The son of Australian racing legend Stan Jones, Alan’s childhood environment on the sidelines of many a racetrack was unsurprisingly a catalyst that would see him forge his own very successful motorsport career, becoming one of Australia’s most successful racing drivers of all time when he became the country’s second Formula 1 World Champion.
Despite his father’s successes, Jones had to work hard to fund his motorsport ventures locally, and took the brave decision to uproot himself and move to the UK in 1967 to further his career prospects. Several years spent wheeling and dealing were enough to land him in British F3, where he achieved enough success to be noticed by Harry Stiller, who helped bankroll a Formula Atlantic programme and Jones’ F1 debut for Hesketh in 1975.
A switch to the Embassy Hill team as a substitute driver saw ‘AJ’ collect the team’s best-ever result, before he switched to Surtees for 1976. Despite finishing in the points on three occasions, the relationship with his team boss down irrevocably, and Jones was in the F1 wilderness for 1977, until a sudden call up to Shadow following the tragic death of Tom Pryce.
Jones rewarded the team’s faith in him with a brilliant – if highly unexpected – win in the wet at that year’s Austraian Grand Prix, and this was the platform that saw his career really blossom, as Williams came knocking for 1978.
An interim year if anything, Jones acquitted himself well, but the championship-winning ground-effect Lotus 79 was the only car to have, as the other teams furiously worked to get their heads around this concept.
Williams was one such team to successfully understand ground effect technology, and the Patrick Head designed FW07 proved a race winner in 1979 in the hands of Jones and his team-mate Clay Regazzoni.
Four wins in the latter half of the season was too little to mount a championship challenge, but Jones wound it all together for 1980, taking five wins en route to becoming the second Australian to win the World Championship, taking Williams’ first ever championship of many.
He would have taken back-to-back titles but for poor reliability and a fractious relationship with his team-mate Carlos Reutemann, who refused to obey the team orders stipulated in his contract. His Williams tenure ended on a high with his last F1 victory, and he quit to return to Australia.
The lure of a good deal drew him back to F1 in 1983 with Arrows, but it was a short-lived affair lasting just one championship round.
Just over two years later, and ‘AJ’ was back in the F1 cockpit once again, attempting another comeback with the Ford-backed Beatrice Haas Lola concern. Despite finishing in the points on a few occasions, the car was no match for the opposition, and a dejected Jones was consigned to the midfield in 1985 and 1986.
Walking away for good, he concentrated on GT and touring car racing in Japan and Australia, and was also a regular fixture in the Channel 9 commentary team for the Formula 1 broadcasts.
Into the new millennium, the return of motorsport was too much once again, and Jones was back again – briefly – proving far too unfit for a tilt at GP Masters, he got involved in the A1 Grand Prix championship as Team Australia’s seat holder until the series folded in 2009.
Jones very much typifies the ‘no tricks, nothing to hide’ mentality loved by many about the Australian work ethos, and remains a popular, honest and very outspoken member of the F1 fraternity. It’s hard to think it’s been thirty years since he took the World Championship crown.
Alan graciously accepted our interview request between the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix – both won by our own Mark Webber – and we chatted about his lengthy motorsport career, the current state of F1, what really went down between he and Carlos Reutemann, racing in Japan and Australia, and the sad mess that became of the A1GP concern. Ever honest and forthright, Alan provided us with the most enjoyable interview we’ve done to-date, and for that, RichardsF1.com is extremely grateful to Alan for his time and support in making it happen.
|Full Name:||Alan Jones, MBE ASM|
|Born:||2 November 1946, Melbourne (AUS)|
|First GP:||1975 Spanish Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1986 Australian Grand Prix|
|1972-3||Various British National Formula 3 Championships|
|1973||John Player European Formula 3 Championship, DART GRD 373, 2nd overall|
|1974||British Formula Atlantic Championship, Harry Stiller Racing Marc 74B, 2nd overall|
|1975||Formula 1, Harry Stiller Racing Hesketh Ford 308B, 4 races, 0 points
Formula 1, Embassy Racing Hill Ford GH1, 4 races, 2 points, 17th overall
|1976||Formula 1, Team Surtees Ford TS19, 14 races, 7 points, 15th overall|
|1977||Formula 1, Shadow Racing Ford DN8, 15 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 22 points, 7th overall
Rothmans International Series, Theodore Racing Lola Chevrolet T332, 3rd overall
|1978||Formula 1, Williams Ford FW06, 16 races, 1 podium, 11 points, 11th overall
Can-Am Challenge Cup, Haas-Hall Racing Lola Chevrolet T333CS, 1st overall
|1979||Formula 1, Williams Ford FW06/FW07, 15 races, 4 wins, 5 podiums, 40 points, 3rd overall|
|1980||Formula 1, Williams Ford FW07B, 14 races, 5 wins, 9 podiums, 67 points, 1st overall
Awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
|1981||Formula 1, Williams Ford FW07C, 15 races, 2 wins, 6 podiums, 46 points, 3rd overall|
|1982||Australian GT Championship, Porsche Cars Australia 956, 1st overall|
|1983||Formula 1, Arrows Ford A6, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1984||24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche Kremer Racing 956B, 6th overall with V. Schuppan & J. Jarier|
|1985||Formula 1, Team Haas Lola Hart THL1, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified
IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T900, 1 races, 1 podium, 14 points, 23rd overall
Australian Touring Car Championship, Alfa Romeo GTV6, 8th overall
Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
|1986||Formula 1, Team Haas Lola Hart THL1, 2 races, 0 points
Formula 1, Team Haas Lola Ford THL2, 14 races, 4 points, 12th overall
|1990||ATCC, B&H Racing Ford Sierra RS500, 7 races, 1 podium, 22 points, 9th overall|
|1991||ATCC, B&H Racing BMW M3, 9 races, 2 podiums, 70 points, 4th overall|
|1992||ATCC, B&H Racing BMW M3, 9 races, 2 podiums, 143 points, 7th overall|
|1993||ATCC, Glenn Seton Racing Ford EB Falcon, 9 races, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 148 points, 2nd overall|
|1994||ATCC, Glenn Seton Racing Ford EB Falcon, 10 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 177 points, 5th overall|
|1995||ATCC, Glenn Seton Racing Ford EB Falcon, 10 races, 2 podiums, 133 points, 8th overall
Bathurst 1000, Glenn Seton Racing Ford EF Falcon, 2nd overall with A. Grice
|1996||ATCC, Alan Jones Racing Ford EF Falcon, 10 races, 2 podiums, 180 points, 8th overall|
|1997||ATCC, Alan Jones Racing Ford EL Falcon, 9 races, 318 points, 11th overall|
|1998||ATCC, Tony Longhurst Racing Ford EL Falcon, 8 races, 261 points, 16th overall|
You visited the Bahrain Grand Prix to mark 60 years of modern-era Formula 1, and were reunited with many of your championship-winning contemporaries. Can you tell me about the weekend from your perspective?
It was fabulous. I’d never been to Bahrain before, it’s a great facility and they were very gracious hosts and we were very well looked after. It was a great opportunity to catch up with some of the people I hadn’t seen for a while, like Mika Hakkinen. I see Niki [Lauda] quite a lot from time to time, and Jody [Scheckter], but there were a few blokes there who you really don’t get to see all that often. It was great, it was just a really lovely weekend and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
The rules have undergone a big shake-up to trim downforce and improve overtaking, and we’ve also seen the loss of refuelling but the return of slick tyres. If you had the magic wand to cure Formula 1 and bring more excitement to the sport, what would you change?
It never ceases to amaze me – and you don’t have to be Einstein to work it out – every time we have a wet or damp race, we have a bloody good race. There’s lots of overtaking, and lots of action. Why? Because it lengthens the braking distance and slows the cornering speeds, and that gives people the opportunity to go in under brakes and pass into the corners.
The problem we have now – and it’s a two-fold thing, I believe – to a certain degrees, it’s the cars, but I honestly believe that it’s the circuits. We’ve got these Hermann Tilke designed circuits, which must look lovely on paper when he presents it to the odd Arab or whatever, but in reality, they’re just one constant-radius corner after another. That might be OK for motorbikes that can go around two- or three-abreast, but there’s no single car that’s sufficiently better than another car that will allow you to go around the outside of another of a sweeping corner. What we need are more right-angled corners on circuits and more overtaking places: corners that – if you will – sucker the drivers in. One some of these bloody circuits, there’s really only one overtaking place, and the rest is ‘follow my leader’, and it’s boring. The circuits are to blame, to a certain degree, and they need to lengthen the braking distances and decrease the cornering speeds.
Do we need to shift the balance more from aerodynamic grip to mechanical grip?
Absolutely. Let me say, however, that I am a great believer in technology and with Formula 1 being the pinnacle of all motorsport, and therefore it should be the leader in technology. But I think it all gets a bit ridiculous when the driver goes back to his engineer at the end of a race and thanks him for a good start! I know we’re taking a lot of that away – and not forgetting that it got totally ridiculous not that long ago with bloody traction control, active suspension, and all that sort of nonsense. It’s no wonder the engineers are getting paid almost as much as the drivers, because they’re almost as responsible for the results!
As someone who came back to Formula 1 after a few years away from the sport, we now see Michael Schumacher attempting the same feat. His performance have attracted a lot of criticism – and I would contest that much of it is unfair, given the lack of testing he has had, and the rules shake-up that’s occurred since he left the sport. What is your opinion on his comeback?
I would say that most of [the criticism] is unfair. As usual, it’s all the rare experts who’ve never had their arse in a car who are the first ones to step up and give the advice.
You ask yourself the question ‘Why is he doing it?’. And at the end of the day, if he’s doing it because he still loves motorsport, and he feels he’s capable of doing it, and he’s enjoying himself, that’s all the reason he needs. He doesn’t have to give any other reasons to any other person in the world. The only other person whom he has to satisfy is himself. If he’s enjoying himself and he wants to come back to Formula 1, well good on him!
I mean, who gives a shit about statistics? They’re just things that are written in a book. You get all these rare experts that say ‘He’s going to spoil his unblemished record…’ – who cares?
He’s doing it because he likes it, and quite frankly, you’ve hit the nail on the head: the bloke’s come back to the situation where there’s very limited testing, his car isn’t quite as competitive as a few of the other cars on the grid at the moment, but with Mercedes Benz and Ross Brawn on board, that will change and it make take time to do that. But I still think he’s got what it takes.
