Top 10 Ligier F1 drivers ranked: Boutsen, Pironi, Laffite and more – Autosport

From its entry to Formula 1 from the world of sportscar racing in 1976, the Ligier team added Gallic flair to grand prix competition with its screaming Matra V12 engines, sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-idiosyncratic designs cloaked in the blue livery of Gitanes, and the wonderfully relaxed yet canny Jacques Laffite in the cockpit. It was not until its seventh season that the squad even fielded a non-native-French-speaking driver.
As the 1980s developed, the team founded by rugby player-turned-F1 point-scorer Guy Ligier waxed and waned in competitiveness.
Ligier was renowned as an explosive character who wore his heart on his sleeve and, sadly, his equipe became a commodity in the 1990s as it changed hands on frequent occasions until, over the winter of 1996-97, it became Prost in deference to the takeover of the four-time world champion.
This is our take on the top 10 drivers of Ligier’s colourful F1 history from 1976 to 1996. All starts are for world championship races.
Arnoux impressed on his first year with Ligier up against Laffite in 1986
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier years: 1986-89
Ligier starts: 53
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
Celebrated for his performances at Renault and Ferrari, Arnoux arrived at Ligier in 1986 for his ‘second career’ in F1 after being fired by the Prancing Horse early in the preceding season.
His lengthy stint at Ligier from 1986-89 is usually remembered for his stubborn track manners, drawing ire from James Hunt in his commentaries. But there were still glimpses of what was always Arnoux’s strongest suit: his speed.
Laffite had already been back at Ligier for a year when Arnoux arrived, yet it was the new interloper who resoundingly won the qualifying battle between them up until Laffite’s F1 career-ending British GP shunt, the score 8-1 in Arnoux’s favour. For a glorious moment, he ran second in a Ligier 1-2 in the Detroit GP before that fell apart. As did the team, pretty much.
Guy Ligier himself was back at the helm after the departure of Gerard Larrousse, who had joined from Renault for 1985 to run the team, and had brought designer Michel Tetu with him. For 1987, Ligier did a deal with Alfa Romeo to use its engines, only for Arnoux to make an ill-advised criticism of the powerplants when talking to Italian media pre-season.
Alfa took umbrage and withdrew from F1, leaving Ligier to scratch around to secure replacement engines in the form of the BMW-derived Megatron, making what was already a heavy car even heavier – and using a powerplant around which it was not designed.
Predictably, the season was a disaster, even if the loss of Alfa was not mourned. As Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck acerbically noted: “They didn’t quite know what they were doing in Formula 1 anyway, a state of affairs which has existed since 1951.”
Naturally aspirated Judd engines arrived for 1988, along with Stefan Johansson, who had been replaced at McLaren by Ayrton Senna. The Swede had a good reputation, but was dominated by Arnoux, who failed to qualify only twice to Johansson’s six times… Roebuck again: “’Got a match?’ Stefan Johansson asked me one day, as we stood by his Ligier JS31. And he was already smoking. He wasn’t looking to light his fag.”
The Cosworth-powered JS33 of 1989 was better, but by now Arnoux’s time was up. Formula 3000 ace Olivier Grouillard arrived alongside him in the other car and was much quicker, as Arnoux struggled to get to grips with the rock-hard set-up. Grouillard, who went to Osella for 1990, can perhaps be considered unlucky not to make this top 10, but Arnoux’s form from 1986 means he shades it.
De Cesaris fared well against Laffite before his Austria 1985 crash resulted in an abrupt departure from the team
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier years: 1984-85
Ligier starts: 27
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
The well-backed Italian was infuriatingly accident-prone and erratic, but on his day was not only quick but capable of sublime performances.
De Cesaris joined Ligier from Alfa Romeo for 1984, at which point the team procured turbocharged engines from Renault – just as the French car maker was moving towards its F1 decline.
Alongside him in the team was Francois Hesnault, who had made an ill-advised leap straight from French F3. Naturally, de Cesaris comprehensively trounced him. He claimed fifth place in the second round, in South Africa, but only one more point came his way.
