Retired Formula F1 Driver Alan Jones speaks about his life and career.
Introduction: Racing to the finish line
Ross Greenwood: Welcome back to Work Life Money right around Australia. Can you imagine standing on the very pinnacle of the world? I’m not talking about Mount Everest here, but when it comes to motor racing there is no doubt that the pinnacle is standing on the podium, in first place as the World Champion of the Formula One motor racing circuit. The point is that not many Australians have done this, only two. One, Sir Jack Brabham, he did it in 1959, 1960 and 1966.
Despite the fact that we have had brilliant drivers, think, Daniel Ricardo– now is going through all of this– has won Grand Prix races. Mark Webber of course famously won races and was always highly fancied potentially to be a World Champion. There’s only one other that Australia has had and that was in 1980, Alan Jones. Have a listen to this.
Murray Walker: Up to the check-up flag and past it goes Alan Jones. What a wonderful way to finish his 1980 World Championship year on the highest note possible. A win yet another one for this pretty Australian who is following in the wheel tracks of Sir Jack Brabham, a three-time Australian World Champion of the past.
Ross Greenwood: There you have it, the great voice of Murray Walker really commentating Formula One at that time. But while it was taking place inside that car, inside that vehicle a very unusual thing appeared to be happening to Alan Johns who is on the line right now. Alan, love to have a chat to you mate? This is fantastic.
Interview with Alan Jones, Formula F1 Driver – retired
Alan Jones: Hi Ross, how are you doing?
Ross Greenwood: Very well. Explain to people on the cool-down lap, what were you doing?
Alan Jones: [chuckles] Crying.
Ross Greenwood: You were crying. This is amazing. So this is the emotion of winning the World Champion, being the World Champion in formula one and so what are you trying to say to yourself at this stage as the emotions are spilling out?
Alan Jones: Basically, “Pull yourself in the gear look dick-head up on the rostrum.”
Ross Greenwood: [laughs]
Alan Jones: My father– I grew up in a racing environment and it ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper, that’s all I ever wanted to do is race cars. I went to England and had some pretty tough years. It’s something that you strive and, of course, when you actually do it, it’s a very emo– was for me, anyway.
Ross Greenwood: I’ll tell you what, the son of Stan Jones, he won the 1959 Australian Grand Prix. All this comes about– because Alan Jones for way too long hasn’t really told all of his story. But he’s now done so called “AJ: How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One”, done by Alan Jones and Andrew Clarke. It’s just out now, grab the book if you can, it is a really good read.
The interesting side about this that I really got about this, Alan, is that ultimately this was in some ways a game of retirement. Many people say that you retired way too early at the end of the 1981 season. You obviously had comebacks in different forms of motor sport, but the fact of the matter is do you think always at that retirement when do I give this up? How do I build this career? It’s a pretty tough decision, isn’t it?
Alan Jones: It’s certainly is, Ross. For me, at the end of the day, it wasn’t an easy part and it’s struggle the whole way through. So when you finally do it, you think I’ll give it another year because your year of your championship, as a current formula one champion, is always going to be your most lucrative year.
Even Patrick Head and Frank Williams said I drove better in ‘81 than I did in ‘80. I had some very stupid niggly little things that let me down otherwise– everyone could say this of course– but I really do mean I could have been world champion again and, of course, when that didn’t happen, that sort of let me down a bit.
At that stage I had Christian, my son, and I wanted to increase the chances of seeing his 21st, and I had a farm up in Glenburnie in Yan Yean, 80 kilometres northeast of Melbourne. I love Australia, I always wanted to get back and I thought I’ve lived here for 13 years, I want to get back home.
Ross Greenwood: There’s another thing that you talk about because during your career you’d seen injuries and fatalities to teammates and other competitors during what was clearly a dangerous period in racing history. You said you wanted to get back and see your son but the fact is, in terms of this idea is to when the retirement would come, “Can I actually go another season and the money”, “Am I going to actually find myself injured or seriously hurt as a result of that extra season”, this is always, if you like, the gamble you were taking with that career.
Alan Jones: Correct, Ross, that’s the way up. At the beginning of every year I always used to make sure I had the correct insurance, the correct equipment. I’d have everything in place and then I could sort of head down and bum up. But there was always that change in those cars, if you had a shunt, you’re going to be history. I’d work very hard to become World Champion and I was World Champion and I guess, to put a finer point on it, I wanted to come home and take advantage of what I had done.
Ross Greenwood: Because the other thing also was that you were ultimately signed up by Ferrari, you tell about this in the book. Gilles Villeneuve comes in, the North American drive. Then afterwards, three years later, they come and approach you again, Ferrari, but in the meantime Villeneuve and also there’s been a serious injury to Didier Pironi, Villeneuve has died. I mean this really does rum at home to you as to, “Well what happens, what is my fate in this particular sport?”
