On the comeback trail: The Lazarus blog part 1

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote anything on here, or at all really. Realising this on a meander through my various online clutter has made me quite sad, and fired me up to get back on the horse and blogging again for a new stint of posts! First up, in light of my own comeback, some of F1’s own Lazarus moments, for better or worse. Part 1 covers a late-career comeback that didn’t go too well…

Alan Jones – under pressure.

Alan Jones was the kind of rough-and-ready drive-anything-anywhere character borne of the 70’s DIY attitude to F1. He made his own breakthrough in F1 whilst making a whole team’s breakthrough at Williams and though he was unlucky not to be their first ever winner, that going to his teammate Clay Regazzoni at the 1979 British Grand Prix after Jones had retired from the race, he did kickstart a motorsport epoch for the team by winning their first world title the following year in 1980. An unsuccessful yet valiant quest for a second in 1981 saw him retire at the end of the season. A one-off appearance for Arrows in the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1983 saw him exit the race 58 laps suffering from fatigue, a consequence of the more relaxed lifestyle the already stocky Aussie had been enjoying after leaving F1 initially. He pursued more leisurely motorsport events, competing in domestic GT racing and entering a few races of the Australian Drivers Championship driving an Formula Atlantic-spec Ralt RT4, as well as 6th place finish in the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours. He was keeping him busy, but not to the extent that he was going to have to the year after…

American racing team owner Carl Haas and ex-McLaren boss Teddy Mayer had come together to plan an American assault on Formula 1, something that had been missing since Parnelli Jones and Roger Penske’s teams of the mid-70’s. In conjunction with Beatrice Foods as title sponsor, and with Ford developing bespoke Turbo power units to take on the might of Honda, TAG-Porsche, Ferrari and Renault, things were looking reasonably serious. Haas’ design company FORCE built the THL1 cars, designed by Neil Oatley with engineering assistance from others including one Ross Brawn. The cars would be entered however as Lola’s given Haas’ position as chief American importer for the chassismaker, despite their lack of involvement in the engineering project itself.

All that was needed now was a driver. One car would be ready for the 12th round of the 1985 championship at Monza, and it would be piloted by a now 39 year old Alan Jones. The Ford Turbo V6’s were still not ready, so Haas bought some of Brian Hart’s inline 4-cylinders for use until the works engines were available. A setback but to Monza they went nonetheless. Alan was not in his prime any more, and with a car that was still in it’s early development stages he could only put the Lola 25th on the 26-car grid, 9.8 seconds away from polesitter Ayrton Senna’s Lotus (although the times were set on differing days, Jones being a mere 7.8 seconds away on the same day). The car only lasted 6 laps of the race before the engine drew it’s last turbocharged breath. The team had to skip the next round in Belgium as it was a re-arranged race from earlier in the season when the tarmac was breaking up at the Spa circuit, and as they were not on that initial entry list they couldn’t race.

The Hart inline-4 sits behind Alan Jones in the 1985 Haas THL1 whilst they waited for Cosworth to finish the Turbo V6.

The car reappeared at the next round, the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. Most British fans know that this is the same race where Nigel Mansell won his very first Grand Prix in a barnstorming performance in front of his adoring home crowd. However, things were not going so well for the chaps down at Haas-Lola. An improved qualifying performance, though still 6 seconds off pole on a relatively short, if still daunting and a test of a car’s mettle, Brands Hatch circuit put Jones 22nd and just one place behind a fellow returnee in John Watson, substituting for an absent Niki Lauda at McLaren and also being shocked at how the pace of modern F1 had rather left him behind. Their fortunes rather differed in the race, as Jones was again forced to retire early, this time 13 laps in with a broken radiator, whilst Watson recovered from a poor qualifying to finish a respectable 7th, 3 places behind his teammate Alain Prost.

Next up was the contentious race at Kyalami in South Africa. FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre had announced earlier in the year that the race was indeed going ahead despite calls for it to be boycotted due to the Apartheid issues in the country at the time. Haas-Lola turned up with the THL1, but under pressure from the French government, who had boycotted and sanctioned the Apartheid state in South Africa, Ligier and Renault did not make an appearance. Many drivers were unsure of racing at Kyalami, including title challenger Alain Prost, but all did due to contractual obligation, despite many national governments putting pressure on their drivers not to. Jones’ qualifying was again slightly more competitive than the last, putting his car 18th just behind Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell and not far off the fellow Hart-engined Toleman of Piercarlo Ghinzani. Jones and the car were not to start the race though, officially citing Jones feeling unwell enough not to be able to race, but rumours abounded that the team had elected to boycott the Grand Prix after deciding they were not happy to race in South Africa. 3 races in, and only 19 racing laps completed for the Haas-Lola boys and their ex-World Champion driver. Things were not looking good.

However, the next and final race of the 1985 season was to be a relatively happy one for proud Aussie Jones, as his home country hosted a World Championship Grand Prix for the very first time, at a street circuit in Adelaide. An important event for himself as well, being his 100th Grand Prix, Alan was the first driver to get out onto the track as well, a great moment for him and his countrymen who flocked to the circuit in their thousands. Qualifying was again an improvement, a 19th place start being validated by a laptime just 4.5 seconds off the dancing Lotus of Senna, who had put a time in that was 2 seconds faster than 3rd place Rosberg, only Mansell in the other Williams being able to get anywhere near the mesmerising Brazilian. Being only 2 seconds off the majority of the field was a boon for Jones, and he drove a measured but ignited race to reach 6th place on lap 20 before true to form the car failed him, letting Jones and the passionate Aussie crowd down with an electrical fault. It was hard to take anything truly positive from the 4 races they had competed in, but with the promise of works Ford units to come, and the improving pace of the car, hope sprang eternal for the next season.

Development was going ahead on a revised version of the FORCE chassis, with the hope that the Ford engines would be finally ready for use in 1986. The team was also expanding to a full two-car assault, with Patrick Tambay slotting in alongside Jones having lost his seat at Renault due to the team closing, having fallen behind in the Turbo revolution despite starting it just 8 years previously. Cosworth had fallen behind in development of the Ford engines, and they were again delayed for the start of the season, meaning the Hart units had to be dragged out again for the first race in Brazil. Despite this further setback, the cars were back on the promising pace of the previous season’s end, with Tambay putting his car in a improbable 13th and Jones in 19th, perhaps starting to show signs that Formula 1 might just be passing him by. Neither car would make the race finish, Jones’ car calling it quits after just 5 laps with a fuel injector fault, and Tambay’s expiring 19 laps later with battery issues. Normal service had been resumed but with double the trouble.

Jerez was next, and whilst Mansell and Senna duked it out to a nailbiting 0.014secs difference at the finish, one THL1 made the finish! It was not Jones’ however, and whilst Tambay did drag his car round to a creditable 8th place, he was the last car running and 6 laps down on the epic battle upfront. