Formula One World Champions come and go but there has possibly never been a driver so upfront than Alan Jones.
The winner of the 1980 World Championship crown can hardly be accused of ever holding back or being afraid to speak his mind.
After he released his first book, Driving Ambition, in 1981 following his title-winning season, ‘AJ’ has decided to give an update on the years gone by in his new book AJ: How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One.
Co-written by Andrew Clarke and published by Penguin Random House Australia, the book gives a detailed look in to the life of Australia’s most recent Formula One champion and delves deeper into his life and times after his title triumph.
Alan was kind enough to talk to us about the book and his thoughts on the current state of affairs in the sport where he triumphed.
We’d like to extend our thanks to the team at Penguin Random House Australia for their help in making this interview possible.
Jordan Mulach: First you released Driving Ambition in 1981, why did you feel like bringing out another book now?
Alan Jones: Well because there’s been such a lot of water under the bridge since my first book and I’ve had a few people say to me, “AJ, when are you going to bring out another book?” but I never gave much thought to it. I was talking to Mark Larkham (RPM colleague) who said, “Listen, if you want to bring out another book, I’ve got a really good guy (Andrew Clarke) who will co-write it with you”, so I gave it a bit of a thought then said “Why not?”
Early on in the book, you talk about the development pathways which took you to Formula One, do you think there is now a change in focus to who has the best money-to-talent ratio as opposed to who can bring the best drive?
Well you know it’s always been that way. People don’t realise Niki Lauda bought his first Formula One drive. There’s always been people who have bought Formula One drives and there still is today. I can very proudly say I have never paid for a drive in my life, whether it be Formula One of anything else. I don’t think Mark Webber paid much for his drives. If you’re going to go to the trouble of going to the other side of the world, you’ve got to learn how to work the paddock and talk to the right people at the right time.
You seemed to be at the right place at the right time throughout most of your career, despite having to go through a lot of tough times in the lower formulae and even in the early days of Formula One. What was it like to have to work the paddock even though you were possibly in a compromised position because the car you were in didn’t reflect the true driving talent you had?
You have to eat a lot of humble pie, you have to put up with a lot of idiots but you’ve got to be fairly focused and know what you want and where to go, as well as be prepared to say anything to get there!
In the middle of some of those tricky times you won the Can-Am Championship (1978) which is often overlooked but a potential drive with Ferrari fell through at the same time. How did it feel to experience both sides of the spectrum around the same period?
Well the Can-Am deal was fantastic because I really liked driving in America and I loved driving for Carl Haas and Paul Newman. It was really enjoyable and gave me my first international championship. The Ferrari experience was just that, an experience.
I raced for Shadow in 1977 after Tom Pryce was killed at Kyalami in South Africa and (Luca) di Montezemelo called me up at the time and asked if I’d like to drive for Ferrari, which was a pretty stupid question! I said “Oh yeah, I suppose so” and he told me Enzo Ferrari would like to meet me, they’d fly me down to Fiorano and these are the questions he’ll ask and this is what he’ll say.
I flew in to Milan and they told me, “We have to keep this secret”, probably because they were talking to 20 other drivers! I got to Milan airport and there was this Italian dressed in a pair of pale-blue overalls with Ferrari written all over him and my name above his head; their way of keeping a secret! I went to Fiorano, met Mr Ferarri, very impressive and it was a great honour to meet him obviously and he said, “We are looking to get a North American driver to sign for us to help sales and if we can’t get Mr (Mario) Andretti, we’d like to sign you. I went to a train station in London and saw one of the motorsport magazines had reported Andretti had signed for Lotus so I thought, “You beauty, I’m a Ferrari driver!”
A week went past, I hadn’t heard anything so I called them up and said, “When would you like me to come over?” There was a two-minute silence, which is never good. They said they were looking for a North American driver so had signed a Mr (Gilles) Villeneuve.
I immediately called up Frank (Williams) and I told him I’d love to drive for him. He picked me up on the side of the motorway, took me to the factory and introduced me to Patrick Head who was an impressive, down to earth guy. The car looked very simple and had Saudia written all over it which meant petra-dollars, for want of a better word. To cut a long story short, I did a deal with Frank and in the end Ferrari did me a bit of a favour.
Those Williams years were obviously very good in terms of the relationship between yourself, Frank and Patrick given how highly you speak of them. In 1979 when the FW07 came out in response to the ground effects cars, did you have an instant connection with it?
