1980 Formula 1 world champion Alan Jones has revealed in a new autobiography that he was paid to fake illness and miss the 1985 South African Grand Prix in order to avoid sparking controversy with chief sponsor Beatrice.
The 1985 grand prix at Kyalami was staged in the height of apartheid in South Africa, prompting a number of manufacturers and teams to boycott the race in protest. Jones raced for Haas Lola at the time, the team enjoying backing from American company Beatrice Foods.
“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,” Jones wrote in an extract of his autobiography published by news.com.au.
“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.”
The solution? An idea thought up by F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone in the days leading up to the race.
“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,'” Jones wrote.
“‘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.’
“‘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,’ [Ecclestone said].
“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).
“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.”
Minus Jones, the race went ahead with 20 races, with Nigel Mansell leading Williams to a one-two finish.
F1 did not return to South Africa until the end of apartheid, the next grand prix taking place at Kyalami in 1992.