You have to wonder what Gerard Ducarouge would have made of F1 and the current round of winter testing. ‘Duca’, who passed away on Tuesday, lived off flair and Gitanes; a gravelly-voiced Frenchman who looked and lived the part during his days as an F1 designer, primarily with Ligier, Lotus and Alfa Romeo. Having gained a diploma as an Advanced Aeronautic Technician, but without a degree in engineering, it’s tempting to think he might not have been comfortable with the same restrictive design practices so disliked by Adrian Newey.
Ducarouge will be best remembered for the occasional glorious inconsistencies of his work. In 1979, the F1 teams finished the first two races utterly convinced his Ligier was in a league of its own after Jacques Laffite and Patrick Depailler completely dominated in Argentina and Brazil.
The striking pale blue JS11 was immensely strong, Ducarouge having figured out the importance of his car being able to sustain the loads created by the new ground effect era. Then, slowly but surely, the all-French team (except for the Cosworth V8) began to lose its way. And the point was, Ducarouge was not entirely sure why this was happening.
Word had it that he had noted the set ups used in South America on the back of a fag packet – and lost the packet. More likely is a decision to change wind tunnels (for political reasons) mid-season and basic shortcomings such as the inability to rebuild Depailler’s car (crashed while leading in Belgium) exactly as it had been.
Whatever the reason, Ligier would take one more victory in a season when, by rights, they should have won the championship. A revised car, the JS15, had the same potential in 1980, Didier Pironi (who had replaced Depailler) winning in Belgium and leading from pole in Monaco until the car jumped out of gear and into the barrier. Pironi was leading again in Spain, only to have a front wheel come off without warning. Ducarouge’s obvious distress was not helped by knowing the next race would be Ligier’s home grand prix.
The pit scenes at Paul Ricard that weekend were something to behold. As if Ligier did not have enough pressure, some bright spark had decided to allow Gitanes to film an advert with actors, lights, cameras and all the paraphernalia. In the pits. On race morning. Ducarouge was already in a troubled state. Laffite’s pole position car had sprung an irreparable fuel leak the previous evening, forcing mechanics to work most of the night switching everything to the spare car – which Jacques found to be almost undriveable during the warm-up on race morning.
Then the film crew moved in and, to compound Ducarouge’s agitation, a metal stand supporting an air line came crashing down on his neatly coiffured head. What hair he had left would come close to being torn out when not only did Ligier lose the lead just after half distance, but also they would be beaten by, of all people, the British in the shape of Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
Williams could not get close to the blue cars two weeks later at Brands Hatch. Pironi and Laffite started from the front row, raced into the distance, only to be hobbled by new, larger diameter front wheels cracking and leading to tyre failures. And so it went on, Ligier seemingly in self-destruct mode as the cars either failed or the drivers fought among themselves.
A mark of Ducarouge’s talent had been a nod of approval from no less than Colin Chapman, the genius behind Lotus having been impressed by his work with the Matra-Simca sportscar team in the early 1970s. Ducarouge, having just completed a spell with Alfa Romeo (where he was known as ‘Ducarosso’), was chosen by Peter Warr to join Lotus six months after Chapman’s death in 1982. His first of many memorable pieces of work was to scrap the unwieldy Lotus 93T-Renault and, in a record time of five weeks in June/July 1983, produce the sleek 94T which Nigel Mansell took, more or less straight from the box, to finish a rousing fourth at Silverstone. That car, in its striking black and gold JPS colours, was to become a template for the iconic 97T with which Ayrton Senna won his first Grand Prix in Portugal in 1985.
Ducarouge described himself as “a man in a hurry, not used to working on long-term projects”, a self-assessment that actually disguised a methodical approach.
At the end of 1985, in my role as Editor of Autocourse, I rated the F1 cars, placing the Lotus 97T-Renault first. Given that I’m not technically minded, it was a brave – you might say foolish – move that raised the ire of a distinguished designer whose excellent car was rated second. I did not stray into that minefield of egos again. Looking back, however, I’d like to think of it as a fair and appropriate tribute to genuinely nice man who played a colourful and, at times, highly significant part in the story of F1.