Jumper’ would have walked this race but for two simultaneous mechanical problems. He describes his finest but most frustrating hour to Adam Cooper
Jean-Pierre Jarier had a very strange F1 career. He took three poles, set three fastest laps, and for a brief period with Shadow in 1975 seemed like a potential world champion. But in 135 starts stretched over 13 years, he failed to win a grand prix. He never came closer than in the 1978 Canadian GP.
Jarier left the hopeless ATS team mid-way through that season, and as he watched the races on television, his career seemed to be at its lowest ebb.
“I didn’t want to drive for a small team with no chance of doing well,” he recalls. “I was looking forward to returning to F1, but didn’t know what to do.”
The tragic death of Ronnie Peterson, a day after his crash in the Italian GP, created a unique opportunity. The Swede and Lotus team-mate Mario Andretti had been the class of the field, and since it was obvious that somebody would drive the vacant 79 in the last two races, Jarier reasoned — with some reservations — that it might as well be him.
“At that time you had many crushes, many drivers killed. I was such good friends with Francois Cevert, and Peter Revson and Tom Pryce were team-mates.
“I was good fiends with Ronnie too, and when I saw the Monza accident I was so sad. I didn’t think for one second about taking his place, but when I read the news every day, nothing was decided about who would drive at Watkins Glen. I never called a team to get a drive, and I couldn’t imagine that I would make a phone call to Colin Chapman.
“I was on holiday in the Alps, and of course there were no mobile telephones at that time. I went to the post office, got a cabin, and called Lotus. It was probably one week after Monza. And I said, ‘If you need me to drive at Watkins Glen, I’ll be there.’
“An engineer called back, and said, ‘We’ll see you at the Glen Motor Inn.’And that’s it. So I bought a ticket to the USA, which was not so expensive, because I had married a stewardess!”
Naturally the atmosphere in the Lotus camp was a little subdued, and Jarier had little contact with the team boss.
“We hardly saw each other, and the only thing we did together was debrief after practice. I was used to Robin Herd at March and Tony Southgate at Shadow, but I must say it was a very efficient debriefing we had with Colin. I was impressed with the quality of the work at Lotus, the work of the engineers and Chapman.”
Jarier was forced to start the race in the spare after Andretti crashed in the warm-up. His superb performance sparked Colin’s enthusiasm.
“I didn’t have my own seat, so I was in the seat of Ronnie or Mario, I don’t know which. It didn’t fit me and it pushed my ribs so much that I broke a rib in the race. It hurt a lot, but I got the lap record.
“I went fast after I had a puncture at the start. At that time it took a long time to change a wheel, and I lost a lap. I was quicker than everyone else. I was third, very close to Alan Jones, when I ran out of fuel a few laps before the end. The T-car had a smaller tank, but they thought I could finish the race.
“Colin jumped over the wall and ran to take me in his arms. He said, ‘What you did is fantastic.’ Afterwards I couldn’t even speak, it hurt me so much. I couldn’t move or walk! I drove for free, and I drove my best I wanted to drive so desperately.”
Jean-Pierre had just a week to recover before the season finale in Canada.
“When I came to Montreal felt at home in the team. I had done such a good race at Watkins Glen that the mechanics consider me a driver, not a guest It was a very nice track, very technical. I balanced my car very quickly, very easily, with Colin’s help. I And I got the pole. Mario was back in ninth, and that was so good for me.”
When the race started, Jarier just took off.
“I made a very good start, and on the first lap I was four seconds ahead of the next guy. When I went past the pits I looked in my mirror, and it was if there had been a big crash behind, because I couldn’t see anyone! I got a 30sec lead and then I lifted off.”
He was pursued alternately by Alan Jones, Jody Scheckter and local hero Gilles Villeneuve, but on that day Jean-Pierre was in a class of his own. Then it began to go wrong.
“The brake pedal started to go down, and also a wheel balance weight came off a front wheel and went into the oil radiator! So I had an oil leak, and I was checking the pressure.”
With just 21 laps to go, he headed to the pitlane.
“They discovered there was not very much oil left in the car. But I really stopped because the brake pads at the back had completely worn out The pedal was on the floor. It was sad I couldn’t finish. And all my stuff was stolen from the garage. I had a Lotus jacket which I had been given by Colin.”
Not that he earned the sympathy of the crowd, for his demise allowed Villeneuve to score a historic first win. But Jarier had raised his stock.
“I went to the restaurant at the Hyatt Hotel that night, and Colin invited me for champagne. He said he wanted me to drive for him next year, but he had already signed the two drivers. He tried to make a third car for me, but he didn’t succeed. Instead I drove for Tyrrell in 1979, but Ken had no money.
“I would have been better off driving in CanAm for Paul Newman, and I would have had enough time to wait fora good drive in F1. At Tyrrell I fell again into the same category of backmarker car that I had all my life.”
Jarier’s bad timing would strike again. When Carlos Reutemann retired early in 1982, Jean-Pierre was offered the Williams job — but he was already committed to Osella. Derek Daly got the ride. And Rosberg in the sister car became champion.