Over the course of its forty-year history, the Williams team has taken some of the biggest names in Formula One to the heights of world title glory. As part of our Williams Week celebrations, James Matthews looks back through the career of their very first champion—the inimitable, no-quarter Australian, Alan Jones.
Despite the success that was to come, Jones’ racing career didn’t get off to the most fortuitous of starts. After following in the motorsport footsteps of his father, Stan Jones, by racing Minis and Coopers in his native Australia, Jones made the bold decision to leave home in 1967 and try his luck on the European circuit.
But almost immediately, Jones found he had severely underestimated the financial realities of racing in Europe. His talent and tenacity was rarely in question, but without a major backer that counted for little, and by 1974 his dream looked to be over before it had even begun—until, that is, a chance meeting in the Formula Atlantic paddock with former racer and privateer team owner Harry Stiller. Here at last was the lifeline Jones so sorely needed: impressed by what the Australian could do on track, Stiller purchased a Hesketh 308 and arranged for Jones to make his Formula One debut in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
Once into F1, Jones’ career truly began to take off. Moving away from Stiller’s privateer outfit, he put in points-scoring performances for both the Hill and Surtees teams and established himself as a figure admired for both his hustling inside the cockpit and laid-back personality outside of it; it was during this time that he also became a close friend of James Hunt, who gave Jones the nickname “Big Al”.
His breakthrough season came in 1977, when the tragic death of Tom Pryce in that year’s South African Grand Prix led to an opening at the Shadow team. Despite the ominous circumstances surrounding it, Jones grasped the opportunity with both hands and used it to make his mark on the sport, by turning a points-capable car into a leftfield winner at the wet-dry Austrian Grand Prix—a victory so unexpected that the organisers didn’t even have the Australian national anthem to play during the podium ceremony.
With a maiden Grand Prix win under his belt, Jones was now firmly in the spotlight for the 1978 season, and shortly after leaving the Österreichring he received an invitation to Italy to discuss driving for none other than Enzo Ferrari himself.
In the end, however, Jones’ Ferrari dream became another of F1’s “what if?” moments. The Scuderia opted instead for Gilles Villeneuve, and Jones turned to his old friend Frank Williams, who was looking for a top driver to energise his fledgling eponymous team; after meeting in secret beside a motorway near Didcot, the pair agreed to join forces for the ’78 season.
The partnership was a winning one from the start. Together with Williams’ guidance and Patrick Head’s designs, Jones was able to deliver the Williams team’s first podium at the 1978 US Grand Prix, before going better again to take four wins in the following year’s FW07.
In 1980, Jones found himself at the very top of the field for the first time in his F1 career. His first outings in the FW07B yielded a win in Argentina and a third place in Brazil, followed by another two wins and four further podiums across the eight-race European leg—indeed, such was the pace of the Williams that Jones never completed a race that year in any position lower than third.
The season quickly became known for the intense title contest between Jones and future Williams champion Nelson Piquet, and when the two lined up together on the front row at the penultimate round in Canada they were separated by just a single point in the Brazilian’s favour.
Considering the title that was on the line the race began in suitably dramatic fashion, as Jones and Piquet made contact off the line and triggered a pileup at the first corner. Both men were able to restart the race, but the Cosworth engine in Piquet’s spare car was still tuned to qualifying specification and was as fragile as it was fast—after twenty-three laps it blew up, gifting Jones the lead of the race and ultimately the championship.
With his triumph in 1980, Alan Jones became the first Australian driver to win the F1 title since Jack Brabham, and together with his teammate Carlos Reutemann helped Frank Williams’ team to the first of its nine Constructors’ Championships.
The following year Jones returned with Williams to defend his title and again began the season with a win. But between a renewed Nelson Piquet and the fractious intra-team conflict with Reutemann, Jones could manage only one more victory in 1981 and conceded the title by four points to Piquet.
At the end of 1981 Jones announced his departure from both Williams and Formula One. In ’82 he returned home to dominate the Australian GT championship in a Porsche 935, and in ’84 finished in sixth place at Le Mans and fourth at Bathurst; the following year, a one-off return to single seaters saw him make the podium substituting for Mario Andretti in the ’85 Wisconsin Champ Car race.
But although Jones would also revisit the F1 grid multiple times following his first retirement, first with Arrows and then the ill-fated Haas Lola squad, he was to add only four more points to a career that included twelve Grand Prix victories, six pole positions and the 1980 World Championship.
The achievements of Alan Jones may always suffer from being seen in the shadow of his successors—the superstars of the ‘80s, Piquet, Prost, Senna and Mansell. But whilst he may not match their tallies of wins and titles, Jones’ 1980 championship remains as integral a part of the Williams story as any of those that followed—for if nothing else, Alan Jones will always be their first.
James Matthews, Editor-at-Large