Sweden 1977: Ligier and Laffite's 'Jour de Gloire'

In 1977, the Formula 1 season offered some cracking races and interesting milestones. Both came together in Sweden when Jacques Laffite and Ligier delivered the first win ever for a French car/driver/team combination in the history of the World Championship. 



It was a wide-open season back in 1977, with five different winners in the first seven races. Jody Scheckter kicked off the festivities with a surprising win in Argentina for Walter Wolf Racing's maiden championship race, while the competition was fierce amongst the big guns which included Ferrari's Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann, Scheckter, and Lotus' Mario Andretti.

Races were hard fought from both ends of the grid, with some absolutely stunning wheel-to-wheel battles at the front, such as at Long Beach where Andretti drew upon all his outstanding talent and ability to get the best of his fast and furious rivals Lauda and Scheckter.

As a result of Gunnar Nilsson's victory in a rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder - the single F1 win in the Swede's all-too-brief career - there was much excitement in Sweden when the teams set up shop at Anderstorp.

The track itself, a flat and featureless layout set in the middle of rural nowhere, was a curious blend of racing circuit and airfield runway. But there was no lack of fervour from the locals who had been enjoying F1 racing since 1973 when Sweden was offered a spot on the Grand Prix calendar as the country's ace Ronnie Peterson rose to prominence.

And fans almost got their dream debut that year by the way, with Ronnie's Lotus looking set to take the chequered flag at the inaugural event, only to be sidelined a few laps from the end by a slow puncture which handed victory on a silver platter to McLaren's Denny Hulme.

In 1977, controversy erupted before the race weekend got underway as a row developed between the organisers and the teams over the number of cars allowed to qualify. Eventually, all 31 drivers were granted access to the track and given a chance to join Sunday's 24-car starting grid. One tidbit of interest was the return after a four-year hiatus of Jackie Oliver, competing for Shadow in place of Riccardo Patrese who was away racing in Formula 2 in Mugello. It would be Oliver's final stint behind the wheel of a F1 car.



Cosworth had cast a particular spell of black magic on one of its engines, and duly given it to Lotus to power Mario Andretti's 78 to pole position, the American leading qualifying ahead of John Watson's Brabham, James Hunt's McLaren and Scheckter's Wolf. Jacques Laffite's Ligier lined up on the outside of the fourth row.

It was the second season of Formula 1 for the all-French outfit but with the exception of a pole position achieved at Monza the year before, courtesy of the grunt and power of Matra's V12 power plant, the team and its diminutive, albeit talented, driver lacked consistency in terms of performance as well as results. But there was no lack of commitment on the part of Guy Ligier's troops and the facetious 'Jacquot', and paddock pundits believed that France's day of glory would soon dawn.

At the start, John Watson beat Andretti off the line and into the first corner but the Lotus driver blew past the Brabham on lap 2, asserting an authority he had no intention of passing on all afternoon. At around the halfway mark, Watson and Scheckter collided, leaving the former to limp back to the pits while the latter was out on the spot.

James Hunt's McLaren moved up to second with Patrick Depailler, Jochen Mass, Laffite and Reutemann in tow, but a battle with chronic understeer shattered the McLaren’s tyres and put the reigning World Champion out of the running. Laffite hammered away and moved up to second within a few laps. Despite a 15-second gap to the irresistible Lotus, the little Frenchman was clearly on a mission, the Matra powered Ligier howling away around Anderstorp, its 12-cylinder chorus screeching in all its might.



But Andretti was unimpressed, extending and reducing the gap at his will. Until three laps from the end, when the Lotus spluttered and cut out twice, the unlucky victim of a fuel-metering failure which forced its driver into a mad-dash pit stop. The Lotus eventually re-emerged to salvage a meagre sixth place finish. "Just one miserable gallon was all we needed," Andretti lamented later.

But if there was ever a worthy opponent to profit from Mario's bad luck, it was Laffite, although the victorious Frenchman crossed the line unaware of his good fortune. "I knew Andretti was ahead but was unaware he had gone into the pits."

On the podium, basking in the sun and with 'La Marseillaise' sounding all around, Jacques Laffite savoured the historical moment, a day of glory for himself and France, and the entire Ligier family of which he was the favoured son.

As for the Anderstorp venue, sadly for the local crowd, Peterson and emerging star Gunnar Nilsson never tasted victory in their home event, and by 1979 both were dead; Peterson killed at Monza and Nilsson succumbing to cancer. The F1 race died with them as corporate Sweden lost interest in supporting an event with no home stars.

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