No-one defined the Australian racing driver better than Jonesy – acerbic wit but also self-deprecating humour, gritty determination and fairness in the heat of battle. He talks to Adam Cooper about his career of surprises
“For me, racing was very much a natural progression,” says Alan Jones. “I remember Dad used to let me take the odd Monday off school so I could go and watch him race. And as far as I was concerned, as soon as I got my licence, I was going to race.”
Stan Jones was a wealthy and successful Holden dealer, and the epicentre of Australian racing’s social scene, subsidising an army of supporters and hangers-on at the races. But he was also a very capable driver, as he proved when he won the 1954 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore in his Maybach Special. “After that he was offered test drives by BRM and Ferrari,” says Alan, “but he turned them down because he had a young business and a young family.”
At 31, he was still young enough to have made an impression in Europe. While rival Jack Brabham headed to the UK to make his name, Stan remained the man to beat on the domestic scene, scoring a famous success in the 1959 Australian GP at Longford in his Maserati 250F. Alan soon followed in the family footsteps.
“I started racing a billy-cart down a hill in Victoria. Then I went to go-karts, and later I got a Mini from the repossession yard and I raced that at the Geelong sprints. From there I grabbed the old man’s Cooper-Climax and raced that at Winton and Calder.”
Not many teenagers are loaned their dad’s Formula One car to kick-start their careers, even if it is a little out of date. But life with Stan wasn’t easy. “He was a reasonably aggressive, stocky little bloke. He would never back down. I can always remember him criticising me for doing things wrong, but never praising me for doing things right.”
Was Alan spurred on by the need to impress his father?
“Maybe subconsciously. And he did help me, he bought the Mini and made the Cooper available. Then he went broke.”
In the recession, nobody was buying Holdens, and Stan no longer had money to throw around. Meanwhile, at 20, Jones Jnr followed the familiar Aussie trail to London. “I came to Europe in 1967 just to go round in a Dormobile. But when I got back home, I realised that if I really wanted to do anything in motorsport, I had to come back to England. My father said, `Go over there and if you don’t succeed, you can always come back.’ He always regretted not having done that.”
In 1970, Jones headed back to London with £75 in his pocket and went into business with old pal and fellow would-be racer Brian McGuire “selling minivans and Dormobiles to poor unsuspecting New Zealanders and Australians”. The proceeds went towards a Formula Ford Merlyn, which was quickly replaced by a Formula 3 Lotus 41. A broken leg sustained in a crash at Brands didn’t help, but he and McGuire put together a team under the rather grand tide of Australian International Racing Organisation. “Everybody thought we had the Australian government backing us, when in actual fact it was Dormobiles!”
Crippled by illness, Stan came over to offer moral support. Money was always tight for Alan, but his determination won through: “I never really knew what I was doing from one season to the next. That’s why I never went back to Australia. I was too scared to go away in case I missed something. And I couldn’t afford to go either.”
The big break came when GRD’s Mike Warner put together a works-supported F3 deal for 1973. Jones finished runner-up to Tony Brise in the British series, but Stan’s death that summer hit him hard.
“He died just before I won my first F3 win at Silverstone. He’d been ill for a long time, he’d had strokes and heart attacks. But he was only 51. Mike said, ‘Alan, it’s up to you whether you want to drive or not.’ The old man would be pissed off if I didn’t…”
At the start of 1974, Alan showed well in an elderly Atlantic March. Later, F3 champion-turned-entrant Harry Stiller hired him to drive a newer model and then promised a Formula 5000 ride for 1975. Stiller then changed his mind – and offered to take Alan into F1 with a Hesketh.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. My first race was the International Trophy at Silverstone, and finished seventh, beating some reasonably big names. That helped me on my way.”
Jones contested four grands prix before Stiller abandoned the project, but salvation came with a call from Graham Hill. “I filled in for Rolf Stommelen until he got better [after his Montjuich Park shunt]. I took a fifth at the Nürburgring, which was the Hill team’s best result. But Graham was a very difficult man to work for.”