Ligier’s favourite son Laffite returned to the line-up for 1985. All looked promising, and it was de Cesaris who proved the quicker of the two drivers. He also scored a superb fourth place in the Monaco GP, 50 seconds clear of sixth-placed Laffite.
But there was also that dark side to de Cesaris: his accidents. When he barrel-rolled his JS25 out of the Austrian GP his card was marked and, after one more outing at Zandvoort, he was replaced by Formula 3000 talent Philippe Streiff, and washed up at Minardi for the following season.
Despite benefitting from Renault power, the 1992 Ligier JS37 was rarely up to getting results for Boutsen, who nevertheless shaded F3000 champion Comas
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
Ligier years: 1991-92
Ligier starts: 32
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
The stylish Belgian was good enough to win grands prix for the rebuilding Williams team, and was part of the F1 furniture by the time he arrived at Ligier for 1991, his former drive going to the returning Nigel Mansell.
The team was really in the mire at this stage, and the Lamborghini V12-powered JS35 couldn’t notch up a single point with Boutsen and reigning F3000 champion Erik Comas at the wheel. But the veteran did a solid job and well and truly outpaced his rookie team-mate.
With the new Renault V10 proving to be the engine to beat at Williams, Ligier pulled off a coup by securing the powerplant for 1992. Alain Prost, sacked by Ferrari, tested at Estoril and Paul Ricard as he evaluated a switch to Ligier, but he was put off because long-term backing could not be guaranteed.
That meant it was Boutsen and Comas again and, despite the weapon in the back of the car, the JS37 still couldn’t get near the front, and lacked mechanical grip. Furthermore, the relationship between the two drivers soured irrevocably when they collided in the early-season Brazilian GP.
Nevertheless, Boutsen became a regular top 10 qualifier across the second half of the season, and again outpaced Comas. By the end of the year, Comas was beginning to get the better of Boutsen, but the old stager scored his first Ligier points when he picked his way through a typically attrition-filled Australian GP at Adelaide from 22nd on the grid to fifth.
Comas had already scored in three mid-season races, but generally across their two seasons together it was advantage Boutsen.
Cheever was a regular podium-finisher in 1982, including taking second behind John Watson in Detroit
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier year: 1982
Ligier starts: 14
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
By the time he arrived at Ligier for his third full F1 season in 1982, the Italian-raised American was regarded as a promising talent, if perhaps not top-drawer.
Cheever and Laffite started the season in the trusty Matra-powered JS17, which had carried the Frenchman to two wins in 1981 but was overweight, Laffite describing it as “antique”.
When the new JS19 arrived, the ungainly looking car was off the pace to the extent that the JS17 was pressed back into service for the North American mid-season races. Here, Cheever scored an excellent second place in Detroit to add to the third he had picked up at Zolder.
Further impressive drives came in Montreal and at Monza, and Cheever was excellent in Las Vegas, where he qualified fourth and finished third.
Team chief Guy Ligier rated him as a good test driver, and he comfortably outscored Laffite in the points and narrowly defeated him 8-7 in qualifying across the season. That attracted Renault, which signed him for 1983 to replace Arnoux, and where he was comprehensively outperformed by Prost.
Read more: Top 10 American F1 drivers
Blundell made a superb start to his Ligier career with a debut podium in South Africa
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier year: 1993
Ligier starts: 16
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
Former AGS owner Cyril de Rouvre bought into Ligier for 1993 and an all-British line-up of Blundell and Martin Brundle was installed.
Blundell had spent his rookie F1 season alongside Brundle at Brabham in 1991, only to drop off the grid in 1992 to act as test driver for McLaren. And, of course, win the Le Mans 24 Hours with Peugeot.
That was good enough for Ligier, which signed him up for his F1 race return in 1993. Blundell very much had the better of his mate and future management partner in the early knockings of the season – he outqualified Brundle for the first five races on the trot and finished third in the season opener at Kyalami.
