Born in occupied Paris in 1943, Jacques Laffite was privately educated at Cours Hattemer, Paris.
His first foray into motorsport was in 1968 when, as 25-year-old, he became mechanic for then Formula 3 driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille (who would later become Laffite’s brother-in-law).
Jabouille’s exploits inspired Laffite to give racing a go himself, and he proved to be more than capable, winning the French Formula Renault Championship in 1972, before moving to F3 the following year where he was again successful, clinching the championship at the first attempt, taking a memorable win at Monaco in the Grand Prix support race en-route, bringing him to the attention of the Formula 1 paddock.
European Formula 2 was his next port of call, where, in a BP France March 742-BMW, he was on course to win the championship until Frank Williams called seeking a quality driver to partner Arturo Merzario after a lean start to a stuttering season where a gaggle of pay-drivers – including Tom Belso, Gijs Van Lennep and, ironically, Jean Pierre Jabouille – had struggled to successfully negotiate qualifying leaving the team with a single participant in all but three Grand Prix.
Laffite took over the second Iso-Marlboro FW for the final five races of the season and although he fared much better than his predecessors, qualifying on each occasion, a 15th place was the best he could muster.
Laffite was retained by Sir Frank for the 1975 Formula 1 season, but by now the team was experiencing serious financial difficulties, prompting Merzario to leave the team to be replaced by a number of pay drivers (Williams’ entries in 1975 totalled no fewer than ten pilots!) in order to cover costs.
A highlight of the season for both Laffite and the team was a storming second place for the Frenchman in the German Grand Prix in what was his first (almost!) full year in F1.
Not content with trying to break Formula 1, Laffite continued to participate in F2, and this proved far more successful with six wins and a second place enough to take the 1975 title.
Ahead of the 1976 Formula 1 season the new ‘all French’ Ligier-Matra team was formed, and though Jean Pierre Beltoise was employed to conduct all their pre-season testing, Laffite was drafted in as their sole driver for the F1 season.
The Ligier JS5, nicknamed ‘the teapot’ as a result of its frankly ridiculous-looking airbox was quickly on the pace and Laffite was able to score a fourth place in its third ever race and was on the podium by race five at Zolder.
A season’s best second place and another third would follow en-route to seventh in the standings for Laffite at the season’s close.
Remaining with Ligier for 1977, Laffite scored the first of his six F1 wins at the Swedish Grand Prix. Despite this, the new Gerard Ducarouge designed JS07 was starting to be somewhat hamstrung by its Matra engine and plans were afoot to bring in Ford Cosworth DFV engines as soon as was possible.
A transitional year in 1978 yielded another couple of podia, before the impressive all-new ground-effect Ligier-Ford JS11 opened 1979 with two victories for Laffite, and the lead in the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship into the bargain.
With a second car for the first time, Ligier managed three wins in the first five races of the season, including a 1-2 at Kyalami, and looked like it could have struck championship form.
But as many retirements as finishes put paid to any championship ambitions Laffite may have harboured and he eventually finished fourth at the end of a season that promised so much.
This speed continued into 1980, but unfortunately so did the unreliability, and another fourth place in the championship was the result.
Another season with Ligier, now Matra-powered once again, in 1981 and Laffite seemed to be edging closer to his first world championship.
Going into the last race of the season Laffite was one of four drivers with a shot of the title, but a sixth place was the best he could do and he ended the season, once again, in fourth position for the third consecutive time.
A 1982 plagued by unreliability proved to Laffite’s last with Ligier, and he switched to Williams for 1983, joining his old mate Frank, who, in stark contrast to their last partnership, was now running a World Championship winning outfit.
His season started strongly before results started to tail off, and Laffite rounded out the season with three DNFs and a couple of ignominious DNQs .
A second season with Williams in 1984 followed, but he struggled with an FW09 ill-equipped to handle the power its new Honda turbo engine was outputting, and he managed just two points finishes before returning to Ligier-Renault for 1985.
Now aged 41, Laffite proved time hadn’t taken so much out of him that he couldn’t guide a racing car to the podium, picking up a hat-trick of top three finishes in ’85 and another in the opening round of 1986.
A second place in the 1986 USGPW proved to be his last F1 finish, before his involvement in a multi-car pile up shortly after the start of the very next Grand Prix at Brands Hatch resulted in Laffite breaking both legs, bringing to an end the career of one of France’s greatest Grand Prix drivers.
*Laffite started 31 Grand Prix for Williams Grand Prix Engineering. He participated in a further 16 for Frank Williams Racing Cars, failing to qualify for one.