JANUARY 29, 2002
The end of "Les Bleues"
THE history of French racing blue goes back to the early days of the sport but in the modern era, it began with the first Matra entry into Formula 1 car in 1968. That program lasted until the end of 1972 after which Matra concentrated on sportscar racing. Two years later having dominated sportscar racing Matra withdrew and engineer Gerard Ducarouge took most of the Matra staff with him to the new Ligier F1 team, which also took over the Matra V12 engines. By the end of the 1970s Ligier was a top F1 team and challenged for the World Championship in 1979, 1980 and 1981 but then it faded into the midfield for the rest of the 1980s. Funding continued to arrive thanks to Guy Ligier's connections in government and the team was always the first to get its hands on Renault customer engines but results were never much good although the team was boosted when the original Renault F1 team was closed down and many of the staff joined Ligier.
The team was reconstituted several times but success remained fleeting until 1992 when Guy Ligier, upset by having been jeered by crowds at Monaco, decided to sell the team to businessman Cyril de Rouvre. De Rouvre led the team to a minor revival in 1993 with British drivers Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle but at the end of the year he was arrested for financial irregularities and the team drifted through the winter months until bought by Flavio Briatore, who wanted access to the team's supply of Renault engines for Benetton. Having achieved that Briatore handed the team over to Tom Walkinshaw but Guy Ligier remained in the background as a minor shareholder and he blocked plans for Walkinshaw to take the team and move it to Britain.
In the Spring of 1996 Walkinshaw walked out and bought Arrows. Briatore installed Cesare Fiorio as team boss and Ligier benefited from technical "assistance" from Benetton. The result was the Honda-engined Benetton-lookalike car with which Olivier Panis won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1996.
At the start of 1997 Briatore sold the team to Alain Prost and the Ligier chassis were run as Prost-Mugen Hondas. The first Prost chassis were built in 1998 but the cars were never successful and the team was finally forced to close down yesterday, leaving nothing but debts.
Alain Prost has spoken of some bitterness towards French industry, which left him to fend for himself and admits that with hindsight it was a mistake to stay in France as the country's labor laws make it much more difficult for a Formula 1 team to operate effectively.
The team has lost a number of employees in recent months but still has around 180 people on its payroll.
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THE END OF "LES BLEUES"