Williams' 1980 F1 power duo: dextrous Reutemann and burly Jones


By the turn of the decade from the 1970s to '80s, F1 was still brimming with with top class drivers – but two were head and shoulders above the rest, writes Matt Bishop

Carlos Reutemann Alan Jones Williams United States Grand Prix West 1981 Long Beach

A familiar scene: assured Jones and brooding team-mate Reutemann

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Oscar Piastri did not win his home grand prix on Sunday. Neither did Daniel Ricciardo. In fact no Australian has won his home grand prix since it became a round of the Formula 1 world championship, which welcome development took place in 1985. Prior to that, there had been a long history of Australian Grands Prix, starting in 1928, when Arthur Waite from Adelaide had won a two-heat race on Phillip Island in an Austin 7. The Australian Grand Prix was almost always won by Aussie drivers back in the day – although a Yorkshireman, Peter Whitehead, won at Bathurst in 1938 in an ERA; a Londoner, Stirling Moss, won at Albert Park in 1956 in a Maserati; and in the 1960s, by which time the race had become a round of the popular Tasman Series, Brits such as Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark all won it, as indeed did Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, Kiwis both. The race was last won by an Aussie in 1980, when newly crowned Formula 1 world champion Alan Jones took his Williams FW07 to Calder Park and won by a mile, literally, because that was the length of the circuit and he lapped the entire field. Second was Bruno Giacomelli in the only other F1 car in the race, an Alfa Romeo 179, and third was Didier Pironi, incongruous in an Elfin-Chevy MR8 Formula 5000 car, although Jones lapped him four times.

Jones won two other non-championship F1 events in Williams FW07s: the five-car Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Trophy time trial at Donington in 1979, beating James Hunt (Wolf WR8), Mario Andretti (Lotus 79), Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT46B – yes! – the fan car), and, doubtless enjoying such exalted company, Rupert Keegan (Arrows A1B); and the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix, which had originally formed part of that year’s F1 world championship but was stripped of that status when, as a result of the FISA-FOCA war, it was boycotted by Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Jones became F1 world champion that year anyway, and, having surprised everyone by winning the topsy-turvy wet-dry attrition-affected 1977 Austrian Grand Prix for Shadow, he added 11 more championship-status grand prix wins for Williams in a golden 27 months between July 1979 and October 1981.

Alan Jones on the podium for Williams after the 1979 F1 German Grand prix

Burly, confident Jones and the Williams FW07 won four times in ’79

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Back in those pre-internet days, a small number of print magazines such as Motor Sport held sway as the only route via which F1 fans could absorb expert knowledge of and opinion about their heroes. Equally, the coffee-table annual Autocourse still exists, but in the 1970s and 1980s it used to sell in bigger numbers than it does today, and its influence was correspondingly greater. Its top 10 was much anticipated, and drivers who were ranked highly in it were delighted to be so. Who was number-one in 1979, 1980 and 1981? The answer, in all three years, was Alan Jones.

That may surprise many readers, especially younger ones, for Alan Jones is a name that is often trotted out last or nearly last when, over coffees or beers, F1 aficionados (or aficionadi if you hold out against anglicised plural forms of words purloined from other languages, in this case Spanish) attempt to rank the 34 F1 world champions in order of greatness, starting with Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark or Ayrton Senna, or perhaps Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton, or maybe, before long, or even already, Max Verstappen. But that is unfair to Jones.

From the archive

I well remember arriving at Silverstone on Saturday (yes, Saturday; there is nothing new under the sun) July 14, 1979, to watch that year’s British Grand Prix. I was 16, and, although I was disappointed that my hero, Carlos Reutemann, had qualified his ageing, still beautiful, but no longer competitive Lotus 79 only eighth, I was excited to the point of near stupefaction to see Jones’s Williams FW07. Why so? Well, let’s put it this way. The qualifying time that had earned Reutemann his P8 was 1min 13.87sec — 0.76sec slower than that of Jones’s Williams team-mate Clay Regazzoni. But Jones was in another world, a chasmic 1.23sec better than Regazzoni and a scary 1.99sec faster than Reutemann.