Even if he’s lost a certain percentage of what he had – he was some 5% ahead of everybody when he retired anyway – so at worst, it just brings him back to being one of the best.
I’m no fan of Michael Schumacher as a person, but no one respect him more for his achievements and his ability than me.
Your father Stan was a huge influence on your decision to pursue a racing career. Can you tell us more about your formative period moving into motorsport?
I don’t even remember the day I ever suddenly thought ‘I’m going to be a racing driver’ – I was born into it. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was going to motor races with my Dad, and obviously I got the bug. I watched him win the Australian Grand Prix at Longford in Tasmania, and I went over to New Zealand with him to watch him race. Mixing in that environment, that’s all I wanted to do. Ever since I can remember, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a racing driver.
You ventured to the UK in 1967 with just a few dollars in your pocket, treading the now well-worn path of aspiring Australian racing drivers who want to progress to Formula 1. How much of a battle was it to get noticed and get support to progress through the junior ranks?
It was a hell of a battle, and there those people out there who say that perhaps my surname helped me. It didn’t really, while my father was a very well-known racing driver here in Australia, I don’t believe he was all that well-known internationally. For all intents and purposes, I was just another young Aussie over there trying to get into motorsport and that’s what we did.
We bought and sold door mobiles and mini vans, and used one credit card to pay off another credit card. If I had a quid for every time I bought a set of tyres with a credit card on the Thursday, and then ran around like buggery on the Monday trying to figure out how to pay it!
I had a bit of luck, and I met the right people. But having said, in my own defence, when I was given the right equipment, I backed it up. I gave them the results, and to be fair to the English people, you couldn’t blame them if there were a lot of people saying ‘He’s an Aussie, you should be getting a young English boy to drive’. They stood back, and gave me a go based on my ability, and I admire them for that very much.
Harry Stiller was one such person, who was an important benefactor for you, helping fund a stint in Formula Atlantic in 1974. How did your relationship start?
In my own defence, I was always good at making sure I met the right people – I think they call it ‘networking’ now! I always made sure that I went up and said hello to people, what I like to call “working the paddock”. I met Harry when I was racing in Formula 3. When he went onto Formula Atlantic, I didn’t have a drive then, but landed a drive in March with an Orion Falcon body on it. It was either Harry or Robin Herd (from March) who told me of the drive, and sold it to me by telling me the guy’s got a transporter and ran a pretty professional outfit.
So I drove down to where he was, and as I drove down his street, I saw this Nestle delivery truck parked outside the house, and I thought ‘Oh God, tell me this isn’t the transporter.’ Of course, it was the transporter and it was far from professional. I took a drive with the bloke because it had a reasonably good engine in it. We took it up to Silverstone for a meet, and I landed up winning the race, beating works cars and so forth. I gave the guy a checklist of things to do to the car before the next race at Oulton Park, but I’m absolutely convinced he just put the thing in the transporter, drove it home, and then came to Oulton Park – probably having only put it through a car wash or something. So when I got to Oulton Park, I refused to drive it, and said to him: ‘I can’t give you 100% if you won’t give me 100%. I’ve just given you a simple checklist of things to do and you haven’t done them. Find yourself another driver!’
So I made very sure then that I went through the paddock and explained to everybody why I wasn’t racing that day. Nothing came of it that day, but then I got a phone call from Harry about a week later, and said: ‘We’ve got a few problems with our car, and things aren’t going as we’d hoped. Can you come up to Silverstone and do a test day?’, and I agreed.
So I called [March engineer] Robin Herd – I used to test a bit for the team at Goodwood in the off-season, to keep my mileage up and give me exposure to driving new cars – he and I had built up a good rapport. So he came up and we gradually dialled out the understeer, and I went on to set a time about a second under the last qualifying time there!
I was immediately appointed the team’s new driver, and from that point on, we basically dominated Formula Atlantic. I competed in the support race at that year’s British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch (pictured left), and set a time in practice that would have put me on the last row of the grid in the Formula 1 race. Luckily, I won the race, and that brought me to the attention of a few Formula 1 people.
Harry obtained a Hesketh and you made your debut in the non-championship International Trophy race in 1975, going on to race in four F1 championship rounds with him. What are your recollections of your debut in F1?
Things were a bit up in the air after Formula Atlantic, and for a while I thought I’d lost a drive entirely. But then I got a call from Harry who told be to go up to Towcester to have a fitting in a car up there. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I know that place. That’s where Lord Alexander Hesketh is based’, and I initially thought they were going to look into a Formula Atlantic team, not thinking for a second that there would be a brand new Formula 1 Hesketh sitting on the stands that I got to jump into and be fitted to drive! It turns out that Harry had done a deal with Rob Walker to run another Hesketh.
The first race was the International Trophy race (pictured right), in which I finished seventh and beat Mario [Andretti]. From then on, I raced the Hesketh in F1, I qualified alongside James Hunt at Belgium.
After four races, Harry decided he was going to go to America, and there weren’t any more finances to run the Hesketh, and that put me out in the cold, and I went back to Formula 5000.