I did, but I really liked the FW06. That was a great little car to drive and we should have won a few Grands Prix in that car but it wasn’t a ground effects car. In that respect, it was probably a year too late because in 1978, (Colin) Chapman brought out the Lotus 78 so there was no way in the world you’d keep up with a ground effects car in a normal car. At the end of 1978, Patrick built and gave me FW07 which was probably the most state-of-the-art of the ground effects cars.
Obviously it wasn’t too bad given it took you to your only championship in 1980 against competitors like Piquet, Villeneuve etc. when you were still fighting some reliability issues.
At the end of the day, any driver wants a car better than anybody else, and Williams gave me that. I was lucky enough to take advantage of it and utilise the tools I had. It was great and that’s what helped me to the World Championship.
1980 was a pretty good year for you, not only winning the World Championship but coming home and winning the Australian Grand Prix. How did it feel at the time but also looking back now with the knowledge that you and your father (Stan Jones) are the only Australian father-son pair to win the AGP?
It was fantastic. To be honest, I probably nearly had as much pressure in that one bloody race at Calder Park than I did for any of the Formula One races for that reason. At that stage, (Bruno) Giacomelli and the Alfa Romeo were becoming very competitive, that V12 had a lot of power and they’d improved their chassis/aerodynamics. I knew they’d be hard to beat because Calder is not the most technical circuit; it is a power circuit because there are two big straights. There was a lot of pressure on me so the fact that we came through and won it was very emotional because Dad and I are the only local father and son to win the Australian Grand Prix to this day.
In 1981 you returned to the circus with Williams, carrying the #1 on your car but your biggest rival that season was your team-mate. Was there any love lost between you and Carlos Reutemann in those years?
When Carlos joined the team (in 1980), Frank gave him a contract which basically said in the unlikely scenario where we were 20 seconds ahead of whoever was third and separated by under two seconds with under 20 laps to go, I would win. I was the old boy at school so Frank said, “I’m not taking my two cars to the other side of the world, have them comfortably leading a Grand Prix only to have each other off.” Carlos looked in to that with his eyes wide open, no one forced him to but he signed it because he thought, and I probably did too, that the scenario would ever happen.
In 1981, I won the first race in Long Beach. In the second race at Jacarepaguá (Brazil), that’s exactly what happened in the pouring rain. He and I disappeared in to the distance and with about ten laps to go, we were less than a second apart. I thought, “There’s no point trying to pass, you can lock up easily in the wet and I’ll hit him.”
We saw what (Max) Verstappen did to Daniel (Ricciardo) the other day (2017 Hungarian Grand Prix) and this is what can happen with team-mates. I decided to wait, thinking he’d adhere to his agreement, I’d get my nine points and consolidate my position in the championship. Hunky dory!
With about four laps to go, I didn’t see him slow down. Three laps, two laps. I thought he’d move with about a lap to go, slow down, wave me through then tell people he could have won the race and that he was honouring his agreement. He didn’t do so and I was more upset with him for that than anything else.
Purely circumstantial, we got to the podium and it was still pouring down with rain, and the good old Brazilians hadn’t turned up! I thought, “Bugger this, I’ll go back to the garage” and that’s what I did, though it was seen as me cracking it because of what happened instead of me just not wanting to stand around in the wet.
The next race was Argentina and of course when I went for a walk through Buenos Aires, the taxi drivers were giving me the bird and even at the circuit, the marshals would give me the bird as I went through a corner. At that stage, I thought to myself, “Bloody hell, I hope I don’t have a crash here; they’ll leave me to burn!”
At the final race of the year in Las Vegas, you promised not to help him win the championship and while he slipped back down the field you won the race, calling it quits at the end of the race. Over the next few years you had a few little comebacks but the major return was in 1985 with the Haas team, meaning you raced in the inaugural Formula One Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. What were those times like with Haas and getting to race at Adelaide in a car that was powered by a hand grenade rather than an engine?
A mate of mine, Charlie Crichton-Stuart called me up and hold me Carl was forming a Formula One team. I’d driven for Carl in Can-Am and really liked him, he told me we’d have the best of everything: sponsors, Ford, Goodyear etc.
