Always forthright, witty and warm, the former Formula One world champion Alan Jones has his own unique take on the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix. With the straight-talking that marks Jones out as the quintessential Australian, he considers the disappointment of not racing from a driver’s perspective. “If you are being paid a huge amount of retainer you just think: ‘Well, that’s less work I’ve got to do’,” he says, with a chuckle. “Give me the choice of lying on a beach somewhere exotic or hopping in a car…”
Jones, who won the F1 world championship with Williams 40 years ago this year, was at the heart of the race in Melbourne as it fell apart. Working at Albert Park, he has remained in Melbourne. “We said: ‘bugger it, we are going to stay here and go to a couple of restaurants and enjoy ourselves’,” he explains.
Jones was hugely disappointed at the cancellation but accepts it was the right thing to do. The indomitable Australian can-do spirit tempered by the reality of the coronavirus. “From my point of view I would have gone ahead and done it anyway but you have to be sensible about the whole thing,” he says.
Events had simply moved too quickly, precipitated by a member of the McLaren team testing positive.
“Doing commentary for Channel 10, we had to be on top of the whole deal, seeing what was going on,” says Jones. “Right up until Friday we all thought that we can keep control of all of this. The catalyst to a certain degree was McLaren. That’s what lit the fuse.
“It is a big blow for Aussie sport, people have come from inter-state and internationally. I spoke to a pommie on Friday and he had flown from bloody England to come here, how bad would that be?”
We Poms, among others, have been critical of F1 for attempting to run the race in the first place given the virulent spread of the coronavirus. Jones however insists that given the information they had, F1 were right to try and stage the meeting.
“Twenty-twenty hindsight is a lovely thing to have,” he says. “I can’t fault them for coming here. It just accelerated and I don’t think anyone foresaw that. I think they thought they would be able to get it over and done with. Bear in mind five days before the GP we had 86,000 in the MCG watching the T20 final and that is a lot more confined than the open space of Albert Park.”
In the wake of the cancellation, the opening of the F1 season is in tatters. The first four races, Australia, Bahrain, Vietnam and China have all been called off. The next three, all in Europe, the Dutch GP, Spain, and Monaco look highly unlikely to happen. The Australian Grand Prix corporation has not ruled out attempting to reschedule but with so little time on the calendar, the chances are negligible.
“My personal opinion is no they can’t run it again this year,” says Jones. “If I was a betting man I would advise against it.”
In 1980 Jones took the title for Williams, their first of seven drivers’ championships and the first of nine constructors’. The same year Jones won the Australian Grand Prix, then a non-championship race and he remains the last Australian to have done so.
He had gone to England in 1967 to pursue his motor racing career. Initially Jones earned a living selling VW camper fans in what he calls “Kangaroo Valley” – London’s Earl’s Court, to “poor unsuspecting Kiwis and Aussies”.
With dogged determination he went after a place in F1. He had his first drive with Hesketh in Spain in 1975 and was hugely impressive in returning a win from 14th on the grid for the Shadow team at the Österreichring in 1978.
“Because I was going well in a Shadow, people were saying: ‘Look at Jonesy, he’s doing well in that old shitbox, isn’t he?,” he later recalled. A drive with Ferrari almost materialised but when the Scuderia opted for Gilles Villeneuve, Jones went to Williams.
He, team founder Frank Williams and designer Patrick Head made a formidable, close-knit lineup. In 1980 Williams and Jones emerged triumphant after a strong fight with Nelson Piquet in the Brabham. Jones has retained close ties with Williams ever since and still has great fondness for the team.
They have just endured their worst two seasons, last in both years, in their 42-year history but Jones, who spent time with the team in the paddock in Melbourne was confident they would come back. He was particularly dismissive of the criticism that deputy team principal, Claire Williams, Frank’s daughter has received.
“Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon blaming Claire which is terribly unfair,” he says. “It is easy pickings for them because she is female which is very, very unfair. She is doing a good job and they will come good.”
Jones is sure the Australian Grand Prix will return next year stronger than ever, at which he intends to renew the very personal attachment he has with the team where he made his name forty years ago.
“For Williams, from being no-ones and I mean that, to being a front-running F1 team is an extraordinary feat,” he says. “I hope to Christ they do come good because that’s my family.”