Acclaimed Formula 1 car designer Gérard Ducarouge has died at the age of 73, his family have announced.
Born in eastern France, Ducarouge – like many of his peers – had a background in aeronautical engineering, qualifying with diplomas in mathematics and a masters in Aeronautics after studying at the École Nationale Technique d’Aéronautique.
He joined Nord Aviation in 1964 but lasted barely a year before growing bored with the company’s missile projects, and applied for a role as a technician with Matra’s newly-formed racing arm in December of 1965. The French brand was just embarking on its own racing programme: Gérard started out in their Formula 3 effort but quickly graduated to their Formula 2 team.
Steadily rising through the team’s ranks to the position of Head of Operations, Ducarouge was the principal designer of the Matra MS10 and MS80 racers, the latter of which won the 1969 Formula 1 World Championship crown with Jackie Stewart at the wheel. He was quickly shooting to prominence, and between 1972-1974 he oversaw Matra’s hat-trick of wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, only for the company to pull out of racing completely at the end of 1974.
Ducarouge joined the new Ligier F1 team in 1975, and set about designing the French outfit’s first design which it would use to contest the 1976 season.
The JS5 – which retained Matra links with their V12 engine and Gitanes sponsorship – was striking to say the least: its oversized airbox and engine cover had the paddock dub it the ‘teapot’.
While the design attracted much mirth, it was quite succuessful with Jacques Laffite claiming a pole position and three podium finishes in the team’s debut year.
The team celebrated its first race win at the Swedish Grand Prix the following year, and more victories came in 1979 with the ground-effect JS11 which took the team to third in the Constructors’ Championship standings. It went one better in 1980, and in 1981 the squad looked a chance at being in the running for the top crown before Ducarouge was unceremoniously dumped mid-season by the team’s mercurial boss, Guy Ligier.
He quickly joined the uncompetitive Alfa Romeo F1 squad and within a matter of weeks had radically upgraded the team’s venerable 1979 design, allowing Mario Andretti to qualify on the third row for the Dutch Grand Prix and Bruno Giacomelli to finish third around the Caesars Palace car park.
The 1982 season saw Ducarouge’s first proper design for the squad, penning the neat and tidy 182 (the team’s first carbon fibre monocoque) which Andrea de Cesaris took to a shock pole position at Long Beach, another front-row start at Detroit and a third-placed finish at the Monaco Grand Prix, which he might have won had he not run out of fuel on the final lap.
Alfa Romeo’s road car sales were plummeting and its F1 programme was seen as an ever-costlier exercise yielding little reward – much of which must be attributed to the Italian marque’s notoriously unreliable engines, rather than the quality of his designs – and Ducarouge was summarily fired midway through the season when de Cesaris was disqualified when his car was found to be underweight at the French Grand Prix.
Once again, he was not on the job market for long. Lotus team principal Peter Warr quickly took Ducarouge’s services in the hopes he could revive the team’s own ailing fortunes. Ducarouge penned and built the new 94T in just five weeks to give the team a major boost in competitiveness before the year was out.
He oversaw a major restructure in the team, which led to a major revival in its fortunes over the next four seasons. His 1984 design, the 95T, was widely regarded for its great handling, helping Elio de Angelis to finish ‘best of the rest’ behind the dominant McLaren-TAGs, although the Italian failed to return the team to the winner’s circle.
That was achieved the following year, when a certain hotshot youngster called Ayrton Senna took the new 97T to a dominant win in soaking conditions at Estoril; teammate de Angelis had put the car on pole.
It was the first of seven wins for the Senna-Ducarouge combination, culminating with the 1987 United States Grand Prix at Detroit, the first to be won by a car fitted with computer-controlled active suspension.
Despite their successes, Senna became increasingly frustrated with Lotus’ inability to give him a car consistently capable of mounting a tilt for the championship, and took up an offer to join McLaren in 1988, where he and Alain Prost romped to win 15 of the 16 races that season. Lotus’ 1988 challenger, the 100T, was well behind and the team was winless for the first time since 1984.
Ducarouge left Lotus to join the new Larrousse team, where he developed its Lola-designed chassis’ with Chris Murphy over the next two seasons. Despite the inherent promise of the car, results were thin thanks to the poor reliability of the team’s Lamborghini V12 engines.
His career came full circle when he returned to Ligier in 1991 as its Technical Director, helping revive the team’s ailing fortunes that saw it become a podium-winner in 1993 and 1994. He then went back to Matra, working as its International Development Director on a number of projects, including the development of the Renault Espace F1.
The RichardsF1.com team extends its condolences to the Ducarouge family and his friends.
Images via Inagist, Senna Files, Tumblr