Features - Interview

APRIL 1, 1990

Olivier Grouillard


Olivier Grouillard has made quite an impact in Formula 1 circles. Johnny Herbert might have stolen the limelight as top new boy in Rio de Janeiro, but Grouillard took a new, untested car to ninth. More importantly he has outpaced his team mate - former Ferrari and Renault ace and winner of seven Grands Prix - Rene Arnoux.

Olivier Grouillard has made quite an impact in Formula 1 circles. Johnny Herbert might have stolen the limelight as top new boy in Rio de Janeiro, but Grouillard took a new, untested car to ninth. More importantly he has outpaced his team mate - former Ferrari and Renault ace and winner of seven Grands Prix - Rene Arnoux.

Interviewing Olivier has resulted in some of the most madcap moments I have ever experienced in my madcap journalistic career. He claims not to speak English, I claim not to speak French.

But we try. We understand a lot of what the other is saying - but neither is quite sure just how much. A logical person would get hold of a translator. We tried that approach once, sitting in a minibus in Japan, speaking in French and English with an Italian translating back and forth. Everyone enjoyed the experience and came away a little bit wiser. Laughter, grimaces, and vague hands waving in the air, say a great deal more about a person than words. You cannot help but like Olivier.

He has unusual, interesting, views about being a racing driver. He speaks French with a strong Toulouse accent, so understanding him is like asking a Frenchman to understand a Geordie. Still it is fun trying.

How does he like F1?

"It's ideal, c'est genial," he says with a great smile on his face. "I always get pleasure in racing, but now I have more because I am in F1, d'accord? It is ideal for me. If you do the best, that's all you can do. The cars are fast and technically-advanced. Everything is interesting, very revealing.

"If you win a Formula 3000 race, it is only a F3000 race, it is not a biggest thing. If you win an F1 Grand Prix, it is the best - that is interesting."

Olivier talks a lot about being the best but, unlike many other racing drivers, he doesn't claim that he is.

"My ambition is to get to be the best. The best for me. I don't know if I'm capable of being World Champion. I want to to reach the maximum I can. Working in comparison to the others is never necessary. Each one is different, all have qualities and all have faults and each has his own character. The most important thing is is to know your qualities, your limits and your faults. D'accord?"

It isn't a normal view, is it?

"That's possible," he shrugs. "If I am the best I will know it. I don't given a damn about what the others do. If you have a car that can finish fifth it is stupid to think it will finish third. You get the maximum from your car, in testing and in races. Afterwards if there is no one in front of you..."

And he laughs.

"I don't know about the others. It's better. D'accord?"

Grouillard's career has been a frustrating one after early success. He took the classic route from Formule Renault to French F3 with ORECA (and backing from Marlboro). He duly won the title in 1984 and tried to move up to Formula 3000. But money was a problem.

"It was impossible to get results without money. Now in Formula 3000 the new French drivers get the money. Elf, Marlboro, and Camel help out in F3000. In my era you didn't see that so much. At DAMS for example the drivers bring the budget, but not the whole budget. In my era you had to find the whole budget. That's different."

Lack of finance must have been frustrating, with disjointed seasons and the need race elsewhere in order to raise money. Did Olivier ever doubt he would get to F1?

"It has always seemed to me that I would do F1," he says. "I never asked myself the question because I knew. I was convinced that I would run in F1. But I needed the finance, the results and the opportunities to have a F1 team willing to take me. All that had to be organised. So I thought if I worked to sort that out, I would get to F1. It bored me, I was a little nervous, but I knew I would arrive."

In 1986, having run out of money, Olivier went to the French Touring Car Championship. He told the papers at the time that he was racing tintops in order to go to F1. No-one believed it but the touring car experience and success enabled him to get back into Formula 3000.

Finally last year, in a stable environment with the GDBA team, he was able to show his pace, winning at Le Mans and Zolder.

Breaking into F1 was still not easy.

"There are many people who have helped me," he says. "Ligier was in a difficult phase. It was in part a technical problem, in part a financial problem. It was absolutely necessary that this year Ligier be revived.

"To take a driver who had no experience was a risk. Now they don't think it was a big risk, but when they took the decision it was a big risk!

"At that point it was Jacques Laffite, Rene Arnoux and Jean-Paul Driot who convinced Ligier to take me."

But it has worked out well. Ligier has an all-new design staff and Olivier has used the new JS33 effectively. Has his pace surprised him?

"If you have worked hard you are never surprised by the results," he smiles. "I was ninth in Rio. It was the correct result for the experience we had. The car had not run, it had done two laps at Magny-Cours. I learned a great deal about the car in Brazil."

Olivier has a formidable reputation as a development driver. Certainly his team mate in the Bigazzi BMW team in recent years, Jacques Laffite, raves about his skills.

"Set-up is not the same as development," says Olivier. "At a race we are using exactly the same car which came out of the workship two days before the Grand Prix. There has been no development. Only changes of settings, that is to say using the car and working on it. There are no new pieces, we are only working on the set-up, using different anti-roll bars, shocks etc. That is set-up not development.

"For me the race is the final result of the work that you have done. It's more simple in the race. When you are a good driver with a car that is well set-up it is possible to get a good result. If you drive a bad car it is impossible to get a good result. It is necessary to work to get ahead. The race is the result of that work. I prefer to try to understand how the car works, to sort out the problems. The race is the race. At each circuit you must sort out the problems as soon as possible. That is how you get experience. It is important to improve the way of working and the organisation to get the maximum experience and extract the maximum potential. After each GP you have to improve on that. At the end of the year you should be able to use your team and your car to the maximum of its potential.

"The most important thing is a car and using it to the maximum. If you don't have that you will never win a race. And you have to do that faster than any other team. That's what interesting about the sport."

It is certainly an unusual view, well thought-out and tempered somewhat by his struggle to reach the top of the sport. Where once he was the wild young man of French racing, forever involved in accidents, Olivier has calmed down and thought it all through. At 30 he is quite old to be starting out in F1, but the experience and the frustrations have obviously served him well. If you forget the exploits of Alain Prost, France has not had a Grand prix victory since the days when Arnoux and Patrick Tambay were at Ferrari in 1983. The search has been on for a new star to lead the next generation. Yannick Dalmas hasn't yet delivered what was expected of him in F1 and Fabien Giroix and Michel Trolle, the other bright lights in the generation have both been taken out by injury. Grouillard remains.

"All I know," he says, "is that being here in F1 makes me happy."

A wise head on relatively young shoulders. At Imola, of course, Olivier was unable to transform his 10th place on the grid into a scoring position, but his theories are advancing well. If the rate of progress is faster than the others, Grouillard will be among the points scorers before long. As the Ligier team is revitalised with new blood, the good old days of 1979 and 1980 don't seem as far away as they did a few months ago when the dreadful JS31 was tearing the team apart.