Features - Financial
SEPTEMBER 1, 1996
The French connection - motor racing and politics
BY JOE SAWARD
President Jacques Chirac wants to use Grand Prix racing to showcase some of France's high technology skills - but there is more to it than that and to understand the complicated relationships between the French government and French motor racing one has to go right back to the very early days of the sport. and what is generally considered to have been the first motor race - the Paris-Rouen reliability trial of 1894. The Automobile Club de France (ACF) dates from November 1895 and its influence in the automobile world can still be felt today. The FIA is based in Paris and shares offices with the ACF. It was the ACF which organized most of the early motor racing events. These were generally city-to-city races - from Paris to other European capitals.
The first "Grand Prix" was organized by the ACF and held at Le Mans in 1906. It was won by a Renault and right through until the 1920s the French automotive industry led the way in the sport with such great marques as Lorraine-Dietrich, Renault, Salmson, Peugeot, Talbot-Darracq, Ballot, Bugatti and Delage.
With such a heritage it is perhaps understandable that France views itself, somewhat chauvinistically, as the home of motor racing.
But French domination ended in the 1930s as first the Italians and then the Germans eclipsed French manufacturers.
"You can talk of Delahaye, Bugatti, Delage and Talbot," says veteran French F1 journalist Jabby Crombac, "but let's face it in the 1930s these were second league racers. Only Bugatti was faintly serious in F1. The Germans were dominating. France in those years was in the doldrums. People were only interested in striking and going on holidays."
The war did not help and afterwards France's interest in international racing was limited. Amedee Gordini, who had established a reputation in the 1930s tuning Simca-Fiat sportscars, won the first post-war motor race - in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in 1945. He went on to build Simca-Gordini racing cars which were driven with much success by Jean-Pierre Wimille. After Wimille's death in 1949 France had no really big racing stars.
In the 1950s Gordini never had the money to do the job properly but battled on building F1 cars until 1957 when he disbanded his F1 operation and began working as a consultant to the state-owned Renault car company.
The first Frenchman to win a World Championship Grand Prix was Maurice Trintignant in 1955 - in a Ferrari - and as Jean Behra never won a Grand Prix - no Frenchman would win again until 1971 when Francois Cevert won the United States GP for Tyrrell.
The French motor racing revival in the late 1960s was due largely to a young man called Jean-Luc Lagardere - today one of France's most influential businessmen as head of the Matra-Hachette empire.
Lagardere worked for the vast Matra aerospace company, controlled by industrialist Marcel Chassagny. In 1962 Matra bought the assets of a the Rene Bonnet road car company which was building Renault-engined "Djet" road cars. Lagardere was put in charge of Matra's new automotive division. He concluded that motorsport would help him sell Matra Djets.
In 1965 the first Matra F3 cars was built and by mid-season Jean-Pierre Beltoise gave Matra its first F3 win at Reims. In 1966 Matra entered F2 with drivers Beltoise and Jo Schlesser and sold chassis to Ken Tyrrell, who ran BRM-engined cars for Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx.
In January 1967 Lagardere met Jean Prada - the boss of a new French government-owned oil company which would soon be known as Elf. Prada had been looking for a way to launch the new company and one of his employees Francois Guiter had suggested that the ideal approach would be to use motor sport. Prada talked to Lagardere - who was looking for money to go to F1 - and then went to President Georges Pompidou who agreed that Elf would finance a Matra V12 F1 engine with a state grant of $1200,000. This would later be repaid. The man who was appointed to look after Elf's motor racing policy was Guiter.
The Matra V12 engine was never a great success but the chassis was good and in 1969 Ken Tyrrell put Ford engines into the back of Matra chassis and Stewart drove to the World Championship. Matra insisted that Tyrrell use its engines in 1970 and that forced Ken to build the first Tyrrell F1 chassis...
As this was happening a new force was in French motor racing was emerging - Renault. Although the company had been involved in the sport in its very early days the company showed little interest in the sport until the late 1950s when Jean Redele, the owner of Automobiles Alpine, prepared successful Renaults in rallying. In 1964 Alpine began building single seaters and recruited young engineers Andre de Cortanze and Bernard Dudot and within a few years Alpine had built F3, F2 and sportscars - and even an F1 prototype, which was tested by Mauro Bianchi in 1968.
"The press was only interested in the Matra," Crombac remembers. "The Renault people were furious because they thought Elf was putting all the effort behind Matra. It went all the way up to Pompidou and he decided that Elf must drop Matra. Despite having lost Matra Guiter had in his mind that F1 was the thing to do and so his aim became to get Renault into F1."
Matra would battle on until the end of 1972 in F1 but without any real success. Sportscar racing proved to be more successful with three Le Mans victories in 1972 for Henri Pescarolo/Graham Hill and in 1973-74 for Pescarolo/Gerard Larrousse. At the end of 1974 Matra decided to quit racing completely. It sold its racing operations to an ex-driver called Guy Ligier. He convinced the French government-owned cigarette company SEITA (which owned the Gitanes brand and had sponsored the Matra sportscars) to support him and using ex-Matra engineers led by Gerard Ducarouge he began building an F1 car.
