Former F1 World champion AUSTRALIAN Alan Jones reveals a never-before told story about an unusual experience while in South Africa in his new biography, AJ: How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One.
SOUTH Africa was an awkward weekend. Renault and Ligier were encouraged by the French government not to race there as a protest at apartheid, and other teams tried to get the race cancelled, but it was going ahead regardless. So we fronted up there to race. All around the world the politics around South Africa was getting interesting.
Beatrice was a huge company that not many people knew much about. I think they were trying to raise awareness that it did more than just ice cream, which is how it began operations a century earlier. In my time there it had brands like Danone yoghurt, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Tropicana orange juice and even businesses like Avis hire cars, and it was privately held. They also had manufacturing and operations in South Africa — which you could do when you weren’t on the stock market — so when we went there it was a big deal for them.
During the Friday I was summoned to see Bernie Ecclestone in his penthouse. Not sure what I had done this time, I fronted up. As I went in the door Bernie said, “How do you feel?” Standard greeting, although he had a look in his eye, I gave him a standard reply, “Pretty good, thanks.”
“What do you think your chances are of winning the race tomorrow?” he asked.
Again, I felt no need to be subtle: “Bernie, I think you know the answer to that question. If I start now, probably pretty good.”
“Well, I’ve got a bit of an idea. If you pull up sick and can’t run again this weekend, we’ll give you first-place prize money. Go home and visit Australia.”
The background was that US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson had said that if a Beatrice car raced in South Africa he was going to get all of the black workers — thousands of them — at Beatrice around the US to go on strike. Beatrice couldn’t be seen to be backing down to an individual like him, but if they didn’t back down there was a chance of the strike.
So Bernie came up with an idea. “If the driver falls crook and can’t drive, then the Beatrice car doesn’t race. It’s a force majeure. Jesse Jackson can’t get on his soapbox and say, ‘I forced that company to withdraw,’ and he also couldn’t call a strike because the car didn’t race.”
The idea was that I would wait until Saturday morning when everyone went to the circuit. I would quietly check out, and jump on a plane to Harare to get home (because Qantas wouldn’t fly to South Africa).
This could not afford to leak at all. I’m pretty sure only Teddy and Carl knew from inside the team. I could not tell the mechanics or anybody.
And so, on the Saturday morning I was gone. I just didn’t turn up. They had the car out ready to go, when they were told, “AJ’s been struck down by a virus and we are not racing.”
I made a miraculous recovery for the Australian Grand Prix, which was just as well.