Thereafter, Brundle clawed things back and there were some incidents for Blundell, although he claimed another podium finish at Hockenheim. By now de Rouvre was in turmoil – he had been imprisoned for fraud and the team was sold to Benetton magnate Flavio Briatore.
After impressing in 1993, Brundle returned to Ligier for 1995 in a ride-share arrangement with Aguri Suzuki, but was comfortably the quicker of the pair
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier years: 1993, 1995
Ligier starts: 27
Ligier wins: 0
Ligier poles: 0
Results had been decidedly underwhelming with Renault V10 engines in 1992, but a further tie-up for the following year brought Williams’s gearbox technology to the team, and the JS39 was a much more competitive proposition – perhaps also helped by its driver line-up.
To be fair, there was little to choose between Brundle and his less-experienced team-mate Blundell. The two Brits were neck and neck in the qualifying battle in 1993, and Brundle outscored Blundell by only three points, taking one podium at Imola.
But it’s Brundle’s return to Ligier from McLaren in 1995 that decisively elevates him above Blundell here. He did only 11 of the 16 races in a shared drive with Aguri Suzuki, but trounced Olivier Panis 8-3 in the qualifying stats. Excellent drives at Magny-Cours (fourth) and Spa (third) suggested that he should have contested the whole season.
Panis stormed to an unforgettable victory in the 1996 Monaco GP, the last for Ligier and the only F1 win of his career
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Ligier years: 1994-96 (excludes Prost years)
Ligier starts: 49 (excludes Prost races)
Ligier wins: 1
Ligier poles: 0
Without that sensational victory in the 1996 Monaco GP – Ligier’s first for 15 years and its last in F1 – Panis might have been one or two spots lower in this top 10. But this one result and performance were so remarkable that he must be included in the top four.
Like drivers such as Didier Pironi, Patrick Depailler, Arnoux and Prost, Panis was a product of the Winfield school founded by the Knight brothers, and from winning a Volant scholarship he was backed by Elf from Formula Renault through to F1, via claiming the Formula 3000 title in 1993. The latter accomplishment got him a Ligier seat for 1994, when he comfortably got the better of the experienced Eric Bernard and led a team 2-3 at Hockenheim.
Briatore had become the owner of Ligier, and the 1995 JS41 was described in some quarters as “a dark-blue Benetton” albeit with Mugen-Honda power replacing the Renault engines previously used. There were more flashes of promise – Panis outscored Martin Brundle in the races they contested together, and also took a fortunate second in the season-closing Australian GP at Adelaide, albeit two laps down on winner Damon Hill.
Six months later came that incredible day in Monaco and Ligier’s swansong victory. Yes, the weather was variable and there was an extraordinary rate of attrition, yet Panis was overtaking around the streets of Monte Carlo and kept the JS43 out of the barriers. Incroyable.
Read more: Top 10 F1 one-hit wonders
Depailler made a huge impact in his brief stint at Ligier, and won at Jarama before his hang-gliding accident
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
Ligier year: 1979
Ligier starts: 7
Ligier wins: 1
Ligier poles: 0
Almost half a century of rose-tinting has given the 1970s a devil-may-care aura, but Depailler was regarded as devil-may-care even during that era. For him, life was to be lived.
He had spent five full seasons at Tyrrell – while team-mate Jody Scheckter had largely got the better of him from 1974-76, Depailler was regarded as an excellent test driver. When Ligier expanded from one car to two for 1979, he was the logical choice to join Laffite.
Laffite was worried – so much so that he requested the team establish a pecking order with himself as number one. But none was forthcoming.
That didn’t matter in the first two races, where Laffite dominated in Argentina and Brazil but, by the time the F1 circus arrived in Europe, Depailler was finding his feet. He won the Spanish GP, and then two weeks later at Zolder his internecine battle with Laffite ended with both rooting their tyres and Scheckter taking victory for Ferrari.