Considering Australia was about to hold its first World Championship race in Adelaide, all those things put together made me think, “Yeah this is good, I could do a bit of a comeback.” I threw myself in the gym and got myself fit but when I got over there, the Cosworth/Ford engine wasn’t ready, which meant we put a Hart engine, basically a Formula Two engine, which was a boy trying to do a man’s job in the car. We called it a hand grenade because it wasn’t a matter of if it would blow up, it was a matter of when.
When the Cosworth did come along, it was hopeless; it was utterly gutless. I remember being at Monza and we had our rear wing as flat as we could get it while Ferrari were basically running a barn door on their car yet they were still 25km/h quicker down the straight.
And there’s a bit of a story behind your disappearance at the 1985 South African Grand Prix involving Bernie Eccelstone. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
Beatrice was the eighth largest company in America and was the main sponsor of the Beatrice Formula One Team (Haas). They had a huge number of African Americans working in their factories and at that time, South Africa was still in apartheid.
Jesse Jackson, the American political activist, more or less said if the car raced in South Africa, the entire African American workforce would be withdrawn from Beatrice, of which there were thousands. It was a bit of a conundrum because no one knew what to do. If they said “Go to hell”, Beatrice could have lost millions and it would have been a nightmare.
As per usual, Bernie Ecclestone came up with a solution. He thought, “Hey, if the driver is sick and can’t drive, no one can claim victory.” It was a force majeure. I contracted a mysterious virus overnight after he said, “AJ, fly back to Australia, spend four or five days with the family and then go back to England.” That’s what I did, the car didn’t race and there was no aggravation.
Fast forward a little bit to your return home after eventually retiring. You drove touring cars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including driving for Glenn Seton in the early Group 3A days. Throughout the 1993 season there was success but also a bit of aggro on your part, especially at Symmons Plains where both Mark Skaife and Wayne Gardner lost battles with you on the same lap. What was it like going from the open-wheeler environment where you don’t want to hit another car to touring cars where you can use the bumpers?
I came from a European environment where no matter what formulae you race in, if there’s a gap you go for it. It’s pretty cut throat and there’s people from all over the world who go to England to race cars so they get pretty desperate to win a race. I guess, I just carried that philosophy over here with me when I returned.
1996 saw you form your own team in Pack Leader Racing and you were leading Bathurst when the car decided to become a BBQ. Can you talk us through that?
Well I was really disappointed with that one. The car was really going well in the atrocious conditions, it was very wet and I’d been following (Peter) Brock for a while. I passed him and was pulling away comfortably when an oil line in the valley of the V8 engine split. It spewed oil all over the engine and caught fire. Up until that stage we were really doing well so I was disappointed with that.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Formula One with things like the Halo and the new aerodynamics setup?
I disagree with the Halo. If a spring comes off the car in front or some kind of small object, it’s going to get through it anyway. I think it’ll be questionable as to how quick a driver can get out of the car if it’s upside down. All it would take is for the Halo to be bent or twisted in such a way and it would make it a nightmare for the driver.
Open-wheelers are open-wheelers; if they want to put a roof over their heads, go drive GT or sports cars. I’m not discounting the safety of the driver, it must always be the utmost consideration, I just don’t like it.
The current rules, I don’t like. I think the cars are too aerodynamically dependent; they should take that aerodynamic dependency away from them, give them a single plane front wing and allow the to race closer. This whole business of “He took my air away.” They’re not aeroplanes, they’re racing cars!
On that point, would you like to see a change from the aero being above the car like it is now to being more like the 80’s where it’s more to do with ground effects? As you said in the book, the governing body at the time tried to restrict it without knowing enough about what was going on.
Correct. If you have a look at what the Americans have done for next year (IndyCar), they’ve taken a lot of downforce off the top of the car and they’ve put it to the bottom. I think that will make for much closer racing. The thing I’d like to see a lot more of in open-wheeler racing, and the Americans have once again got in front, is to be a Formula One racer now, you have to be about 62kg. You have to be a jockey, and whilst that’s all very good, it restricts a lot of guys who have a lot of ability but are just a bit too big to hop in a car!
Finally, in the book, you talk about getting some warts on some private body parts as well as giving full and frank character assessments of some drivers and team owners. Do you feel like you’ve left anything out of this book or perhaps have had to think twice about putting it in?
Well let’s just say the third one is going to be more interesting. When that book comes out, I definitely won’t have to bump in to anybody in the pits so it’ll be on then!