DECEMBER 11, 1995

Ligier out of luck in America

THE Ligier team - run by Tom Walkinshaw and/or Flavio Briatore - appears to have given up on the idea of hiring a top Indycar racer to spearhead the team's assault in Formula 1 in 1996.

Ligier was expecting to put together a package to run Martin Brundle and Eddie Irvine next year, but those plans were demolished when Irvine signed for Ferrari and Brundle quit Ligier to take Eddie's place at Jordan. The moves mean that Ligier was suddenly without a top driver and only Johnny Herbert - who was rather wary of signing for the team because of highly critical comments about his driving from Walkinshaw earlier this year.

Ligier's major problem, however, was that it needed more money because the French companies which traditionally support the team have all slashed their budgets - because the team is no longer considered to be French. Walkinshaw and Briatore managed to convince the SEITA tobacco company to continue with the team. The branding will change from Gitanes Blondes to Gauloises Blondes but, more importantly, the budget is down by around 30%. In addition, French oil company Elf refuses to pay up unless Ligier takes a driver it wants to support.

In an effort to find a way out of the problem Walkinshaw and team manager Tony Dowe looked to North America and contacted a variety of drivers in the hope that they could either bring budgets with them or could attract money from elsewhere. Robby Gordon and Gil de Ferran - and probably others - were both targets but neither wanted to switch, both believing that they have a chance of the Indycar title in 1996.

Into the picture walked Pedro Diniz - an amiable but not very quick Brazilian with around $10m for anyone who would sign him up. Walkinshaw initially denied talks, but the deal is now all but done. The French companies, however, insist that there be one French driver in the team. Olivier Panis would be the logical choice after two years at Ligier. Walkinshaw and company, however, do not seem to be convinced that Panis is a topline driver and we hear that Elf is also against Olivier because he has had two years with Elf backing in F1, and the company now wants to switch its support to another Elf youngster trying to get established in F1. Our sources say Elf wants either Emmanuel Collard or Franck Lagorce.

The problem is that a Collard/Diniz or Lagorce/Diniz package is not one with which the team is going to make much of an impact as it begins the hunt for sponsors in 1997 and beyond.