After Stommelen returned, Jones kept his name in the headlines with John Macdonald’s F5000 March. Then a test for John Surtees led to a works F1 drive for 1976. His first outing was at the Race of Champions. “We had Durex sponsorship,” recalls Alan, “and some people were disgusted, and the BBC weren’t going to televise it. Now they’d probably give you a knighthood. I was a trend setter in safe sex!
“In the race it was damp and I ended up leading, until it dried out and James Hunt came past me in the McLaren. Getting on the podium with him didn’t do me any harm.”
The TS19 was never as good again, and Jones had a frosty relationship with his boss: “John was always trying to hop into the cockpit, and wasn’t as quick to make changes to the car as I would have liked. I remember in Canada, he had until midnight to renew my contract for 1977, and I was hiding in my room, trying to avoid the situation. I went down in the lift, the door opened and there he was — and he exercised his option. I more or less said, ‘If the only way I can do F1 is with you, I don’t want to do it.’ So I went back to Australia thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ I was a bit of a lost sheep.”
Teddy Yip came to the rescue, offering to back Alan in a USAC programme. His planned oval debut at Ontario in an elderly McLaren M16 was a disaster. “I didn’t feel comfortable, I hated it, and I told Teddy that. To his credit he said, `F*** it, let’s go to Las Vegas and have a good time!’ They put Steve Krisiloff in the car, and later he told me, ‘That’s the biggest pig I’ve ever driven, so don’t feel too bad about it.’ “
That very weekend, Tom Pryce was killed at Kyalami, and Alan was invited to fill the vacancy at Shadow, once the issue of the Surtees contract was resolved: “It was a soft car, very heavy, but relatively easy to drive, and I was comfortable in it. Tony Southgate rejoined the team, revamped it and it got better and better.”
On an unforgettable damp afternoon in Austria, Jones scored his and the team’s first grand prix victory.
“I drove the thing on the bloody limit. I think its softness helped in the conditions. The race organisers obviously weren’t expecting an Australian to win, because they didn’t even have the national anthem ready. I think a drunk played Happy Birthday on a trumpet. I remember saying, ‘I don’t care what happens now, I’ve won a grand prix. They can never take that away.”
Jones logged 22 points that year, and was now a man to watch.
“I got a phone call from Luca di Montezemolo saying, ‘We are interested in you driving for Ferrari, but we’d like to keep this low profile.’ When I got to Milan there was a guy in arrivals wearing pale blue overalls with Ferrari written all over them, holding a big sign saying ‘Mr Alan Jones.’ And outside he had a Boxer with prova on. it The Italian way of keeping it secret!
“I got a tour of the factory and I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking they should bring every driver down here just to psyche him out. They said, ‘We’re looking at Mr Andretti, because we’d like a North American driver for our sales, but if we can’t get him, you’re the boy.’
“So I went home with a contract. A fortnight later, I read Andretti signs for Lotus’, but I didn’t hear from Ferrari, so I rang and asked when they wanted me. There was a bit of a silence, then, ‘You know we needed a North American driver? Well, we have signed Mr Villeneuve.”
Fortunately, Jones had a Plan B. After an undistinguished season running a customer March, few took much interest in what Frank Williams had to offer. But Alan had faith — and a hugely successful partnership was formed. “I went to the factory, met Patrick Head and saw the new, little FW06. It was a neat car, compact, no bullshit. Patrick was so impressive, so matter of fact, so precise. So I did a deal.”
Fuel vaporisation hid the car’s potential in the opening round of 1978, but three races later in Long Beach, the Williams was dicing for the lead: “My front wing collapsed, but it was finally an electrical problem that dropped me back to seventh. The ’06 was probably the best non-wing car ever built, but it was a year too late.”