Jones did not finish that race – his water pump failed at half distance, at which point he had been cruising to an easy win — so Regazzoni scored Williams’ maiden F1 grand prix victory. It was a popular result – because Clay was a lovable rogue – but in truth Alan deserved it not only because he had helped Frank Williams and Patrick Head launch and nurture Williams Grand Prix Engineering, as it was then called, but also because he was the better and faster driver.

He was faster and better than not only Regazzoni, but also than anyone else at that time. You doubt me? OK, let’s study his principal rivals through the specific prism of Jones’s purple patch, in other words the 1979, 1980 and 1981 seasons. In terms of a tiny number of drivers’ stunning and perhaps god-given ability to climb into an F1 car and straight away turn a superfast lap in it, irresistibly fluent yet effortlessly nonchalant, Ronnie Peterson was the 1970s exemplar; but he had died in hospital of wounds sustained at Monza in 1978. Gilles Villeneuve was still alive and well, but in 1980 and 1981 his Ferraris were lively and unwell: ‘slow’ would be another word, although at Monaco and Jarama in 1981 he bludgeoned his powerful but unwieldy Ferrari 126CK to two improbable victories nonetheless.

Mario andretti Lotus 1979 French GP

Legends like Andretti, Hunt and Fittipaldi were fading forces by 1979

James Hunt was well past his briefly magnificent 1976-1977 best by 1979, and he retired after that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, having failed to finish that race and the three that had preceded it. Niki Lauda lasted just six grands prix longer than Hunt did before he, too, threw in the towel before the end of the season. Mario Andretti was 39 by the time 1979 was just two grands prix old; perhaps he, too, was also not as sharp as he had once been, his acuity blunted by having to battle with his once unbeatable Lotuses that had been outclassed by more efficacious ground-effect designs.

Double F1 world champion Emerson Fittipaldi was still only 32 in 1979, but he had last won a grand prix four years before that and since then he had been languishing in uncompetitive Copersucar-Fittipaldis; he was never a force in F1 after he had left McLaren at the end of 1975. Although Jody Scheckter became F1 world champion in 1979, driving fast and reliably to achieve his long-yearned-for objective, by his own admission he had set out that year to accumulate points by occasionally and judiciously settling for podium placings rather than gunning for wins at all costs, as he might have done a few years before, when one of his nicknames had been Fletcher, after the baby seagull in Richard Bach’s 1970 novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, who tried to fly when he was too young to do so and as a result kept crashing into cliff faces. In 1980, his hunger sated by his 1979 world championship success, he was distracted and ineffective, and he retired at the end of that year.

From the archive

Jacques Laffite? A good driver, sometimes very good, but not quite in the class of those whom we are considering here. Ditto John Watson. Didier Pironi? Very promising in a Tyrrell in 1979, sporadically brilliant in a Ligier in 1980, but defeated soundly by Villeneuve when they were Ferrari team-mates in 1981. Nelson Piquet? Still learning his craft in 1979, his first full season in F1, but very good indeed in 1980 and 1981. Alain Prost? Not yet in F1 in 1979, showing well as an F1 rookie in iffy McLarens in 1980, and finally winning grands prix, plural, in 1981. Which leaves Reutemann, the only 1970s/1980s megastar who, like Jones, was also at the very top of his form in 1979, 1980 and 1981.

In 1979 Reutemann was Andretti’s team-mate at Lotus – and, although he too struggled with the old 79 and indeed never consented to race the ambitious but abortive new 80 with which Mario persisted for perhaps too long, that year the Argentine comprehensively outperformed his American team-mate, the reigning world champion, especially at home in Buenos Aires, in Sao Paulo, in Madrid and in Monte-Carlo, where he adroitly cajoled the 79 to four podium finishes, all of which patently flattered it.

In 1980 and 1981 Reutemann was Jones’s team-mate at Williams. I was then still in my teens — just — and Carlos was still my hero. I had watched him score a splendid win at Brands Hatch in 1978, cheering joyfully when he had hurled his Ferrari past his arch rival Lauda’s Brabham through Clearways and Clark Curve before my enraptured 15-year-old eyes; for years I had lapped up every word I could find written about him in Motor Sport and the like; and I had watched his races like a hawk whenever they had been on TV. Even now, without recourse to either Google or my extensive library, I could tell you almost every detail of his 146 F1 grands prix, his 10 non-championship F1 races, and indeed his two World Rally Championship outings.