You then joined the Embassy Hill concern…
Rolf Stommelen had a crash at the Spanish Grand Prix and injured himself, and I got a call from [team boss] Graham Hill asking if I would deputise for Rolf until he had recovered. I went and did that, and gave them their best-ever finish, which was a fifth at the Nürburgring.
Ex-F1 drivers have a notorious reputation as not being the easiest team managers to work with, and you went from working for Graham Hill in 1975 to then working for John Surtees in 1976. What was this period like?
I got a phone call from John Surtees asking if I’d like to come down to Goodwood and test for him – I agreed, but I was a bit confused as to why he’d want me to test for him, as he’d seen me drive in Grands Prix before.
I went down there and tested, and he struck up a deal with me and told me he had a brand new car – the TS19 – showed me a photograph of it, and it looked like a nice car. To cut a long story short, I did a deal with him.
He was going to take me to South Africa to do more testing, but when I rocked up at the airport departure lounge, he threw a contract at me, and I said ‘I thought I was just going down to test, and we would talk about a deal then’, and he said he wouldn’t take me down there without a firm commitment.
So I signed the contract and went down to South Africa, and in a week I think I did just five laps because the rear uprights kept cracking.
I raced that year for John, who was a very difficult man to drive for, very difficult. I remember at Canada, he had until midnight to renew an option on my services for 1977, and I kept hiding up in my hotel room hoping he wouldn’t find me! Later that night, I ducked out for a hamburger, and true to “Jones’ Law”, the minute the bloody lift doors opened, there was John standing with the bloody contract!
Anyway … I signed it, and I later said to him ‘If the only way I can do Formula 1 is with you, then I’d rather not do it’ – it just wasn’t pleasurable.
So then I thought I’d go to the States to do some INDY racing. I went to Ontario Motor Speedway and I drove one of Bill Simpson’s old McLarens and just hated it. No corners, no gear changing, and I thought ‘bloody hell’. [Theodore boss] Teddy Yip took me to Las Vegas for the weekend [laughs], and then I came back to Australia not knowing what to do with myself.
You returned to F1 in 1977 with Shadow following the tragic death of Tom Pryce, and picked up your maiden win in the wet at the Osterreichring. Can you tell us about this time?
Unfortunately poor Tom had been killed at Kyalami, and [Shadow boss] Jackie Oliver called me up and asked if I would drive for the team. But I had a bit of a problem in that I still had a contract with Surtees, and Jackie managed to work things out and I joined the team in time for the next race at Long Beach.
I went over to England and signed the contract, and then went to Long Beach and started racing with Shadow. [Engineer] Tony Southgate joined the team about five races in, and modified it with a new engine cover and made it a little bit quicker. The reliability was very good, and it was a much better car in the wet because it was quite a heavy, softly sprung car.
We won the Austrian Grand Prix, which was fantastic!
To say that it was unexpected was an understatement, because they didn’t even have the Australian national anthem ready to play in case I won! A drunk in the crowd played Happy Birthday on a trumpet!
You signed a contract to drive for Ferrari for 1978, but landed up going to Williams instead. What happened?
It was by this stage that I started talking to a few people: Frank [Williams] was one of them, and [Ferrari’s] Luca di Montezemelo was another. He called me up and asked if I’d like to drive for Ferrari – who wouldn’t? – and he asked me to come to Maranello and meet Mr Ferrari. I was told exactly what he would ask and what I had to say, and so on and so forth, which I did, and I signed the contract.
The ironic part about it was that they also wanted Mario Andretti to drive for them – they felt he would be important to their sales in North America – and I would be given the job if they couldn’t sign him. I read in AUTOSPORT about a week or two later that Mario had signed for Lotus [he would go on to win the championship that year], and I thought ‘How good is this?’
So I called them up and asked ‘When do you want me there?’, and they said, ‘You know how we told you we wanted a North American driver? We have signed Mr [Gilles] Villeneuve.’
So I immediately jumped on the phone to Williams and told Frank I’d been giving a lot of thought to our discussions and that I’d like to drive for him.
I went up to the factory and met Patrick [Head, Williams’ Technical Director] – I was very impressed with Patrick – and saw the car. A very simple little car, with nothing too fancy. What probably impressed me most was the Saudia logo on the rear wing – little did I know at the time that Frank didn’t actually have any money from Saudia, he just put their name on the car to give them a bit of a carrot! So I signed up to do the 1978 season, and the little FW06 just got better and better.
I didn’t think it was a gamble to move to Williams because I was terribly impressed with Frank and Patrick. I knew that Frank had been around since Big Ben was a wristwatch – although he hadn’t achieved a great deal of success yet – but I was also impressed with Patrick’s straightforwardness. And I thought it could be a worthwhile exercise, and I did it.
You’re still very much Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head’s “favourite son”. Was there a specific formula to your successful relationship?
I think it was probably because we were all of a reasonably similar age, and I think we were all fighters wanting to prove something.
Patrick wanted to prove he was one of the best designers; Frank wanted to prove that he wasn’t a wanker and could form a successful Formula 1 team; and I wanted to prove that I was as good a driver as anyone else. We just had this camaraderie between us that just clicked.
