‘They have to establish a game plan’

Being on same team doesn’t make the other driver your mate, as the recent brouhaha between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso showed. Alan Jones, a former world champion, had a similar problem and says the two have to come to an arrangement. By Maurice Hamilton.

Alan Jones, the 1980 world champion, is from another era of motor racing but, in some respects, very little has changed. Jones had Carlos Reutemann as his team-mate at Williams. They were chalk and cheese: Reutemann, a sensitive, graceful artist from Argentina; Jones, a no-nonsense, hard-working Aussie with little time for other drivers — particularly those from South America.

In the second race of the 1981 season, run in pouring rain in Brazil, Reutemann ignored a pre-arranged deal by winning at Jones’s expense. Jones said nothing, shook hands with Reutemann and immediately walked off the podium. In the final race, Jones humiliated Reutemann with a brilliant victory on a day when Reutemann had tried in vain to beat Brabham’s Nelson Piquet to the championship. Sympathy from Jones was not in evidence. Had Jones not suffered an identical mechanical problem while leading in Monaco and Germany, he would have won back-to-back titles. Reutemann would never again come so close to winning the championship.

If Jones disliked Reutemann, he positively loathed Piquet, the championship rival he had defeated the previous year. During the course of their struggle, the two collided during the Belgian Grand Prix, Piquet ending his race against the crash barrier. The Brazilian stomped back to the pits in a towering rage and told the world that he would “put Jones over the wall” if he did that again.

A fortnight later, Piquet would have cause to regret those words as he led the Monaco Grand Prix with the Williams of Jones glued to his gearbox. Noting the increasingly ragged progress of the Brabham, Jones played cat and mouse, dropping back briefly only to charge back on to Piquet’s tail and unsettle the Brazilian just when he thought he was free of the Australian menace. The pressure eventually told, Piquet crashing spectacularly as he panicked while trying to pass a back-marker.

Not long after, Jones would prove that he could be even-handed — but only if respect was mutual. With four laps remaining, an engine misfire dropped the leading Williams into the clutches of Gilles Villeneuve’s cumbersome Ferrari. Jones left just enough room if Villeneuve wished to take a chance and squeeze past on the narrow circuit. The Ferrari driver did not need a second invitation.

It was payback for Villeneuve. Earlier in the race, the Ferrari had been ahead, but Villeneuve, realising his brakes would not take the punishment if he tried to keep the Williams at bay, had given Jones half a chance to overtake. “I was much quicker and Villeneuve knew he couldn’t keep me behind for ever because of the state of his brakes,” says Jones. “So he left me a small gap. I got through and went after Piquet. When I had my problem later on, I repaid the favour. If I couldn’t win, I was glad he did.”

There is very little chance of the McLaren drivers helping each other out during the remaining six races in 2007. Jones enjoyed commentating on the conflict within McLaren in Hungary in his regular role with Australian television. “I loved it,” says Jones. “It’s good for business. We are talking about highly individualistic characters who are being paid a lot of money and who are very, very talented. To expect that type of person, regardless of what industry they’re in, to completely toe the line and become puppets is a joke.

“Given that Hamilton was supposed to let Alonso through during qualifying, the only thing that surprised me about Alonso’s delaying tactics in the pits was that he didn’t pretend to stall the car. Then they couldn’t have done a bloody thing to him. If he had stalled it, by the time they had got the starter attached and got him going again, it would have equated to the same amount of time lost. These guys are just not thinking quickly enough.”

Such a stunt would have gained the approval of Frank Williams and his technical director, Patrick Head, as the trio grew up together in F1 terms, Jones fitting in perfectly with the down-to-earth manner of the team.

“Alan was our kind of bloke,” says Head. “Very pragmatic, no big traumas and it was difficult to get him angry. When we were developing the car, he would give you the problems in the order of their importance. He could communicate and it was a good working relationship.” Some would say that, 27 years on, Williams and Head are still searching for another driver of Jones’s calibre.

When Jones drove for Frank Williams, he remained fiercely independent yet maintained respect for the wishes of his boss. Jones feels it is essential for Ron Dennis to regain some form of control at McLaren. “If you are operating a multi-million dollar operation and you’re going for the world championship, then if you are the boss, you are entitled to call the shots. Ron has got to get his drivers back into some sort of order. You can’t just go on for the rest of the season with all this going on.

“You have these highly talented guys and, while they will want to do their own thing and not become puppets, there has to be some sort of arrangement. They might agree that there is no arrangement — if you know what I mean — but they have to sit down and establish a game plan. It’s like cricket. The captain will instruct his guys to do something for the betterment of that team and for the end result, which is victory. That is not doing anything for the benefit of one individual; it’s for the benefit of that team winning.”

Jones agrees that Alonso underestimated Hamilton’s potential before the season started. “I think Alonso, quite rightly, thought he was going to go to McLaren and be the senior partner in the firm. Being a double world champion, he probably thought he should get a bit more attention than he feels he is getting. This young kid has come in and to all intents and purposes, blown him away — and Alonso doesn’t like it. Fair enough. Neither would I.

“The first guy you’ve got to beat in F1 is your team-mate. I’d be applying all sorts of tricks, psychological or otherwise. By doing what he did in the pit lane, Alonso might have taught Hamilton a bit of a lesson. Hamilton needs to remember that he is leading the championship and he might require Alonso’s help later on. If I were Alonso, I’d go to Hamilton and say, ‘Right mate, all bets are off. Every man for himself. If you don’t want to play the game, this is what we can do.’ Then I’d say: ‘Mate, you’re leading the championship. If you’d like me to bugger that up for you a bit more, you keep going...’”

Jones says he has every sympathy with McLaren mechanics who perhaps feel hard done by over earnings lost through no fault of their own. “I don’t blame them if they feel pissed off,” says Jones. “They will be looking at two guys earning millions of dollars and yet they’re playing games affecting thousands of dollars for team members. I’m not sure why the FIA got involved — but they did, and this was the result. It comes back to everyone working as a team.”

Jones is experiencing the other end of the spectrum in his management role with the A1GP series, which begins the 2007-08 championship in the Netherlands on September 30 and finishes at Brands Hatch on May 4. “I’m really looking forward to the new season,” he says. “We’ve just got a new engineer, Rob Arnott, on board and he was responsible for turning the Chinese team around. They were down the back with us and suddenly they were on the third row and I think Rob was very much responsible for that. That has been our big weakness and I’m hoping he can sort that out for us.

“The series has had an injection of capital and we now have sufficient funding. The great thing about A1GP is that it has drawn in countries — Lebanon, Pakistan, India, for example — that previously had very little involvement in motorsport. The interest is genuine and the atmosphere fantastic. We had a Portuguese team turn up in Durban. They hadn’t done much racing and we lent them equipment — we even did their pit stops for them. You wouldn’t get that in F1.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007