FEBRUARY 3, 1997
Technical analysis: Ligier-Mugen Honda JS45
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, dating back to the first Ligier-Mugen Honda, the JS39. This was the work of Gerard Ducarouge, Paul Crooks, Loic Bigois and John Davies but within a month of it starting to race 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 resemblance 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 program.
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 program. 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 resemblance 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 tires 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 tires 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.