Today we celebrate the 68th birthday of one of the sport’s happiest drivers, Jacques Laffite!
Laffite’s always-smiling face was a fixture on the Grand Prix scene for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, and when his car was really hooked up, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Laffite’s motorsport career began when he became a mechanic for Jean-Pierre Jabouille during his 1968 Formula 3 season. With the racing bug having bitten him too, Jacques pledged he too would go racing.
He started out in Formula France before moving into Formula 3 in the early 1970s. In 1973, he won the F3 title and came close to winning the British John Player crown as well; highlights included wins at the Monaco and Pau support races.
He joined the Formula 2 scene in 1974 with some financial support from BP France. He won a round at the Salzburgring before he was drafted into Frank Williams’ F1 team midway through the year.
Quickly proving himself to be quicker than any of the team’s previous drivers, Laffite remained on board into 1975, peaking with a fine podium at the German Grand Prix to give the team a hugely-needed financial boost just when its short-term future started to look very bleak. In the same year, he won the European F2 title, claiming six wins and beating his old mate Jabouille along the way.
Drafted in at the all-French Ligier team for the 1976 season, Laffite quickly settled in and earned himself plenty of accolades with three podium finishes that year in the car dubbed the ‘teapot’.
His long-awaited maiden finally came in 1977 at Sweden, but a less successful season the following year as enough to prove to Ligier that Cosworth power might be the way to go.
He started the 1979 season with a bang, claiming wins in the first two races, driving the beautiful ground-effect JS11. But his form couldn’t be sustained, and the team’s efforts to develop the car actually sent Laffite backwards.
The 1980 season saw him claim another win, and he picked up two more in 1981 as he launched a late-season push for the championship. The following year yielded just two points’ finishes, and he joined Williams for two seasons from 1983-4, but he was very much a number-two to Keke Rosberg.
Despite rumours that he would retire, Laffite returned once more to Ligier in 1985, and rediscovered plenty of his seemingly-lost sparkle, claiming three more podium finishes.
The arrival of Rene Arnoux in 1986 was a great impetus for Laffite to keep pushing. He produced some excellent drives that year, most notably leading (before finishing second) at Detroit.
Approaching the British Grand Prix, Laffite would be making his 176th Grand Prix start, enough to see him equal the (then) all-time record by Graham Hill. But he was caught in a multi-car pile-up at the first corner, and poor Jacques ploughed into the barrier and smashed both legs. His F1 career was over.
He would eventually return to circuit-racing, racing in France’s touring car series before turning his attention to being an F1 commentator.