Legends: Alan Jones doesn't get the acclaim due to him. Would he, had he not decided to retire at the height of his F1 powers?
Whenever we recall great drivers past, it seems the same names always crop up: Fangio, Moss, Clark and Stewart are staples of the 1950s and '60s, and more recently we think of Lauda, Prost, Senna and Schumacher. But there are others who don't come to mind quite as instantly: Nelson Piquet is one such, and Alan Jones another.
As the 1970s went into the '80s, they — together with Gilles Villeneuve — were the most competitive drivers in F1; that apart, about the only thing they shared was a loathing of each other. And while Nelson's career was a long one, running from 1978 through to '91, AJ didn't linger in F1. He arrived in '75, and effectively left at the end of '81, calling a press conference in London to announce his decision.
A few days earlier we had been at Monza, and it was clear throughout the weekend that Frank Williams was not in a good humour with his star driver. For one thing, Alan had arrived in less than pristine condition, hand heavily bandaged, a finger broken: "Just let's say it was, er, the result of an altercation with some black gentlemen along the Chiswick High Road. I got kicked over fairly thoroughly from head to toe, but I think I gave a pretty good account of myself..."
When was this?
Not always did racing drivers lead a hair-shirt life.
For all that, Jones drove a great race in his outpowered Williams-Cosworth, finishing second to Alain Prost's turbocharged Renault. His boss was slightly mollified by that, but still not a happy man, and with good reason. It was mid-September, and Jones had just informed him he had decided to retire at season's end.
"Where the hell was I going to find a world-class replacement for him at that stage of the year?" Frank raged. "It was grossly inconsiderate — typical of bloody racing drivers..."
A few days afterwards, Alan had his press conference, and it was a remarkably straightforward affair. Where Stewart, Hunt and Scheckter had given their reason for leaving the sport as a simple desire to survive it, Jones was simply homesick.
"The danger part of it never really came into my thinking," he said. "I've never dwelt on that during my career — a certain number of accidents are inevitable. Actually, I worry more about what these stupid 'go kart' cars are doing to my spine over time than about having a shunt. Other factors come into it, sure, but the main thing is simply that I want to go back and live in Australia."
So there it was. No great soul-searching, no blinding flash of light.
He had won the world title, made some money, and now he wanted time and opportunity to enjoy it.
A few months earlier, we had discussed the possibility of his retirement at the year's end, and he had said that racing still outweighed the other side of his life — but allowing that the 'other side' had gained a few points recently.
What had changed?
"Well, to be honest, I wanted to retire — and yet I didn't! Every time I'd pick up the phone to tell Frank, I would get butterflies and hang up — not because I was scared of facing his wrath, but because I just didn't want to face the decision. I knew it was probably the biggest I was ever going to have to face in my life. I mean, you can buy a house or a car, and if it's no good you sell it. But this was a fairly final situation.
"So, although I verbally agreed terms to stay with the Williams team for '82 —which I sort of wanted to do — I started giving long, hard thought to it immediately afterwards. I concluded that if I was going to stop racing, I had to let Frank know by Monza, to give him a chance to get a replacement. And, in fact, I know I should've let him know earlier.
"I actually told him on Thursday night at Monza, and promised a final answer within a few days. He told me not to do it over the weekend, because it would be silly to chuck it in just through having a bad race, or something like that.
"He told me to go back to London, and spend a day thinking about it there. But that was probably the worst thing that could have happened. It was my boy's birthday on the Monday; we all had party hats on — and then it started to piss down! We had to go inside, and I thought, 'Oh, bugger it, at least if we were at home now we could stay outside...'
"So I'm going back, and I'll do some touring car racing. I want to drive up to the old track, have a dice and a bit of fun, then have a barbecue afterwards. We're only on this earth for a short amount of time, after all. I reckon that you should be doing what you want to do for as much of it as possible."
As Jones said, there were other reasons behind his decision, too. In 1981, the 'ground effect' era was still in full swing, but the sliding skirts of previous seasons had been outlawed, and now they were fixed. If the seal with the ground were to be maintained, therefore, and the skirts not swiftly destroyed, the cars had to run effectively without suspension. For the drivers, it was not a pleasurable experience. "Perhaps," Alan said, "if we had not got into this stupid situation, I wouldn't have got so disillusioned with it all. Perhaps I wouldn't have thought about retirement. You see, with all the money and everything else, I've always enjoyed my motor racing. That's been tremendously important— and I haven't enjoyed it this year at all.
"These cars are ridiculous. I went testing the other week at Croix-en-Ternois, and it was so bumpy that I was literally dreading every lap. I'd get out while they made changes, and I was honestly dreading having to get back in it. Driving was simply not fun, banging my head and my spine, my feet getting bounced off the floor onto the pedals...
"Every driver I've spoken to agrees with me, but nobody does anything about it. In Austria, Carlos Reutemann told me that he was on the verge of blacking out through one corner, simply because the car was bouncing around so much. This is crazy, you know."
Inescapably, though, Jones felt bad about letting his team down, and I wondered, if he were in their position, whom he would hire.
"Given the choice of any, I would have Villeneuve, without a doubt, and probably Pironi. There are one or two others: Piquet's a good driver — he's got no manners and about as much diplomacy as a brick wall, but he's quite a good driver. And I reckon Prost is going to be very good..."
None of them, of course, was available by that time, and Williams took a chance on a driver from the fringes of F1: Keke Rosberg.
A year on, Rosberg was the world champion.
"I loved my time with Frank and Patrick [Head]," Keke would say, "although I always had the feeling that they couldn't quite forgive me for not being Alan Jones..."
He wouldn't be the last Williams driver to say that.