Features - Technical
JANUARY 1, 1997
BY JOE SAWARD
The 1996 season had given Ligier its first victory since 1981, a fortunate win for Panis in Monte Carlo after Damon Hill and Jean Alesi both retired after leading in dominant fashion. The win obscured the fact that even by Formula 1 standards the recent history of the team has been tumultuous.
Team owner Flavio Briatore made the absurd assertion at the launch that Ligier's technical strength this year would be "continuity", citing the team's relationship with Mugen Honda - now in its third year. It should be pointed out that since the alliance began there have been a series of changes in the technical staff which have totally disrupted the team. The Ligier-Mugen Honda JS39 was the work of Gerard ducarouge, Paul Crooks, Loic Bigois and John Davies but within a month of it racing they were pushed out to make way for TWR engineers led by Ian Reed. Two months later Reed and company were ousted and Frank Dernie put in charge. The 1995 car - the JS41 - bore a remarkable ressemblance to a Benetton B194 and was achieved in only eight weeks without an operating windtunnel. In the course of 1995 Bigois and Crooks rejoined the team and Andre de Cortanze was hired to add to the team's engineering strength. There was, however, little money available and so the JS43 could only be a tidied-up version of the JS41. Things were so bad, in fact, that 37 of the 110 Ligier staff were fired in January 1996 because there was no money for more.
Two months later the team's engineering director Tom Walkinshaw fell out with Briatore and quit, taking many of the key Ligier people with him to Arrows, including technical director Frank Dernie, operations director Tony Dowe and engineers Steve Clark, Emmanuel Janodet and Eric Lacotte. Crooks departed to join Jordan.
The Ligier team has spent the last 10 months trying to rebuild and the staff has now climbed back to 90 people although the damage done to the drawing office and composite department will take time to repair.
After Dernie departed De Cortanze was appointed technical director but he was clearly not keen on the job and left at the end of the season to join the Toyota GT programme.
This meant that the design of the car has been largely in the hands of Bigois with input from Claude Delbet, who has been with Ligier for 20 years and is now in charge of the drawing office and from dynamics engineer Damien Py.
The team has recently recruited George Ryton to look after the team's research and development - but he arrived too late to be involved in the work on the JS45.
Bigois concentrated his efforts on the windtunnel programme. The 40% rolling road facility had been overhauled during the winter of 1995-96 - when Ligier's aerodynamic work was done in England - and much more accurate measuring equipment was installed. The team hired two new aerodynamicists in midseason and they have worked with Bigois on the JS45.
Bigois adopted the same philosophy as the majority of F1 designers and opted to evolve the car he had and the family ressemblance is clearly visible. The JS45 looks remarkably like the JS43. The detailed aerodynamics have been altered, however, to make the car less pitch sensitive and easier to set up. This was one of the major problems of the JS43 which meant that often the car did not handle well in qualifying, which left Panis and Diniz a long way down the grids in 1996.
"In the races I regularly had a car which allowed me to put in some top lap times," said Panis, "but the important thing is to be able to do that right from the first free practice session."
The Ligier engineers are confident that the car has been improved with the aerodynamic work and with Bridgestone tyres and Showa shock absorbers. Launching the car Panis said that he expected the JS45 to be much more competitive than the JS43 and is aiming "to win one race or more" and regularly finish in the points.
There is no question that Mugen is building very good V10 engines - something which impressed Damon Hill when he briefly drove the old Ligier used by Bridgestone to test tyres at Suzuka late last year. The Mugen Honda MF301HB is an evolution of last year's engine and should be very powerful.
The troubles at Ligier last Spring have left the team with a much-reduced production capacity and only about half of the fabrication - but all the major components - for the JS45 has been done in-house with the rest being sub-contracted to specialist firms.
LOIC BIGOIS - TECHNICAL DIRECTOR
"Although from the outside the new Ligier-Mugen Honda JS45 might appear to be quite similar to last year's JS43, it is, in fact, a completely new car beneath the surface. The only parts which haven't changed are the rear-view mirrors!
"Our design philosophy for the JS45 was to evolve from last year's JS43 - which was fundamentally a good car. We also had to incorporate changes from the lessons we learned in the course of the season. In addition, of course, we had to adapt the design to take into account the changes in the regulations.
"We have paid particular attention to refining the detail of the aerodynamics to make the car more sensitive to changes in set-up. This was one of the problems we had in the course of last season, although during the recent Jerez testing we found that this was less of a problem when the old car was running with the new Bridgestone tyres and with Showa shock absorbers. We began working with Showa at the end of last season and we have already managed to achieve a lot with them."
"We have also done a lot of work on underside aerodynamics, notably the diffuser and the way in which the air flowed around the flat bottom.
"The gearbox is also completely new, although it remains a transverse six-speed unit. We have also done a lot of development with the brakes.
"The shape of the bodywork has also been refined with a lot of work being done in our 40% windtunnel in Magny-Cours. This was refitted in the course of last year with much more accurate measuring systems. I am very happy with the results we have had in the windtunnel.
"I know that all F1 engineers will tell you the same thing at this time of year, but I am honestly extremely satisfied with the results of the windtunnel programme. I can see our efforts being rewarded with some top results in 1997."