I had a fantastic working relationship with Patrick; it got to the stage we were almost didn’t need telemetry. We were able to make little changes before the warm-up lap for the start of the race because he knew exactly what I liked in a car.
He always used to say to me, ‘Just tell me what it’s doing that you don’t like, and tell me what it’s not doing that you want it to do’. I would never come in suggesting springs and roll bars because I wasn’t an engineer! If I tell him what it’s doing, 99.9% of the time, he’d correct it for me.
The arrival of ground effect technology and the brilliant 1979 FW07 rocketed you to success. How did the FW07 compare with previous cars you had driven?
I’d just done the Long Beach Grand Prix in the FW06, and they flew the ‘07 out to – funnily enough – Ontario Motor Speedway to test on the road circuit that ran in the middle of the oval. I don’t think it had turned a wheel up until then, and I hopped straight out of the ‘06 and into the ‘07 on the Tuesday. I think I did about four of five laps, came to the pits and asked ‘How long has this all been going on for?’
I just couldn’t believe the commitment into the corner and the grip the car had. You could brake very deep into the corner and turn, get on the gas, and you’d get through. With the ‘06, you had to brake much earlier, and be gentler with applying the power. It was such a leap forward that I knew we would be competitive with this car.
It was perhaps too late to stage a title fight in 1979 by the time any niggles had been sorted, but after Clay Regazzoni’s maiden win for the team at Silverstone, you followed that up with four wins in the second half of the season. Can you talk us through this period?
It took a little bit of time to dial the ‘07 in and also get the reliability sorted. I remember leading quite comfortably in Belgium – the first time ever for the team – and having some stupid little thing go wrong.
Then we went to Silverstone and did a test day up there on the Tuesday before the Grand Prix. Patrick had designed a little aero device that you put on the back of the car, and I couldn’t believe how much more comfortable it made the car to drive. It was worth half a second a lap.
I had a spin on Friday – not very popular with the team – and planted it on pole by half a second on Saturday, ahead of the turbo Renaults, which was totally unexpected given how much the circuit suited the turbos.
I made a slower start and was passed by both Renaults, but got by both of them into Stowe and was leading comfortably and a bloody heat exchanger cracked and that put paid to my race. I was really disappointed because I wanted to give Frank his first win. I didn’t stick around the circuit and just jumped in the car and went home – in hindsight, I should have stuck around and helped them celebrate, but I was so pissed off I just wanted to go home.
The 1980 season was a golden year, and you won with five wins after a close fight with Nelson Piquet. Today, you look back on this achievement some 30 years’ earlier with a great deal of fondness, but do you remember appreciating the magnitude of your achievement back then?
No, not really, I didn’t. I was never really one for working out the logistics of a championship and playing the percentage game. I used to just get out there and attack each race as it came along. If you win enough races, you might land up being the champion, and if you don’t you might not be. Obviously there are some exceptions to the rule – Keke Rosberg in 1982 being an example. I never used to work that and I’m sure Keke didn’t either; he was much the same as me. I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the achievement at the time.
Frank found is amusing after I won my first race with the team Germany in 1979 (pictured above left) – I barely expressed any emotion on the podium. In many ways, I’d worked so hard to get there that it was almost an anti-climax. When I won the decided at Montreal, I did get a bit emotional because I would have loved for my father to have been alive, and it wasn’t til I got back to the hotel that I started jumping in the shower and carrying on!
The record books won’t reflect that you actually won six Formula 1 races that year, but for the Spanish Grand Prix being declared a non-championship race. Did the FISA-FOCA wars of that time have much of an impact to you as a driver?
All that stuff used to roll of my back. My job was that of a racing driver; it was Frank’s job to handle all of that. Provided he turned up with the car for me to race and paid me my money, that’s all I really cared about.
Politically, I never used to like [the then FIA President] Jean-Marie Balestre – I think anyone that’s called ‘Jean-Marie’ should be looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion! What really does piss me off about the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix was that every single record book has me down as having won 12 Grands Prix, and I know I won 13! I know that I went to Spain, I stayed at the hotel, I got up each morning and went to the circuit, I went through the same formalities that I did for every other Grand Prix, I went to the grid, I started the race, I raced the 200 miles, I crossed the line, King Juan Carlos gave me the winner’s trophy, and as far as I’m concerned, I won the Spanish Grand Prix!
And then to have some bloody French idiot turn around and say ‘No’ – and he was there, mind you! – why did he not cancel the event? Why go there and go through all the motions, and then afterwards sat it doesn’t count? That was the thing that really upset me.
A second title was on the cards in 1981 but for your team-mate, Carlos Reutemann not playing the team game. Have your feelings towards him mellowed in the passing years, or is he still off the Christmas card list?
Everything’s mellowed in the passing years! It wasn’t a situation where I hated him, or I disliked him, we used to say hello to each other and all the rest of it.
It was a very simple thing. At the end of the day, Carlo came to Williams, he sat down at Frank’s desk. He was presented with a contract: Frank worked out this plan that whereby – not wanting to shift his cars halfway around the world and then have them come together fighting for victory – if we were running 1-2, less than 4 seconds apart but with over 20 seconds in hand ahead of the third-placed car with 20 laps to go, I was to win as the more senior driver in the team. It was a scenario that would probably never play out, but In Brazil it did!
