Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1993
BY JOE SAWARD
"I never did any karting or anything," he says. "The passion for racing came later and it was so strong that I stopped everything and decided to spend a few years trying to achieve that aim. I thought that if I didn't try it, I would regret it for the rest of my life."
Philippe gave up his political science studies and enrolled at the Motul racing school at Nogaro. He finished second to someone called Patrick Lavergne, who has long since disappeared without trace, but Motul was sufficiently impressed to give his privateer team some support in Formule Renault in 1976. In the first event of the French FR series at Le Mans Alliot won the first heat and the other was won by an unknown new boy Alain Prost. The history books will tell you that Prost went on to dominate the series, destroying his opposition - including Philippe.
"That first year was something marvellous," he says. "I was discovering the world of motor racing and it was fantastic."
But Prost's domination nearly ended Philippe's career. He lived from hand-to-mouth in 1977 but finally his efforts were rewarded with a drive for BP Racing's team in 1978. He won the Formula Renault championship and his career was launched.
This is all ancient history now, but Philippe still thinks that his career needs to be told from beginning to end to understand it.
"I started racing very late and with no experience at all and I think that is why my career developed the way it did."
There were flashes of brilliant speed and then spectacular crashes. He was soon labelled 'a one-lap wonder'. And yet, as early as 1983, Philippe was able to race to third place in the Le Mans 24 Hours, partnering Michael and Mario Andretti in a Kremer Porsche. In the last three years he has raced for Peugeot at Le Mans. He has taken pole on all three occasions and twice more finished third. So he knows how to finish races.
Just before this year's Le Mans Philippe was in Canada to celebrate his 100th Grand Prix start, only the sixth French driver to achieve a century. Philippe's F1 career dates back nearly 10 years to the 1984 Brazilian GP where he debuted in a Ram-Hart turbo.
He left F1 at the end of 1990 to become a member of the Peugeot sportscar team, but returned to F1 this year. In San Marino he finished fifth, his best F1 result and if the world failed to notice, Philippe at least rejoiced.
"I started with bad teams in F1," he says, "and when you do that, you keep the image you create and it is difficult to change it. When Jean Todt asked me to drive for Peugeot in 1990 I decided to go with him. In the two years at Peugeot he really changed me, gave me a lot of confidence. Now I am a different driver. Sport is all in the head and you cannot really explain the change, but it is what Nigel Mansell had last year. Something happened with Nigel that made him so fast and I think a little bit of the same thing has happened to me. I am in a different situation: he was Williams and I am with Larrouse.
"I think I am driving better than I have ever done before. I am doing well with what I have and that gives me confidence. Maybe I will never win in F1, but I have a fantastic life and I think it is important to remember that. I am very aware that I am a privileged man.
"This year I have begun to change my image and that is great. I used to worry what people thought about me, but I think I have now proved that with a good car I can do well.
Philippe's tenacity is legendary and he is fiercely proud of what he has achieved.
"I built my career by myself," he says. "I put in a lot of energy, passion and spirit to carve myself a place in F1. I come from a generation of drivers who had problems getting into F1. There were a lot of French F1 drivers when we were trying to break through and from those I raced with before F1 only Philippe Streiff and I made it to F1."
His return to F1 this year was another story of determination rewarded. Ligier staff still laugh over Philippe's antics last summer when Peugeot was testing at Magny-Cours. In the Ligier factory they could hear the Peugeot 905 lapping the track. When it stopped they heard a motor scooter approach the factory and Alliot would appear to see Guy Ligier. Guy was not in and they would hear the motor scooter popping its way back to the pits. Then the Peugeot would start lapping again. This went on for a whole day.
Philippe smiles at the memory.
"Yes, it's true," he admits. "I have a really good relationship with Guy Ligier. I think he likes me and I like him. I have driven for him for a season and a half and at Hockenheim in 1990 he asked me to sign for two more years. It was a good contract, but I said no. The car was not very good and the atmosphere in the team wasn't much better. It was not what I really wanted so I said no. In June last year he asked me to drive the car, test and maybe do the French Grand Prix. I don't know which driver I was going to replace, but everything was decided until Renault said no, because I was a Peugeot driver. I continued to talk with Guy about coming back in 1993 because I knew that Peugeot was finished in sportscars and that they would not go to F1 in 1993 but only maybe in 1994. I was very close to a deal with Guy, but then he sold the team to Cyril de Rouvre."
So how did he end up back with Larrousse, the team he drove for between 1987-89?
"I was with Larrousse for three years and sometimes you need to change. My last year was the first season with Lamborghini engines and it was not very good. I didn't have any problems with Gerard Larrousse and at a prize-giving last winter we talked and I said: "If you need someone to test, let me know". That was all. Nothing happened. I saw him again at another prize-giving and he told me that maybe he would need me to test on such-and-such a date. I said no problem. I was down at Paul Ricard testing the Peugeot two days before the scheduled test and I went to see him to find out if he needed me. He said no. I said okay, no problem and went back to test the Peugeot. The following day a guy came rushing up and told me to call Gerard quickly. I did and Gerard told me to get a seat made at the factory that night and be ready to test tomorrow. I did two days and after that Gerard decided to change his approach and try to find money so he could get drivers he wanted, rather than drivers bringing money. I don't think he regrets that decision."
Philippe is nearly 39 years old - in the current F1 crop only Riccardo Patrese is older - but he has no desire to retire.
"Just look at the older guys like Prost and Mansell. They are still going well. I don't think age is important. It depends on how you are in your head. i think I have many more years in F1. I love racing but I also have a passion for life in general. I want to do all kinds of things and when I stop F1 I will probably sop racing completely. I'd like to try a little racing in America first but after that I want to go into politics in France. That is a world where you can mix with interesting people and that is really something I like to do."