not because his team was winning, but rather because of Mitterand. Ligier had made a fortune building roads in and around Vichy and had many dealings with the leading lights of local politics: Francois Mitterand and Pierre Beregovoy.

When Mitterand was elected president of France in 1981, Ligier's future was assured. Ligier befriended other top politicians including Michel Charasse. The backing from Gitanes, Elf and Loto, the national lottery, continued no matter what happened on the race tracks.

One year Loto was so upset with being forced to sponsor Ligier that the company told the team that it would pay the money but only if its name was taken off the cars. That was a novel form of sponsorship!

Ligier also had preferential treatment when it came to engines, political pressure being applied to Renault to force the company to supply Ligier, which it did between 1984-86 and in 1992-94.

Up against this kind of power the other French teams struggled. When AGS landed a big sponsorship deal from the petrol company Total in the late 1980s, political pressure was applied and the deal was prevented. Gerard Larrousse's team struggled to survive despite being more successful than Ligier. In effect Ligier played a major role in ensuring the failure of the others.

The Ligier-Mitterand-Beregovoy alliance reached its peak in the early 1990s with the reconstruction of Magny-Cours racing circuit as a new headquarters for Ligier and as a racing circuit to host the French Grand Prix. Mitterand and Beregovoy backed the idea.

When Beregovoy became prime minister and Charasse was minister of the budget, Ligier's power was at its zenith, even if the team's results were still dreadful.

The party could not last forever, the socialist government's popularity was waning. Ligier, a smart man, saw signs that his gravy train was about to jump the rails and sold out to the flaky Cyril de Rouvre and went off to corner the local market in natural fertilizer and set about building another fortune. Within a few months Beregovoy's government had fallen, Mitterand's socialist party was annihilated in the polls. Beregovoy committed suicide.

The collapse of the French motor racing industry has been speeded up thanks to laws passed by the more exotic fringes of Mitterand's last socialist government. The self-righteous Evin's Law banned all tobacco and alcohol advertising in sport. It is arguable as to whether the French have become healthier thanks to Evin's Law but the motor racing industry assuredly has not. Promotional schemes supported by Gitanes, Marlboro and Camel were wiped out and a generation of French drivers were left to rely solely on Elf. Today there are only two Frenchmen in F1: Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis. A few years ago there were five, six or seven regularly racing each season.

The French motor sports authorities under Jean-Marie Balestre begged the government not to inflict such damage on the sport but they were ignored. In the end - Balestre being a politician - the issue had to be forced. The FIA cancelled the French GP - Mitterand's race - and a compromise was hammered out. The government agreed to a special tax on cigarettes to create a fund to support sports - replacing tobacco advertising. As with all such schemes it did not last long and the government soon found other ways to spend the money.

When Mitterand left office last year, all political influence which the sport enjoyed disappeared. Jean Alesi may have dinner with Jacques Chirac, but that isn't doing anything to help the industry. Renault and Peugeot will only stay in F1 as long as it is expedient to do so.

People in England are always complaining that the racing industry receives little or no government support and has to struggle on its own. Perhaps this is not so bad when yo consider what is happening across the English Channel...

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