Alan Jones: Correct. Pironi ran off the back of– I think it might have been Alain Prost– in Hockenheim and did his legs in, Gilles killed himself at Spa in Belgium. You think, “Well, okay”. I got to say it’s probably one of things I do regret. In hindsight I probably should have gone back and raced for them and seen out the year with them.
Ross Greenwood: Just another thing also, do you believe that it’s actually a business? Though it’s a sport and we know it, it is a motor sport, you’re a competitor, you’re trying to win. But ultimately this, even today, is significant business. The amount of money that’s invested in the driver, in the equipment, in the sponsorship that comes as a result of it, in the whole circus that goes around the world– It’s a massive business. Do you feel that as a drive yourself?
Alan Jones: For sure. I’ve often said, “When you get different nationalities and when you get egos you can’t jump over and you get more money than God, there’s always going to be aggravation.”
Ross Greenwood: Tell you it’s fantastic. Tell me about the man who runs the whole circus and has for all these years and that’s Bernie Ecclestone. He’s run, he’s actually written for you the forward of this particular book. But the great line he’s come out with is basically that you’re a decent bloke because effectively if you wanted to do something, he’d come and ask you and as a result they’d be a deal done.
Today if somebody wants to do something as effectively, 2,000 lawyers involved, as he says, today. It’s a different game even now, ultimately then a person and their word were worth something.
Alan Jones: Yes, I think he says that Alan wouldn’t fit in today’s formula one era and I agree with him, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t stand driving Formula One at the moment because it’s– It’s always going to be about driving the cars. It’s always going to be about taking a 170 mile corner to 170 miles an hour. But the amount of crap they’ve got to go through now in and out of the car– mainly out of it– it would drive me mad.
Ross Greenwood: Tell me then about the South African Grand Prix, the famous one where you did not race. Explain the conversation you had with Bernie Ecclestone in the lead up to that.
Alan Jones: All right, well I was driving for a car company called Beatrice, which no one in Australia certainly or probably very few people had heard of. But in actual fact it was probably the eighth largest company in America. It owned Western Oil, it owned Avis Rent A Car, it was the single largest bottler of Coca Cola and so forth and so on.
It employed an enormous amount of people. At that stage apartheid was still in South Africa and the black politician Jesse Jackson made it know that if the car raced in South Africa, he would pull all of black American workers out of all Beatrice factories. That would have cost them millions and millions and while Beatrice didn’t really want to be seen to be dictated to by an individual,
it was also dicey if they didn’t take notice of a threat. So in typical Bernie fashion I arrived in Kyalami just outside of Johannesburg. And when I was checking in, they said, “Oh, Mr. Ecclestone wants to see you in the penthouse” and I was, “All right, okay, God what have I done?” I went up there and first thing typical Bernie said, “How do you feel?” I said, “Yeah, good”. “Think twice, you don’t look well.”
I said, “What are you up to, you little bugger?” Then he explained the story, he said exactly what was going on. He said there’s really only one way out of this to appease everybody, to stop Jesse Jackson saying he brought Beatrice to their knees and to stop Beatrice from losing all their workers.
If the driver has a virus and gets crook and can’t drive the car, it’s force majeure and no one can claim anything. So he said, “What do you reckon your chances of winning on Sunday are?” I said, “Well, pretty good if I start tonight.”
Ross Greenwood: [laughs]
Alan Jones: He said, “Right, well, why don’t you just jump on the plane on Saturday morning”– no, I think it might have been Friday morning– “Fly home and see your parents in Australia, spend a week with them and then go back to England and I said, “Yeah, okay, sounds good to me.” But I couldn’t tell anybody. The team owners knew about it but even my mechanics– I couldn’t tell them. I had to wait till the morning and go down and check out and get a flight over to Harare where Qantas was flying to and then fly to Australia and then eventually back to England.
Ross Greenwood: Who says there’s no politics in sport? That’s an astonishing story, it really is. I was going to say the other side of this as well is you’ve been– I’ll just do the quick calculation– I think it’s 36 years
Ross Greenwood: you’ve now been retired. You were 35 when you did retire. It seems to me, at least, that it’s a long time in retirement, isn’t it? Has there been other things that you’ve been able to fuel your life with since then or is it a case where you continue to be involved in motorsport all the way through?
Alan Jones: No, I pretty much continue to be involved with motorsport the whole way through. In other words, that’s all I know anyway. I mean every bloody business venture I ever go into turns me to. I’m an ambassador for Lexus, I do driver days with them, which is a wonderful product and I’ve got other things that I’m involved with. I do the stewardship at a Grand Prix or two every year. I do the commentary for channel 10, which I enjoy immensely. It’s enough to keep a roof over the head and three meals a day.
Ross Greenwood: It’s the most important thing. I’ll tell you what, it is a great story, there is no doubt. As I say, only two people in the history of Grand Prix Formula One have won the world championship. That man is one of them, Allen Jones. Great to have a chat with you AJ. I really appreciate your time.
Alan Jones: Thank you very much, Ross.