We took off into the distance, he was in the lead and I was just a few seconds behind. It was damp, and I never attempted to pass him as we could have both been eliminated. I’d won the first race at Long Beach, and I think Carlos was pissed off because he was leading but ran wide, and I snuck up the inside of him to take the lead and win the race.
I never attempted any risks in Brazil for that very soon, and I expected Frank to give him the sign [to let me through] and everything would be hunky-dory. It was just the second race of the season, and if he was better than me, he could win the next ten! And of course, he didn’t honour the agreement.
What happened on the podium after the race? You didn’t attend…
Purely coincidentally, as it would happen, the rain delayed the podium celebrations. We went to the podium and nobody was there. I wasn’t prepared to stuck around while the officials got their act together and I went back to the garage. Of course everybody interpreted that as me having the shits and storming off to the garage, which was really incorrect. Had I been sensible to have realised that, I probably should have stayed at the podium. But my absence had nothing to do with Carlos, it was to do with the officials not being organised.
After that, the FIA brought in this rule that they’d fine you – or circumcise you, or something – if you didn’t attend the podium!
Despite the contract, were the two of you given equal equipment?
Carlos was always given equal equipment with which to compete – unequivocally, despite what one Peter Windsor might think – and purely and simply: Carlos did not honour his agreement or his contract that he signed.
What happened for the rest of the season?
The next race was in Argentina and – bloody hell! – I had corner marshals on the circuit giving me the finger and [laughs] I had taxi drivers in Buenos Aires yelling obscenities at me if I walked along the street. That was just one of things…
After that, Carlos and I would talk. I never really socialised with any drivers on the grid. As far as I was concerned, Carlos was just another driver I had to beat.
There was also this suggestions that you and Nelson Piquet never got on very famously…
I never really liked Nelson. We once had a bit of a dice at Belgium, and I must have gone down the inside and rubbed wheels with him. He stormed up to the pits after the race and told Frank he was gong to break my legs. Frank said to him, ‘Are you going to break them in or out of the car, because I suggest you do it in the car’. There was always that sort of thing going on with Nelson.
The next race was at Monaco. He was leading and I was right up his exhaust pipe (pictured right), and there were these eyes the size of saucepans looking in his rear view mirrors, and as a consequence, he hit the fence, and that brought nice little smile under my helmet!
You rounded off your final race with Williams with a dominant win at Las Vegas, while Carlos’ championship bid faded at the final hurdle when he finished outside of the points. What prompted your decision to leave Formula 1, and looking back, do you think you made the right decision?
With 20/20 hindsight, no, but I obviously did it because I was burned out, I’d bought a farm in Melbourne, [my son] Christian was just a few years’ old, I had everything pointing in the right direction bodily-wise, and I thought it best to quit while ahead. I missed Australia, and it was very much a ‘grass is greener’ mentality.
In hindsight, yes I did quit too early. But I obviously did it for a reason, but I’d only been back at home for a few seconds and I was already thinking, ‘Bloody hell! What have I done?’
If you had have wanted to come back in 1982, were there opportunities to do so?
If you recall Ferrari previously having wanted to hire me in 1978, we a funny thing should happen once again in 1982. I’d just moved to the Gold Coast and I had a phone call from Italy after Didier Pironi had broken his legs at Hockenheim, and they asked if I wanted to deputise for the rest of the year!
Very immaturely, I half-pretended to stuff them around as a get-back for 1978, and then quite ironically because they couldn’t get me, they hired Mario Andretti! He promptly put the car on pole position at Monza!
I should have driven for Ferrari – every F1 driver wants to drive for Ferrari during their career, and if I’d put the car on pole at Monza in my comeback race with Ferrari, I’d have never paid for a meal in Italy again!
You made a one-off appearance with Arrows at the 1983 Long Beach Grand Prix.
So Jackie Oliver [now running Arrows after defecting from Shadow] called me up and told me the team had his multi-billionaire, and the team was going to be widescreen, cinemascope and everything in technicolour, and was I interested in coming back? I thought about it, said yes and went over there. I tested the car on a little track east of LA.
I did the race and retired, and then I did the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, and finished on the podium.
At that point, I said to Jackie, ‘Where’s this billionaire?’ and he was sketchy with this answers. The next race was at Paul Ricard, and this just wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
You returned to F1 full-time with the Beatrice Haas Lola concern in 1985-6. How did that opportunity come about and what was the atmosphere of the team like?
I was back in Australia, and I received a call from Charlie Crichton-Stuart who told me that Carl Haas was forming a Formula 1 team, with official support from Ford, Goodyear, and backing from the eighth-largest company in the United States, Beatrice. I’d never heard of Beatrice – and as it turned out, neither had most people in the world – but they comprised a range of subsidiary companies such as Avis, Coca-Cola, Samsonite etc. The CEO was an enthusiast, and I was always his first choice.
So Charlie said to me, ‘Why don’t I come down to Australia to talk to you about it? I’ve been told I’ve got to start and this figure and I can go to that figure. So how about I just offer you that figure, and we can have a holiday for the rest of the week?’