Depailler had just one more race (Monaco) before he went on his ill-advised hang-gliding adventure. His accident broke his legs and he was sacked from the team without pay.
Ligier, meanwhile, went testing with Laffite in the gap before the French GP, tried myriad set-ups, lost its way, and fell dramatically off the pace.
Pironi got his F1 career off the mark at Zolder and could have earned more victories during his single season with Ligier before joining Ferrari
Photo by: David Phipps
Ligier year: 1980
Ligier starts: 14
Ligier wins: 1
Ligier poles: 2
The Parisian was already being viewed as an exciting young talent in his first two F1 seasons with Tyrrell, and his move to Ligier for 1980 led many to dub Pironi as the fastest driver around.
By the middle of the season, Pironi was in a purple patch that should have netted more than his solitary win at Zolder. He led for most of the following race in Monaco, only for his gearbox to jump into neutral on the approach to Casino Square and send him into race-ending contact with the barrier.
Then came Jarama, where Pironi led going into the closing stages only to retire with a loose wheel – as it transpired, the race didn’t count for points amid the political war ongoing in F1 at the time.
Next up was Paul Ricard, where he was second to eventual champion Alan Jones’s Williams, but where Ligier had been outthought by the British team, which stole a march by using bigger front wheels. Right after this was Brands Hatch, where Pironi was totally dominant before his race was ruined by two tyre failures.
Another win should have come towards the end of the season at Montreal – Pironi was first on the road, but had been penalised for a jumped start, which dropped him to third in the results.
Pironi was not only stunningly quick in the JS11/15 but also a political player who enraged boss Ligier and designer Gerard Ducarouge by coughing up his fine to FISA when drivers were missing the governing body’s briefings, undermining the teams’ struggle against the authorities. And then they discovered he’d signed for Ferrari for the following season, further stoking their flames of furious indignation.
Laffite is the driver most closely associated with Ligier, and also took more wins than any of its other drivers – including the 1979 Argentinian GP pictured here
Photo by: David Phipps
Ligier years: 1976-82, 1985-86
Ligier starts: 132
Ligier wins: 6
Ligier poles: 7
“He is a very French man, effusive and charming, and he fits in entirely naturally with the bonhomie of the Ligier lunch ceremony, when salads are tossed, steaks grilled, corks pulled. The Ligier team is, first and foremost, French, and in a very overt way – much more so than with Renault.”
So wrote Roebuck of Laffite and his team in his Autosport review of the 1980 F1 season. This was the second of two campaigns during which Ligier had shelved the Matra engine project and opted for the Cosworth DFV powerplant, and in both of them Laffite and his squad were leading contenders, only to lose out to Ferrari in 1979 and Williams in 1980.
Few would suggest that Laffite was ultimately as quick as Depailler (his team-mate for the first half of 1979) or Pironi (1980), yet it is because of his talismanic presence in Ligier history that he tops this list. And besides, he outqualified Depailler 4-3 (although the team newcomer was beginning to get the upper hand on the incumbent by the time he suffered his season-ending injuries) and trailed Pironi only by 8-6. On points scored, he narrowly shaded both during their time together.
Laffite, of course, had already given Ligier and the Matra V12 their first F1 wins in the 1977 Swedish GP, and with Cosworth power won in Argentina and Brazil in 1979 and in Germany in 1980. When the team reverted to Matra in 1981, under Talbot branding, Laffite came closer than ever to a world title – he fell six points short – with victories in Austria and Canada.
After a spell back at Williams, the team with which he’d started his F1 career, in 1983-84, Laffite returned to Ligier. With power now coming from the Renault V6 turbo, he led the 1986 Detroit GP just three weeks before his F1 career ended due to leg injuries sustained in a startline crash at Brands Hatch.
Laffite was commonly described as a good F1 driver rather than a great, but in Ligier history he was le plus grand of them all.
Laffite celebrates victory in Austria 1981, the year he’d finish fourth in the standings for a third successive season
Photo by: David Phipps
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