Former French rugby international Guy Ligier turned his hand to the roads after his playing career ended, first building a road construction company in the midst of France’s motorway-construction boom (and making friends with influential local politicians Francois Mitterrand and Pierre Beregovoy en the way), then taking to racing single-seaters in the late 1960s. He made his Formula One debut at Monaco in 1966 but with little success in privateer Cooper and Maserati cars, he partnered up with his friend Jo Schlesser to start a Formula Two team – only for Schlesser to be killed on his F1 driving debut. Ligier retired from racing and turned to building sportscars, teaming up with designer Michel Tetu to design the JS1 (the initials stood for Jo Schlesser), a production sportscar. The Ligier cars contested Le Mans through the early 1970s, but in 1974 a new opportunity fell into Guy Ligier’s lap; Matra had decided to pull out of F1 and he bought the team and its assets. With backing from French state-owned Gitanes tobacco, Ligier entered F1 as a constructor in 1976 with Matra as engine supplier. Jacques Laffite guided the team to two podium visits in its first season, and went one better with the team’s first win in Sweden in 1977 – a French team, French driver and French engines: a first all-French win in the sport’s long history. 1978 wasn’t so successful but the 1979 Ligier JS11 was a handy chassis and Laffite took two race wins and Patrick Depailler one before breaking both legs in a hang-gliding accident and missing the rest of the season. Replacement Jacky Ickx added a couple of lower-points finishes to take the team to third in the Constructors’ championship, and in 1980 the team went one better with second place, a race win apiece for Laffite and Tyrrell signee Didier Pironi and the team were regular visitors to the podium. With Pironi departing for Ferrari, Ligier signed Renault driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille but he was injured near the end of the season and the team turned to veteran Jean-Pierre Jarier to fill in until Jabouille could regain fitness. For 1981, French car manufacturer Talbot bought a stake in the team to increase funding and Guy Ligier’s old friend Francois Mitterand was making a run for the office of French president. Ligier had every reason to be confident of challenging for a world title in 1981.
Jarier was born near Paris in 1946, and began his racing career on motorbikes, but switched to cars at his mother’s insistence and she sold the family car to buy him a Renault 8 Gordini – the car in which many young French drivers got their start. He impressed quickly and moved up to Formula Three – finishing third in 1970 – and European Formula Two where he took a couple of third places before his Shell Arnold team bought a March chassis to give him his Formula One debut in 1972. It was a one-off but brought him to the attention of others, despite a lack of funds curtailing his 1972 season. For 1973, he moved to the works March F2 team and won the title in dominant fashion before moving up to Formula One full-time in 1974 with Shadow, where he ended up as team leader in his first season after the death of Peter Revson. He took a podium position that year and even led a race, but Shadow were on their uppers and after dreary 1975 and 1976 seasons, Jarier moved to the new German ATS team for 1977, also driving single races for Shadow and Ligier. 1978 saw further bad luck with reliability and Jarier left the team halfway through the year, before deputising for the late Ronnie Peterson at championship winning Lotus for the last two races of the year, putting it on Pole in Canada. In 1979, Jarier had a much better year with Tyrrell, visiting the podium twice and scoring regularly, but the 1980 car was worse and he only scored four points, so an open-ended deal with championship contenders Ligier looked like a good bet.
Happy-go-lucky Laffite began his racing career as a mechanic, working alongside childhood friend and later brother-in-law Jean-Pierre Jabouille, and it wasn’t until his late 20s that he began racing seriously. His rise was meteoric, winning the 1972 French Formula Renault title, then the 1973 French Formula Three title including a win at Monaco. 1974 saw him racing for March in Formula Two and winning a race in his first season, and an F1 debut with Frank Williams’ ISO Marlboro team soon followed. Although Laffite scored a second place at the Nurburgring in 1975, the team ran out of money and he dropped back into F2 and won the European title while waiting for another opportunity. It came in the shape of Guy Ligier, who recruited him to head up the new team for 1976, and in 1977 Laffite took the first win for himself and Ligier at the Swedish Grand Prix. He continued with Ligier throughout 1978, 79 and 80, improving all the time and helping the team to third and second in the 1979 and 1980 constructors’ championships.