So I decided to go back and have another crack, based on the fact that the car was going to be designed by Neil Oatley, it was going to have the Ford turbo engine – which turned out to be gutless – Goodyear tyres, Teddy Mayer running the show. I never got on with Teddy…
It was a difficult period and the car simply wasn’t competitive enough to see you at the sharp end of the grid…
It was like all of the ingredients were there, but the chefs didn’t know what they were doing. Money-wise, it was very good for me, but in terms of results, it was not a good comeback.
This makes me laugh today – there have been many articles focusing on comeback drives by ex-F1 drivers as a result of Schumacher’s comeback – my comeback was one that didn’t work. I went back to a brand-new outfit in an uncompetitive car.
The other consideration that there was the Australian Grand Prix that started in 1985, and it meant I could compete on home soil.
In 1986, Patrick Tambay joined the team, and he was quickly of the same opinion of the team and the car as I was, and at the end of the season, if I couldn’t get a seat with McLaren, Williams or Ferrari, then I was out of there.
You went off to Japan and competed in the Sports Saloon GT series. What was this like?
The opportunity to do this looked promising: nearly the same time difference, good money and a semi-works TOMS Toyota. I thought it would be a good opportunity but – bloody hell! – when you’re driving for the Japanese, you dead-set need to have a psychiatrist.
Towards the end of my tenure with them, I told them I didn’t want to drive for them next year – of course, with the Japanese, you don’t sack them, they sack you – and this was a major loss of face for them. They asked me if I wanted more money, and I explained it wouldn’t make any difference because I’d have to give half of it to a psychiatrist, and then they turned around and said ‘You want psychiatrist?’, and I then had to try and explain that this was the very reason I didn’t want to drive for them, because they had no idea!
You wouldn’t believe it, but I turned up at the next race, and they had a sports psychiatrist ready for me!
This sounded like a recipe for disaster…
I could give you some examples that you wouldn’t believe. When I started with TOMS, the rear wing on the car was positioned down and forward, and I asked them why they weren’t taking full advantage of the regulations that allowed for the wing to be placed higher and further rearwards. Their response: ‘Designer’. I’d gathered that!
I offered to pay for the brackets and rivets if the wing could be relocated to a better position, and after much sucking through their teeth, they agreed. The car was immediately a second quicker and much nice to drive because the repositioned wing was more efficient. I think we won the first race.
We later had a round at Fuji which was also a round of the International Championship – Porsche and Jaguar used to attend. They said to me, ‘Next race. Very special. More power. Lightweight car.’ And I thought this was good!
So I lifted up the gull-wing doors, stepped into the sill which I’d done all year without a problem, and my foot went straight through the floor – it was like tissue paper!
To cap it all off, you’ll never guess where the rear wing was? Back in its original position again! I asked them what was going on: ‘Lightweight car’ was their response. Bloody hell! So I demanded the revised rear wing be put back onto the car or I wasn’t going to drive it. ‘Ah, other wing in Tokyo’. What?! So they had to send some guy to Tokyo to get the rear wing… In the race, we were leading once again, and the thing shat itself as usual… The stories I could tell you about them are unbelievable…
You returned home to Australia and dabbled in Touring Cars for several years, achieving solid results including podium finishes in the Bathurst 12 Hours and Bathurst 1000km events. How did the domestic racing scene compare with Formula 1?
It doesn’t compare [laughs]! You don’t get similar accolades or recognition unless you win Bathurst. Even Michael Schumacher’s a wanker because he hasn’t won Bathurst. I think anyone that buries beer in the sand under their tent because of the alcohol restrictions during the Bathurst 1000, that says a lot about the domestic scene.
You did plenty of commentary work with Channel 9’s F1 telecasts alongside Darrell Eastlake. What was this time like with Darrell?
I thoroughly enjoyed that time with Channel 9. Darrell’s a terrific bloke, and we had really good, fun times together. A lot of the occasions when Barry Sheene joined us, it was just unbelievable!
I remember one occasion on the set – we were laughing that much – and the floor manager was getting really ropable because this was happening only a few seconds before we were due to go on air. All three of us were just rolling on the floor laughing! We had some great times and I really enjoyed that stint.
Channel 9 lost the broadcasting rights at the end of 2002 to OneHD. The network was copping a lot of flak from the fans with respect to its scheduling and many fans felt the network was doing the sport’s fans a disservice. What was your take on this?
I think the network should have done more to retain the rights. But short of altering the world’s time zones, there was little we could do. I remember having people come up to me and ask me why the races were broadcast so late? And I used to to think, ‘You idiot, because that’s the time it starts!’ I remember having an argument with some guy in Adelaide who boasted that he had cable and could watch the races two hours early. Really? He could watch the race before it even starts?
In many instances, the broadcast might start half an hour later than a live feed, at the worst. We’re in a different time zone!
But this is what makes me laugh when Bernie [Ecclestone] wants to have a night race in Melbourne – and admittedly, there’s a greater audience in Europe than the Far East, I grant you that – but there are people over here who’ve been getting up in the middle of the night for the last 25 years to watch Formula 1. Well why can’t they get up in the middle of the night for the odd race?
The A1 Grand Prix concern started in 2005 and you were the Australian team’s seat holder. How did this come about and what were your initial impressions of the series?
