Jacques Lafitte's 176 Formula One races 13 Jul 2006
This weekend the French crowd at Magny-Cours will have just one home-grown driver to cheer on - Franck Montagny -although he is unlikely to be battling for points in his Super Aguri. Despite this current shortage of Frenchmen behind the wheel of a Formula One car, the race will give France the chance to remember its proud racing heritage - and some of the great drivers it has produced in the past.
Alain Prost and Jean Alesi are two celebrated French drivers that immediately spring to mind, but often overlooked outside of his native country is Jacques Lafitte, who started the third-highest number of Formula One races - a grand total of 176. The Frenchman enjoyed an exceptionally long and occasionally successful Formula One career, and was one of the paddock's favourite characters during the time he spent as a driver for Williams and Ligier.
Lafitte was always passionate about racing, his determination to break into the sport was demonstrated when he agreed to serve as an unpaid mechanic to fellow racer Jean Pierre Jabouille - just to get close to the action. Whilst working for Jabouille, his own reputation behind the wheel began to grow. Coming through the lesser Formulae he was invited to make his Grand Prix debut for Frank Williams' fledgling team in 1974.
A decade later this opportunity would have been any young racer's dream ticket. But in 1974, Williams was a struggling tail-ender and the Iso-Marlboro sponsored car was well off the pace. Lafitte's debut race in Germany saw him qualify in an inauspicious 21st place and retire after just two laps of the gruelling old Nurburgring circuit with suspension failure. But as the season progressed the team's fortunes improved. Lafitte's team-mate Arturo Merzario scored a fourth place in Italy and by the end of the year Lafitte proved he wasn't short of pace when he out-qualified Merzario in both Canada and the USA.
Lafitte stayed on with Williams for 1975, although the team's financial situation had become so dire that he was turfed out of his seat for the Swedish Grand Prix to make way for a pay driver. Reinstated for the closing stages of the season, Lafitte sealed his reputation by taking a brilliant second place in the German Grand Prix, relegating Niki Lauda to third on the podium. The result sent shockwaves through the paddock, and was credited afterwards with having brought enough cash into Williams to keep the struggling team afloat.
In 1976 Lafitte moved to the Ligier team, securing three podiums and finishing the drivers' championship in eighth place. In the seasons that followed he would go onto score six victories for the team, taking the last in Canada in 1981. He managed to finish fourth in the drivers' championship for three years in succession: 1979, 1980 and 1981.
After an unsuccessful return to Williams in 1983, Lafitte moved back to Ligier in 1985 and enjoyed a final two seasons with the team, making the most of its phenomenally powerful turbocharged Renault 1.5 litre V6 engine. He remained highly competitive until the very end of his career, scoring his final podium at the age of 42 with a strong drive to take second place in the 1986 United States Grand Prix in Detroit.
In more recent years Lafitte has become the voice of Formula One in France, providing live commentary for the TF1 television broadcasts.