The once inseparable combination of Jones and Williams has always been a bit of a mutual admiration society. Alan is, and remains, a favourite son of the British team, and if their years together were all too short, they will certainly never be forgotten. Nevertheless, as Alan reflects from his sun-drenched home in Queensland’s tropical Gold Coast, occasionally there was a bit of a blue…
It is seven years since Alan finally cut the ties with Europe and Formula One to return home for good. Today, he has found new enthusiasm for touring car racing, with 1993 his best-ever season as he and his team mate Glenn Seton have carried off a string of title races with their Ford Falcon V8s on their way to finishing 1-2 in the Australian national championship. When he’s not racing his ‘tourer,’ Alan is the proud but stringent mentor of the karting career of his son Christian, a 14 year old chip off the block.
‘The period between 1978 and 1981 was the most enjoyable and the most productive of my whole life,’ concedes Alan in a rare moment of introspection. ‘And yes, I DID retire too early.’
Never one for sentimentality or backward glances, Alan is now a sturdy 16 years old with more than a hint of silver at the temple. But when he get wound up, he is just as hard to stop as ever if the conversation is turned to the Williams team and its two guiding lights Frank Williams and Patrick Head.
Alan retired twice from the sport, and he admits that his first ‘retirement’, at the end of the 1981 season, came at the peak of his powers, at a time when he still had plenty of racing left in him. Indeed, he concedes that although his boss may not have known about it at the time, Frank very nearly succeeded in retaining his services.
‘Looking back, the big mistake that Frank made was getting me to back to England after the Grand Prix of 1981 at Las Vegas – which I won, incidentally – in order to test his new six-wheeled car. I am sure that he was convinced that once I had driven the car, I would be convinced about it being unbeatable and that I would be signing up with him for another year.
‘Well, I had been home to Australia before Las Vegas. I had just had a taste of a home summer – and at Donnington it was freezing cold. It was so bad that I even had to pour hot water on the key lock of my borrowed Jaguar to get the bloody door open.
‘After 12 years of English winters I had had enough. Deep down inside I really felt that I needed a rest and a break from all this. I think now that if Frank had allowed me to go straight home to Australia for a while he would probably have got me back on his team. Though he tried many times, my mind was made up.’
So ended the first great period of Williams history. Throughout those four fabulous years, Alan recalls very few cross words either with Frank or Patrick. But he does admit that there were some interesting conversations about subjects close to both men’s hearts – mostly money.
‘Frank always reckoned that I was a tight arse, someone who was only interested in motor racing or money. At the time he was right! Once, during a test a Ricard, when I asked for more padding in the seat, he suggested I should sit on my wallet, I replied that first I would need him to put something in it.
‘I think Frank may have still been resentful about what happened at the end of 1980. When I won the title in Montreal in September we were still working out a deal, and Frank was under the impression that we had definitely agreed something. But I had not signed a thing. The Alfa Romeo people had started talking to me, offering plenty of money for 1981, and Frank had been forced to up the ante.
‘Once we had done the deal, though, that was it. I went straight out and won the first race of 1981 at Long Beach. I believe I drove as hard that day as I ever have.’
The Long Beach performance, says Alan, typified the level of motivation which he was inspired to produce in the harmonious atmosphere which reigned as Williams. ‘Every time I put my bum in a Williams, whether it was racing or just a test,’ he recalls, ‘I gave 110 per cent. Nothing less was expected of me, and in any case I had a slave driver Patrick Head looking over my shoulder.
‘One incident which I remember was scraping the wall in the warm-up on race morning. Having got into a bit of a rear end slide, I’d just caught it in time. But then Patrick got up me, saying that it was ridiculous to drive like that.
After the race I was the first to point out to Patrick that there wasn’t so much as a scratch on the rear wheel. He called me a bastard and we had a good laugh.
‘Of course, that was Patrick getting hyped up and ready for the race. It was one of the reasons why we had such a good understanding, and I respect him enormously for it. He is fiercely competitive – just like me in a lot of ways – and he can also spit the dummy when he wants to, like I have done. As an engineer, he mixes cleverness with practicality. He is just plain down to earth. There is none of the mad scientist in Patrick Head.
‘This may sound difficult to believe, but Patrick and I got to the stage where we both almost knew what I would say about the chassis set-up. In fact we could even change the car just before the race, and it would be perfect. I would arrive on the grid, tell Patrick what I though, and then he would adjust the wing or whatever – and that would be it.’
Alan also recalls letting off steam to Frank, though. It happened during a qualifying session in Belgium when Carlos Reutemann, Alan’s team mate, had broken a valve spring on his own car and was lapping in the spare. After having to stand around waiting for the spare to become available, Alan was probably in exactly the right mood to take pole position, which, of course, is exactly what he did…
More recently, though it has hardly dimmed his admiration for Frank, Alan did not appreciate some suggestions by his former boss that he ‘threw away’ some races in 1981. ‘Frank seems to think that I never took racing seriously again in 1981 as I had done previously, and that I threw the car down the road more often than I should. I believe I drover harder and better in 1981 than in 1980, and it hurt me a little to read Frank’s comments.