After Elf moved to Renault both companies intensified their sporting efforts: Renault established new formulae such as the Renault 8 Gordini series and Formula Renault; it took over both the Alpine and Gordini companies, gaining some brilliant engineers as a result. Guiter not only funded many of the programmes but also poured money into funding racing schools and scholarships to promote young French drivers.
By 1976 Renault was established in Formula 2 and sportscars and thoughts were turning to F1 again. Ligier was running in F1 with driver Jacques Laffite, one of the first drivers to benefit from Guiter's driver programme. At the Swedish GP in 1977 Jacques took his Ligier-Matra to victory, 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 who had enjoyed Elf support: Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Rene Arnoux, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Didier Pironi, Patrick Tambay and Alain Prost.
Jabouille debuted the prototype Renault F1 car - the first turbocharged engine - at Silverstone in 1978.
The 1979 season marked the start of a Golden Age for the French: Ligier drivers Laffite and Depailler dominated the early part of the year, winning three of the first five races and at the French GP Jabouille gave Renault its first race victory.
French drivers would win 25 races between 1980 and 1983 but title eluded both drivers and teams. By the end of 1983 Ligier had slipped from being a competitive force and the Renault F1 team was beginning to break up. Of the drivers Depailler was dead; Jabouille and Pironi had both suffered bad leg injuries; Prost had moved to McLaren; Laffite to Williams; Tambay and Arnoux to Ferrari. Two years later Renault's F1 team closed down.
Ligier remained financially stable not because his team was winning, but rather because he was well-connected in political circles, having known all the leading lights in politics in the Nevers area when he was making his fortune building roads. These included Francois Mitterand and Pierre Beregovoy. Mitterand became French president in 1981 but his reelection in 1988 was probably more important as it guaranteed Ligier's money supply despite poor results throughout the late 1980s. As a pal of Mitterand Ligier befriended other top politicians and there was always government money (from Gitanes, Elf and Loto) when Guy needed it. Ligier also benefited from political pressure on Renault, which was forced to supply him with engines between 1984-86 and again in 1992-93.
There were complaints but in France the President is a very powerful man. One year Loto was so upset with being forced to sponsor Ligier's team that the company said it would pay the money - but only if its name was taken off the racing cars. It wanted to be associated with winning.
Up against this kind of power other French teams which sprang up after the Renault team closed down had trouble surviving. The little AGS operation - staffed largely by ex-Ligier and ex-Renault men - once landed a big sponsorship deal from Total, but this was stopped in political circles before the team ever received any money. It was eventually bought by aspiring politician Cyril de Rouvre, who had inherited a fortune in the sugar trade and after flirting with a hotel business in Tahiti he traded in film rights and owned part of a small airline. The team collapsed after De Rouvre had sunk a rumoured $18m into it.
Ambitious small teams such as GBDA (Gaignault Driot Blanchet and Associates) and DAMS (Driot Arnoux Motor Sport) found it impossible to raise money to enter F1.
The Ligier-Mitterand-Beregovoy alliance reached its peak 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 and the track was built. The French GP moved from Paul Ricard. When Beregovoy became prime minister, Ligier's power was at its zenith, even if the team's results were still dreadful.
But the party could not last forever, the socialist government's popularity was waning and Ligier, seeing the change coming, sold his team to De Rouvre, who sold all his businesses to raise money. His career was short and disastrous and at the end of 1993 he was arrested and charged with fraud. He sold the team at the start of 1994 to Italian Flavio Briatore. Of Ligier's once great sponsorship package only the SEITA remains, not wanting to give up on its 22 years of involvement with Ligier and hoping that the team will return to French ownership.
After the explosion of activity in the 1970s, the racing industry in France is now in decline, despite the fact that Renault and Peugeot are turning out two of the best engines in F1. The national aerospace school in Toulouse has produced most of the top modern F1 aerodynamicists with Jean-Claude Migeot (now working with Benetton), Henri Durand (McLaren) and Rene Hilorst (Minardi) all having graduated from there.
The once-thriving national racing scene has suffered badly because of anti-tobacco legislation named after Claude Evin, health minister under Mitterand, banned tobacco and alcohol advertising. The French motor sports authorities appealed for help from the government, but the issue had to be forced with the French GP - Mitterand's race - was cancelled. A deal was agreed in the final days of the Beregovoy government that a new tax on cigarette would be used to create a government fund to support sport without tobacco advertising. The new Prime Minister Edouard Balladur was not keen to continue and after Mitterand's term of office ended and Chirac took over, the French government has been more interested in cutting back than pouring money into racing teams. Many of the old state-owned companies (Renault, Elf and SEITA included) have been privatized. Renault and Elf have both pulled out of F1 as a result.
Alain Prost, the brightest star of the French racing revival, has been trying to find backing for a team for some years. He has the support of Chirac - but no money from the government. His hopes rest on private industry - which the British teams will tell him - is not easy to convince.
Rumours in France say that Alain has the support of the SEITA, Peugeot and Total. The giant TV company Canal Plus is also said to be interested. But with the French Franc high against other major currencies - it may be some time before we see another wave of successful French teams...