Features - Financial
SEPTEMBER 1, 1991
The French connection - motor racing and politics
BY JOE SAWARD
France has a great heritage of racing and views itself, somewhat chauvinsitically, as the home of the sport of motor racing. There is no doubt that it was the cradle of the sport, dating back to 1894 and the Paris-Rouen reliability trial. The Automobile Club de France (ACF) dates from November 1895 and all the great early racing events were organised 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 with such great marques as Lorraine-Dietrich, Renault, Salmson, Peugeot, Talbot-Darracq, Ballot, Bugatti and Delage.
But by the 1930s the French had been eclipsed by both the Italians and the Germans. And after the war French interest in international racing was very limited. After the death of Jean-Pierre Wimille in 1949, France had no really big racing stars.
The formation of the government-owned Elf oil company in 1967 began to change things and 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 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.
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 one of the first of the new generation of French drivers Jacques Laffite, the Formula Renault Champion of 1972.
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 enter F1. It did so that same year and in 1979 with Ligiers drivers Laffite and Depailler challenging for the World title, the Renault factory team won its first race at Dijon.
It was the start of a Golden Age for the French, with the Ligier and Renault teams right at the front. But by 1983 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: Laffite to Williams, Pironi, Tambay and Arnoux to Ferrari. Depailler was dead and Jabouille had retired after badly injuring his legs.
Ligier remained financially stable not because his team was winning, but rather because he was well-connected.
Guy Ligier had made a fortune building roads in and around Vichy. By good fortune the leading lights of local politics in that region were Francois Mitterand and Pierre Beregovoy. When Mitterand was elected president of France in 1981, Ligier's future was assured and Mitterand's victory in the elections of 1988 meant that Ligier's money supply continued despite poor results throughout the late 1980s.
As a pal of Mitterand Ligier met and befriended other top polticians including Michel Charasse and his connections meant that there was always money for Guy's racing team. The backing from Gitanes, Elf and Loto, the national lottery, continued whatever happened.
One year Loto was so upset with being forced to sponsor Ligier that the company said it would pay the money but only if its name was taken off the cars. It wanted to be associated with winning - and Ligier was not winning.
Ligier also had preferential treatment when it came to engines, political pressure being applied to Renault Sport to force the company to supply Ligier, which it did between 1984-86 and has been doing since 1992.
Up against this kind of power the other French teams have struggled. Some years ago AGS landed a big sponsorship deal from Total, but this was stopped in political circles before the team ever received any money. Gerard Larrousse's team has struggled to survive despite being more successful than Ligier.
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 (the latter was the mayor of Nevers) backed the idea and the track was built. The French GP moved from Paul Ricard and everything was organised by a former secretary to the French cabinet Jean Glavany.
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.
But the party could not last forever, the socialist government's popularity was waning and Ligier, seeing the change coming and having failed to put together a French national racing team with Alain Prost, sold his team to aspiring French politician Cyril de Rouvre. Within a few months Beregovoy's
government had fallen, Charasse had resigned as minister of the budget and lost his seat in the elections and Mitterand's socialist party was annihilated. Beregovoy committed suicide.
Mitterand remains with two years to run as president and no hope of being re-elected. And Ligier has started another business, producing natural fertiliser for French agriculture.
So why is an aspiring politician now running Ligier?
Cyril de Rouvre is mayor of the town of Chaumont and a consellor for the Champagne-Ardennes region. He 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. He also bought the struggling AGS F1 team only to have it collapse under him.
De Rouvre only recently took to politics, so his purchase of the Ligier team was mysterifying for many in F1. One of France's top politicians is Bernard Tapie, the owner of the Olympique de Marseilles (known as OM) football team, one of the top clubs in Europe. Tapie, an sports shoe magnate, used the fame of the team to carve himself a place in politics and there are many who believe that de Rouvre is hoping to raise his public profile and popularity by doing the same thing as the boss of Ligier.
After the explosion of French racing activity in the 1970s, the country today enjoys a thriving motor racing industry, not just with Ligier and Larrousse, but also with manufacturers Renault, Peugeot and Citroen, but also such specialist firms as Automobiles Martini, ORECA, Graff, Apomatox, DAMS, Snobeck, Saulnier and ROC.
The national aerospace school in Toulouse has produced most of the top modern F1 aerodynamicists with Jean-Claude Migeot (ex-Ferrari), Henri Durand (McLaren), Philippe Vie (Ligier) and Rene Hilorst (Minardi) all having graduated there.
There is also a thriving national racing scene and the fact that until recently the FIA was headed by Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre was also important.
The recent anti-tobacco law named after Health Minister Claude Evin, was designed to improve the health of the French nation, but threatened to undermine the health of this motor sport industry. The French motor sports authorities under Jean-Marie Balestre appealed for help, but the issue was forced when FISA cancelled the French GP - Mitterand's race. A compromise had to be found in the final days of the Beregovoy government.
A deal was agreed that a new tax on cigarette would be used to create a government fund to support sport without tobacco advertising. Ironically, it was the Larrousse F1 team which profited from this and is using that money to fund much of its 1993 project.
Perhaps we have now reached a turning point where French politicians will no longer play such important roles in racing and let the teams compete for commercial sponsorship on an equal basis.
Whatever the case the days of the government-funded Ligier team are history...<\#026>