‘Sure, I broke my finger in a blue in London and had to driver with it hurting like hell at Monza and Montreal. To have got involved in something like that was probably irresponsible. But remember, it had not been a good year. By that time I had pretty much decided to call it quits and go home at the end of the season anyway.
‘I also remember driving my balls off earlier in the season at Monaco and Hockenheim, leading both races by at least 10 seconds and being let down by a silly engineering fault. Things like that are a fact of life, and I’m not pointing the finger at Patrick at all. But after driving as hard, by the time Monza came around it seemed it had been for nothing, in terms of the championship.
If there was one key ingredient in the Williams successes of that era, Alan believes it was Frank’s ability to keep him motivated. ‘Frank had the ability to extract the best from me,’ he asserts, ‘just the opposite from other team managers. When the driver is not quick enough, he is the first to know. He doesn’t need to read the time sheets and he doesn’t need the manager to tell him.
‘Frank was always prepared to listen to me and to back my judgements. He would ask, “What can the team do to be faster?.” That instilled confidence in me. He took the view that since he was paying a driver a huge amount of money it made sense to trust him. He knew he would be a fool not to listen, then to analyse things and decide on the best course of action.
‘One incident I remember was at Watkins Glen, New York, one week after I had won the championship in 1980. I thought my engine was down on power, and I said so. Now some team managers would say, “well, the dyno figures look OK.” But Frank said, “right we’ll change the engine.” Now that was a big call and a big job for the boys to get the engine changed. But the new motor was definitely better – and I won the race.’
These are lessons, too, in the Williams approach to doing business in Formula One which Alan believes made Frank Williams the most single-minded person he ever met in motorsport. His dogged pursuit of commercial success, particularly in his ground-breaking introduction of Saudi-Arabian sponsorship to Formula One, is a prime example.
‘Frank had a tenacity, an attitude to racing that was amazing. He couldn’t get enough of it, endlessly analysing the business and technical matters. For myself, I couldn’t wait to get away from it, to have a beer and talk about something else. Meanwhile, Frank would be away in Jeddah or wherever, sometimes flying in for a meeting on Monday which people would not show up for until five or six days later.
It was one of those relationships which flowered into the association with Techniques D’Avant Garde (TAG) and a relationship with TAG’s two directors that Alan cherishes to this day. TAG’s Formula One involvement rode on the back of the enthusiasm and enterprise of Mansour and Aziz Ojjeh, the Franco-Saudi brothers whose family owned it.
‘Mansour and Aziz were young, they loved life and our business association developed into a real friendship,’ he recalls: ‘I still value that a hell of a lot.’ On his day, when he wasn’t becoming world champion, Alan was a fair hand at a good party. He readily admits that there were some memorable celebrations.
‘Take the day I won the title at Montreal in 1980,’ he suggests. ‘The race finished, I guess, about 3.40pm and by 7.30pm that night we were in the best hotel in town with a band, a huge cake and even framed pictures of the afternoon’s race on the walls. My memory is a bit vague after about 10 o’clock that night. I think I was lapsing into a coma. I do know that I had a shocking headache on Monday morning, when Mansour let me use the TAG’s Lear jet, including pilots and fuel card, to do whatever I liked before going to Watkins Glen for the following Sunday’s race.
‘Once on board we were told that sandwiches and champagne were being made available. I actually felt quite ill. In fact, I seem to remember spending quite a lot of time on oxygen. After that it was a couple of days spent playing golf and relaxing. When the race was done, it was back in the jet for the flight to JFK, where we taxied right up to the stand where Concorde was waiting, and I jumped aboard to go to London.’
Some of the other TAG stories still sound like fairytales. ‘Once after the Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring, Mansour invited me to have dinner with him. To me that sounded like a quick run down to the local Chinese take-away in the car. But next minute we were on our way to Graz airport in a helicopter, then it was on to the private 707 and down to Nice for dinner at Mansour’s mother’s place.
‘It was the full treatment, yet Mansour had apologised in advance because I would have to stay in the pool house. Now I wasn’t naive enough to be expecting a shack. But I certainly didn’t expect the two-story villa, complete with room service and security! What can I say? This was a time when I had a competitive car to race, a fabulous team and great sponsors.’
Those days certainly contract with the period in 1985/1986 when Alan made a Formula One comeback with the Beatrice-Hass Lola-Ford squad.
‘I was told there would be mega-bucks, and there was. I Was told there would be an all-new turbo-Ford engine, and there was, albeit about 16 months late. The team boss was Teddy Mayer, and when I told him the car was off the pace I will never forget him asking me if I was flat through corner X or being sure to take corner Y in fifth gear. Very quickly I found myself saying, “come back, Frank, all is forgiven.”
‘When I signed for Frank I may not have been his first choice of driver. Maybe Keke Rosberg, who followed me in 1982, wasn’t his first choice, either. But inevitably when Frank wants something and someone, he always gets them in the end – and that included the Renault engine deal, for example.’
Alan has a few entertaining, not to mention harsh, words for some of the great and good drivers who succeeded him. But the affection and esteem in which he holds his friend and former team boss oozes out of the conversation. How appropriate that this tough and uncompromising world champion should himself have insisted on the five words which appear as the title of this article.
To get up (v. Trans.): to reproach
A blue (n. Colloquial): a fight, usually in public.
Canon Williams, The Official 1993 Review magazine