It couldn’t match the Lotus 79, but Jones regularly qualified in the top six and finished second at Watkins Glen. Meanwhile, for 1979 Head came up with the FW07. Ironically, Alan’s first taste of the car that was to earn him a place in the history books came at Ontario, albeit this time on the road course: “After about six laps I came in and said, ‘How long has all this been going on? No wonder I couldn’t get near those bloody 79s.’ I couldn’t believe how much grip it had.”
Jones and new team-mate Clay Regazzoni were soon setting the pace, and by Silverstone a win was overdue. But it was `Regga’ who scored it. “I was really pissed off,” says Alan. “I did a blinding lap to get on pole, I was 20sec in the lead, and a stupid little weld on the heat exchanger broke. I really wanted to give Frank his first win — and it was effectively my home grand prix.”
Thereafter, though, Jones triumphed in Germany, Austria, Holland and Canada to set up a title challenge for 1980. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands. With five wins and five other podium finishes he became champion.
“We had a good car and the team was really good. Apart from winning the world championship in Montreal, and being very emotional, the best race for me was the one after that in Watkins Glen, coming from the back of the field and into the lead.”
He expected more of the same in 1981. But after victory in the opener in Long Beach, luck was rarely on his side. Not only that but the thorn in his side from the year before, Nelson Piquet’s Brabham, became his nemesis. There were were moments of levity, however.
“Piquet and I had a coming together at Zolder, and he said he was going to break my legs or something. I said, ‘Well, you’ll only get one chance at it pal, make sure it’s a good one.’ The next race was Monaco, and I was right up his arse. All I could see was him looking in his mirrors. And then he went off!
“But that year was really disappointing. I felt that I drove better than I did in 1980, and I think even Patrick will agree. I led Monaco and Hockenheim, and we had a problem with a fuel line which created some sort of air lock. It cost us two wins and that stopped me from becoming world champion again, plus it was getting a bit political with bloody [Jean-Marie] Balestre. And I had started going back to Australia, which was a mistake, and I envisaged myself being a farmer.”
Jones signed off in style, winning his final race for Williams in Las Vegas. Back home he raced a Porsche 935 in 1982, but he soon got bored: “After two months, I’d be on a tractor and I’d look up at an aeroplane and wonder where it was going.”
An unexpected chance to return to F1 came after Didier Pironi was injured at Hockenheim, and for the second time Jones was offered a Ferrari seat: “My father used to say I mightn’t have much, but I’ve got a good memory. So I deliberately f***** them around, got other people to answer the phone to say ‘He’s down the butcher’s.’ I regret that now, of course. They got Mario, and he took pole at Monza. I could have played that beautifully, I could have played that like a violin.”
At the start of 1983, Jackie Oliver offered Alan an Arrows seat, and even a barely healed broken leg didn’t stop him: “I did Long Beach and the Race of Champions, but the mysterious Mr Big never materialised. The money wasn’t there, and I wasn’t going to be in a winning situation.”
Jones’ comeback was put on hold until old Williams pal Charlie Crichton-Stuart persuaded him to join the Beatrice team set up by Carl Haas. The huge salary and the prospect of a works Ford engine was attractive, but from its debut at the end of 1985, the team struggled.
“I equate it to having the best ingredients for the best cake, but the baker messed it up! The engine was late, and when it did arrive, it was gutless. It wasn’t a matter of if it blew up, it was when.”
Jones picked up only four lucky points in ’86, and drove his last grand prix in Adelaide just seven days before his 40th birthday. “If one of the good teams had offered me a drive, I would have said yes, but that wasn’t going to happen. I thought enough’s enough.”
He has never stopped racing, and still competes in touring cars at home. For a while he ran his own team, but now concentrates on TV commentary and a little consultancy and PR work. He also follows the career of son Christian.
“I want Christian to come to Europe, and he thinks that’s what he should do. I try and help him, but at the end of the day I’m only his father.”