Ligier JS2 R. Behind The Scenes At It’s First Race
It’s not blue.
I mean, anywhere. There isn’t a scrap of blue to be seen on the brand new Ligier JS2 R in front of me, save a series sticker across the top of the windscreen. There aren’t any ‘Gitanes’ logos either. Nor ‘Gauloises’. A quick scan of the Barcelona pit box we’re standing in doesn’t even reveal an ironically placed crewmember subliminally smoking a ‘Blonde’.
Why the nit-picking? Well, for starters, sponsorship from France’s state-owned cigarette distributor and the national color became such hallmarks of Guy Ligier’s titular racing team during its 20-year run that, to see the brand’s latest model, one built specifically to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary no less, without them just feels…wrong. After all, the blue/Gitanes/Gauloises combo featured on all four of Equipe Ligier’s Grand Prix-winning machines, the ‘Automobiles Ligier Gitanes’-entered JS2 that finished 2nd at Le Mans in 1975, and even the APs 01 through 03 that four-time champ Alain Prost ran when he bought the team. It’s basically been the staple for almost every Ligier to have competed on-track.
Well, except the open-top JS3 in 1971. Or indeed the JS2 R show car that was first unveiled in Paris last year. And pretty much every championship-winning Ligier prototype since 2004. But apart from that…!
Mercifully, my inner (and, as it turns out, flawed) pedant is interrupted when, scanning the sports car’s front wing, I spot two letters hidden almost astonishingly well behind the front wheel arch: ‘J’ and ‘S’. Moments later, an amused Arnaud Tinet, Nordschleife Racing’s communications manager, offers me a knowing smile.
“There’s a lot of history behind this car.”
No kidding! Those two letters have adorned more than 40 models produced by the French manufacturer since 1969, and that even includes the bog awful JS4 and JS8 ‘microcars’ produced during the 1980s. Said initials pay tribute to the late Jo Schlesser, a sports car racer of repute, and a personal friend of Guy Ligier, who tragically perished at the 1968 French Grand Prix. Affected deeply by the passing of his former teammate (the pair had previously won the Reims 12 Hours together aboard a Ford GT40), Ligier’s love of motorsport cooled considerably, leading to his retirement from the single seater cockpit altogether.
In bittersweet irony though, Schlesser’s death helped forge one of French motorsport’s greatest legacies, as not long after, and with renewed determination, Ligier set to work realising a dream the pair had shared during their Formula 2 days: to build their own car. It was a dream quickly realised, as just one year after the passing of his former teammate, Guy Ligier pulled the silks from the first sports car to bear his name at the Salon de l’Auto in Paris. One designated the ‘JS1’ in deference to his lost comrade.
Designed by Michel Tétu, who later became F1 Technical Director at Renault in 1979, the new JS1 was fast but flimsy, winning two non-championship races at Albi and Montlhéry (both of which Ligier collected himself) thanks to its lightweight build but fell repeatedly foul of poor reliability. Undeterred, the fledgling company quickly set to work overhauling his mid-engined coupe, and in 1970, the world welcomed Ligier’s first production sports car from Ligier, the JS2.
Back to Catalunya and Nordschleife Racing for the moment though. There’s just a few hours to go before the green flag flies for the Hankook 24H BARCELONA, and neither Arnaud, team principal Olivier Perez, nor any of the Nordschleife Racing crew – decked in red, white and black polo shirts with, again, no trace of blue – is underestimating the enormity of today’s race. It’s the team’s first race with its brand new JS2 R, and thus an opportunity to gauge its performance on-track alongside potential rivals, albeit in the experimental ‘SP4’ class. Perhaps more significant though is that this event marks the first official 24-hour race for a Ligier sports car, rather than a prototype, since the original JS2 finished 2nd at Le Mans in 1975. How apropos for, what Ligier has already coined, the “true successor” to the original JS2.
“For sure this is a big moment for all of us,” Arnaud explains. “For Ligier, the JS2 R is a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brand as, basically, a revival” – JS2 R, get it? – “of the original JS2. And for Nordschleife Racing, it’s a great opportunity moving forward. Early on, we saw that the car had massive potential, not just for short sprints but endurance races as well, and we know that Ligier Automotive has the proven knowledge and experience to design great, fast, quality racing cars. It was a win, win. Plus, there’s actually a little history between the senior managers of our team and senior managers at Ligier, so it was a nice opportunity to work together on a new project!
“We’ve been working hand-in-hand for weeks now, talking about what kind of evolution the car needs to convert what was initially a Ligier JS Cup sprint car” – a new one-make series dedicated to the JS2 R – “to a full endurance racer. Nordschleife has been endurance racing for close to 10 years now, and we know how to get the job done. So far, and together with great support from Ligier, this partnership has been working really well.”
Names aside, there are parallels to be drawn between both the JS2 R and the original that inspired it. Both for instance feature the same elegant, sweeping front end, a louvred bonnet, robust angled headlights, and razor-edged bodylines down their flanks. Both feature flared rear wheel arches, though the original’s massive rear wing does put its contemporary’s example to shame. Even Ligier’s ‘lightweight and compact’ concept has survived, the ‘R’ tipping the scales at just 980kg, exactly the same as its 1970 forebear.