Carlos Reutemann 1981 Dutch GP

Reutemann put in some of his finest drives for Williams in ’81, and looked to be in the box seat for the F1 title

Grand Prix Photo

Nonetheless, in good faith, I have to say that in 1980 Jones won the F1 world championship fair and square, while Reutemann finished it in third place. Jones won five grands prix that year; Reutemann won one. Jones took three pole positions; Reutemann took none. Jones drove five fastest laps; Reutemann drove one.

In 1981, however, Reutemann was often dazzlingly good, and as a result he came agonisingly close to winning the F1 world championship. He began the year brilliantly: in the first five grands prix he finished second at Long Beach, first at Jacarepagua, second at Buenos Aires, third at Imola, and first at Zolder. After round nine, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, in which he had finished second, he was heading the drivers’ world championship standings comfortably: he had 43 points, while Piquet had 26 and Jones 24. With just six grands prix to run, and only nine points for a win in those days, he appeared to be set fair.

From the archive

We may never really know exactly or exhaustively what then went wrong for him, and there are dozens of theories. He disliked the Goodyear tyres to which Williams switched at midseason, having loved the Michelins that it had been running before. He was convinced that Jones was given better engines than he was, and sometimes perhaps he was right. In 2006 – 25 years later – I lunched with him and my friend and fellow journalist Peter Windsor at Zia Teresa (now closed), near the Capital Hotel, Knightsbridge, London, where Carlos had stayed during that glorious-for-him weekend of the 1978 British Grand Prix, and he could still recall and indeed recite by rote the serial numbers of the Cosworth engines that Jones had been able to select ahead of him. In Las Vegas, the final grand prix of the year, where he had driven a scintillating pole lap, all he had had to do to become F1 world champion the next day was stay ahead of his rival for the title, Piquet, who had qualified only fourth and by race day was wilting in the Nevada desert heat. Yet instead he drifted back to eighth while Piquet clung on grimly to finish fifth and thereby pip Reutemann to the F1 world championship by a single point. Meanwhile, a whole lap ahead, in the other Williams, Jones won the race at a canter. Had that year’s South African Grand Prix been counted as a championship-status race, as on the Kyalami grid Reutemann had been assured by Bernie Ecclestone that it would be, he would have been world champion nonetheless, for he won that race, comfortably, driving fastest lap for good measure. But it was not. Such is life. Even so, Reutemann’s disappointment was profound and long-lasting, and the scars it left badly hurt a proud and honourable man.

Carlos Reutemann was a sumptuous wheelman. If the stars were aligned for him — when he was feeling good about engine, tyres, weather et al — no man ever drove an F1 car faster. In 1980 and 1981, in him and Jones, undoubtedly Williams had the best driver line-up in the sport. Even so, it has to be conceded: over the two seasons during which they raced each other in the same team, the dextrous Argentine was not quite as good as a burly Aussie who had half his finesse but twice his swagger. Yes, there were many reasons for Alan’s ascendancy, slender though the margin between them was, for perhaps Frank and Patrick did not always make sufficient efforts to provide an even playing field for their two aces, but ascendant he nonetheless was, and occasionally he was majestically impressive.

Reutemann Jones

Jones and Reutemann – opposites in every sense

Grand Prix Photo

In 1979, after his disappointment at Silverstone, Jones won four of the season’s remaining six grands prix – at Hockenheim, Osterreichring, Zandvoort and Montreal – and he led the last race of the year, at Watkins Glen, having taken the pole by 1.30sec, until a pitstop balls-up ended his run. In 1980, his F1 world championship year, he failed to finish three times (at Kyalami, Long Beach, and Monaco), and at Zandvoort his race was ruined by accident damage. Other than that, in chronological order, he finished first, third, second, first, first, third, second, second, first, and first. But perhaps 1981 was his very best season, for he raced more belligerently than ever before. As a result he made mistakes at Jarama and Zandvoort, but with better luck he could have won at Zolder, Monaco, and Hockenheim, and his wins at Long Beach and, in particular, Las Vegas were typically assertive yet utterly assured.

Where does all that place Alan Jones in the pantheon of F1 champions? Pretty high, I reckon. Indeed, in 1979, 1980 and 1981, as the Autocourse editors declared, boldly but rightly in my opinion, he was the best driver in the world.