United States GP (East), Watkins Glen, October 5th 1980
The world title was in the bag, the pressure was off… but so was his Williams at the first corner of the US GP. The recovery which followed was pure Alan Jones
From start to finish, the 1980 season was an unbelievable one for me. It was an amazing year because I won my world championship with Williams, but it also stands out as the season in which I drove my greatest race. That came at the final round of the championship, the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, just a week after I had clinched the title.
In all honestly I don’t really see much of a change in Frank Williams and Patrick Head since those early days. Frank’s always been pretty serious, and Patrick still gets bad-tempered and yells and screams when things aren’t going right. I really don’t see much of a difference. For sure we had a really special relationship. I was very good friends with Patrick as well as driving for him. We had a really tremendous rapport. I can remember several occasions when we changed the car on the warm-up lap just before the race, because Patrick would say something like, “I just want to try this…” and nine times out of ten I’d say, “Yes, that feels a bit better.” We got to a stage where he knew what I wanted before I’d open my mouth.
The Williams FW07 was a great car, but in 1980 we were up against this bloody thing called the turbo Renault. It had a lot more horsepower than us, and inevitably always outqualified us. But we knew that come the race they had to turn their boost down to save the engine and then it was always a matter of how much they had to turn it down. We had a much better handling chassis, so it was always a case of could our good chassis beat their powerful engine?
However, reliability eventually got the better of Arnoux and friends and the title turned into a battle with Nelson Piquet and Brabham, and the showdown was Canada. I was comfortably quickest in practice and then all of a sudden they wheeled out a spare car, Nelson got in it, and blew me off. I made a really good start, and we went side-by-side into the first corner. I guess neither of us were going to concede, so we inevitably touched wheels. Nelson came off worst and went into the fence and I lost my engine cover. When I looked in my mirrors nobody was behind me, but unfortunately they black-flagged the race!
Nelson had to start in his spare car, which some cynics would point out was also the car that he got pole position in. I think that car was supposed to be put back in the transporter to be sent back to England, and when the race car was bent it had to be used for the re-start.
I made sure that I lined up on the rubber marks that I’d left on the grid and made another really good start. I led for a few laps, and then Nelson passed me on the straight like I was parked. Then eventually he came to sudden stop with a big plume of smoke coming out of the exhaust. I went on to win the race and the world championship.
We were sponsored by TAG in those days, and after the Montreal race, the boss Mansour Ojjeh was obviously fairly happy with the results, and thought he’d give me a prezzie. He gave me a Learjet to use, and said, “You can have it until next weekend, do whatever you want, go wherever you want.” Charlie Crichton-Stuart and I couldn’t think of anywhere to go, so we parked it and played golf for a week before setting off for the US Grand Prix the following weekend. There was a great weight off my shoulders; I’d just won the title, and to put it bluntly I could just get in the car and drive with gay abandon.
I liked Watkins Glen. It was extremely bumpy, but some of the corners were fantastic, like the esses leading onto the pit straight, which in the FW07 were almost flat. You’d go over the bumps and the skirts would flap, and you’d lose downforce. But the thing about a skirted car was the commitment; you had to commit yourself into a comer, because if you didn’t you weren’t quick.
In practice I wasn’t very happy with my engine, and I told Frank I thought it was down on power. There was no telemetry in those days, and to Frank’s credit, and he’s always been this way, he said, “Well, you’re the driver, if you say it’s down on power, we’ll change it.” So we changed it, and I was quickest in the morning warm-up.
I think I started from about fifth on the grid, made a blinding start, and then at the first corner promptly headed off onto the grass! It was all very, very slippery. I drove back on the track after bouncing across, and I thought for sure I’d buggered my skirts. I did the next two corners a bit gingerly to make sure everything was okay; the last thing you want is a skirt sticking up or anything like that. After a couple of corners I discovered everything was hunky-dory, and I got on with it.
I was in something like 13th and 14th place, and many seconds behind the leaders. It was great because I could put my head down, bum up and just go for it. I went for gaps that at the race before I certainly wouldn’t have gone for, because I had the championship at stake. This time if there was a gap I just went for it, charged in and really wasn’t too fussed about flatspotting the tyres. Which inevitably I didn’t, because when you’re not fussed about it, you don’t.
I braked late, took little calculated risks here and there. I had a very good tow from Carlos Reutemann, who was running second. He kept on the right hand side of the track to stop me from going down the inside into a big right-hander, so I pulled out of his tow and outbraked him around the outside. Then Bruno Giacomelli, who’d been on pole in the Alfa, broke down.
So I went on to win the race. It was a really good, fun race, because I could just really thrash the shit out if it and it all came together. There was a bit of a party in the motorhome afterwards, but the real buzz was when I hopped in the Lear, flew down to Kennedy in New York, landed, taxied up and parked next to Concorde. And I jumped on it for the flight home! That was a major bit of posing for those days…