Unlike its forebear though, there are also no plans for a road-going JS2 R at present. And that’s good news for Nordschleife Racing.
“What strikes you when you remove the hood is that everything has been so efficiently put together, and there’s plenty of room for our mechanics to work around the engine, the suspension, the gearbox, etc. It’s very ‘simple’, I’ll say, but very strong, and built with performance and reliability in-mind. You don’t always get that with a road car that’s converted for the track. We essentially have all the pros of a race car with none of the cons.
“What’s interesting about the [Ligier JS Cup] too is that there races run between four and six hours, so we know that this car has been built to run race after race after race on a controlled budget, at pace and without much maintenance. That’s very important to potential customers.”
There’s little that mirrors their respective drivetrains either. The rear-engined, rear-wheel drive ‘R’ for example features a 330hp, mid-mounted 3.7-litre Duratec V6 sourced from Ford, which in turn is mated to a six-speed sequential gearbox. Official performance figures have yet to be announced but we can reasonably expect the welterweight ‘R’ to be ‘quite nippy’.
The mid-engined JS2? Well that’s where things get a little tricky. Yes, Jean-Louis Lafosse and Guy Chasseuil did collect that 2nd place at Le Mans in 1975 for Automobiles Ligier Gitanes (again, ‘bleu’ and white) using a 3-litre Ford Cosworth V8. However, an unwillingness from Ford to power, what it considered to be, a potential rival at Le Mans meant Ligier instead turned to Maserati owners Citroën for an engine. ‘Saddled’ with the 2.7-litre Maserati V6 from a Citroën SM in 1970, the JS2 would later adopt the larger, 2965cc example from the Maserati Merak for 1973, upping power to 192hp in the roadcar and around 330hp for its racing counterpart, pretty much en pointe with its “true successor.”
Pace then wasn’t an issue, but like its predecessor, the JS2 was still hampered by reliability concerns, and come the end of 1974, the coupe’s highlight result was a 1-2 finish at that year’s Tour de France. Despite its runner’s-up spot the following year, that illusive Le Mans win never came to fruition, and thanks to crippling financial difficulties for Citroën leaving the JS2 road car with neither an engine nor a production line, the JS2 was done after 1975. Of course by this point, Ligier’s focus was already redirected to Formula 1.
Again, back to Barcelona. At just short of half-distance and with the JS2 comfortably pounding in lap times only a couple of seconds shy of the much faster ‘991’ class, the team brings the JS2 R in for a full diagnostic check. For any ‘normal’ 24-hour race (is there such a thing?) nearly an hour in the pits would spell disaster. Not so for Nordschleife Racing.
“Our job this weekend is to get as many miles as possible under our belt to gather as much data as we can. And if it makes strategic sense to pull the car into the garage for a thorough check, then that’s what we’re going to do. But we’re not worried about reliability. The JS2 R is so well-engineered that, it’s small, it’s light, it’s agile, but it’s incredibly strong, and that’s [testament] to Ligier. They design as many parts as they can, they build as many parts as they can, and there is a lot of crossover between this car and their P2, P3 and P4 prototypes: the level of performance you could see from this car over one lap is something you could expect across a full race, over several races or even over a full season. That’s so important for endurance racing, and we want this weekend, we want to see how far we can push this car. It’s the main reason we wanted to do a 24-hour race as soon as possible. It’s the perfect testing opportunity.”
Ultimately the JS2 R’s first race ends well, French compatriots Guillaume Roman, Mathieu Sentis, and Sebastiens Dussolliet and Poisson completing a combined 510 laps and comfortably leapfrogging the team’s pre-race not-really-expectations. But here’s the big question: can the Ligier JS2 R, a true successor to the company’s original JS2 and supporting five decades of motorsport heritage across multiple disciplines, perform competitively, and win, in 2020?
“We plan to run the JS2 R in a full schedule next year. We wouldn’t be doing that if we weren’t fully confident in its abilities.”
Judging by its maiden outing at this year’s Hankook 24H BARCELONA, there’s certainly no reason for Arnaud Tinet to be worried. Unlike its illustrious ‘predecessor’, the track-exclusive JS2 R has proven itself reliable enough over a full-race distance, give or take a brake change or two. Full factory support from Ligier Automotive confirms the brand’s commitment to the project too, and a full development program that’s yet to be completed suggests there’s yet more pace to be unearthed. Even the not-unreasonable €89,000 asking price suggests Nordschleife Racing’s opening run may have creaked open the floodgates for customer teams.
The car’s true potential relies heavily on next year’s performance of course, but don’t be too surprised to see this track-focused coupe, and it’s ‘JS’ homage, open a new chapter in Ligier’s illustrious motor racing history.
I still think it should be blue though.
Images courtesy of Petr Fryba, 24hseries.com, DPPI Images, and Ligier Automotive