I went to the Monaco Grand Prix, and I heard about the series and about a new circuit being built in Dubai. On my way home, I swung via Dubai and had a look at the circuit. I went and met the A1GP people, and they explained the concept to me, and I thought it could be OK and said to them that I wouldn’t mind talking to them about the Australian team.
At that point they told me they wanted to $10 million for three years with a two-year option, and I thought they were dreaming! So I went home, didn’t think much about it.
I later heard that a consortium of Australian business people had bought the Australian franchise and they wanted me to be the seat holder and give me a percentage of the team.
I hadn’t spoken with anyone and thought this was bullshit because (a) I’d know about it and (b) no one had called me to talk about it.
It actually turned out to be true. I was made a seat holder and given a percentage of the team. I was involved in international open-wheeler motorsport, and it turned out to look like pretty good stuff.
And it could have been good stuff. The racing was close, the cars were quick, there was plenty of overtaking, but unfortunately it was run by people who had no idea… I think the very first race that [A1GP boss] Tony Texeira had ever been to was an A1GP race!
In the early days, there were more A1GP personnel than there were spectators! The early days had the likes of Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, John Surtees, Jan Lammers, Piercarlo Ghinzani, and the A1GP owners didn’t take any notice and there was nothing that they could be about motor racing by us!
You had the opportunity to act as a mentor to several Australian drivers, such as Will Power, Ryan Briscoe, Karl Reindler, John Martin – even your son, Christian – who all drove for the team. Being mindful that former drivers (a la John Surtees) aren’t always the best bosses, what was your strategy as team boss?
My approach was to simply get the best mechanics, engineers and team managers that I could – and I reckon I had some of the best in the business. From the drivers’ point of view, I was criticised for running too many different drivers, but at the end of the day we never really had a good crop to pick from!
I picked Will Power who got a podium for us in the first race, but then promptly went off to do something else. So who else do we get in? Ryan Briscoe. He was promptly offered a bloody job with Team Penske in the United States, which is fine.
It wasn’t like I hired these guys and sacked them ten minutes later. They were going off to what they saw as better opportunities, and in hindsight, they were right.
But over and above them, who could you put in the car? When I put Christian [Jones, his son] in the car, I was accused of favouritism. Perhaps there was a little bit of that, but he was a the Asian F3 champion – if someone had come up to me and said, ‘We have this Australian driver who’s just won the Asian F3 championship’, I’d have given him a go in the car too! But Christian didn’t have the dedication and didn’t concentrate on his fitness, and I wasn’t going to give him any favours – if anything, he needed to work twice as hard as the next bloke – and i just had to let him go because he wasn’t dong the job. That was a very difficult, hard thing to do.
At the end of the day, it was really hard finding good, young talented Australian drivers. We tested [Red Bull’s current test driver] Daniel Ricciardo, and I could immediately tell he had talent but [Red Bull advisor] Helmut Marko wouldn’t let him go. He went quicker than every other driver at an A1GP test at Silverstone, having never been to Silverstone and in an A1GP car.
You can only do what you can do. Right now, if A1GP was to be resurrected, which Australian driver could you reasonably put in the car?
The A1GP series went pear-shaped before the 2009-10 season was due to kick off at Surfers Paradise. What is your take on the situation?
We flew our driver in from the UK to participate, and I’d had my face up everywhere spruiking the event – I feel like such a fool for doing this, looking back – and we’d spent a fortune on advertising and merchandise in the lead-up to it.
Tony [Texeira] is a shrewd businessman, and he’d always managed to get himself out of a jam beforehand, but this time it just wasn’t to be. It was heartbreaking for everyone. So many people had invested in this – Emerson Fittipaldi [the Team Brazil seat holder] was in the same position, as the next round was scheduled for Brazil – and nothing showed up. Texeira never paid the deposit back to the Queensland government either.
This series had so much potential – bar Formula 1, it is the only other intercontinental open-wheel motorsport series around, and it’s a shame it’s no longer here.
You were also approached to participate in the Grand Prix Masters, but landed up being a commentator for the short-lived series (it folded after a year). What were your thoughts on the series?
I thought this was a brilliant concept and I loved it. Everything about it contrasted completely with A1GP, the organisers actually knew what they were doing, for one thing! The cars and engines were excellent, and they had signed some blue-ribbon drivers to the championship.
I decided a commentary role would be much more fun, and I figured that the air-conditioned confines of the commentary box were better suited for me. I remember the second race in Qatar – held in something approaching 50 degree temperatures – Nigel Mansell was walking down the pit lane with a soaked towel around his neck, whingeing and complaining as he always did. I also complained about the heat I was suffering from, but at least that I could retire to the commentary box when it got too much! He didn’t take kindly to that!
It’s now 30 years since your World Championship, and you’re involved with The Motorsport Shop to sell some memorabilia from your championship year. How did this project start and what is involved?
My friend Patrick helped me to set up our merchandising for the aborted A1GP race on the Gold Coast, and he’d done a fantastic job. He ran his operation out of Monaco, and it seemed only logical to continue this relationship with my own merchandising.
It’s very special to look back on the achievements in my motorsport career, and I’m delighted to be able to share this with so many of my fans.
Images via Corbis Images, LAT, Sutton Images and The Cahier Archive