Former Formula 1 world champion Alan Jones has confirmed that Bernie Ecclestone once paid him to take a sick day rather than race.
There have long been rumours about why Jones missed the 1985 South African Grand Prix while competing with Lola-Hart. He qualified in 18th place at the Kyalami Circuit but failed to start the race.
In his autobiography How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One, he recalls being summoned to Ecclestone’s penthouse on Friday evening.
“Not sure what I had done this time, I fronted up. As I went in the door Bernie said, ‘How do you feel?’,” he recalls.
“What do you think your chances are of winning the race tomorrow?’ Ecclestone had then asked. Jones replied: “If I start now, probably pretty good.”
According to Jones, Ecclestone then continued: “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.”
Jones took the hint and checked out of the hotel the next morning to fly home. Only team boss Carl Haas and team manager Teddy Mayer were aware of the arrangement. The rest of the squad were told that Jones had been laid out by a virus, meaning the car did not participate in the race.
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The background to the incident was the world wide political storm at the time about apartheid in South Africa. Teams, drivers and sponsors were all under pressure to boycott the race. French teams Ligier and Renault both pulled out in accordance with the wishes of the French government.
Jones’ team was in a more difficult situation, Lola-Hart being part-owned by global manufacturer Beatrice Foods. US civil rights activist Jessie Jackson threatened to organise strike action by African-Americans working at Beatrice if the team didn’t pull out. But neither the company nor Ecclestone wished to be seen to give in to political pressure.
“So Bernie came up with an idea,” Jones writes. “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.”
After that event, South Africa was left off the Formula 1 calendar for the next six years. Two more Grands Prix were eventually held at Kyalami post-apartheid in 1992 and 1993, won respectively by Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost.
Fortunately, Alan Jones quickly recovered from his ‘virus’. He was back in action two weeks later for his home race in Adelaide, the final Grand Prix of the year.
“I made a miraculous recovery for the Australian Grand Prix, which was just as well,” he recalls.
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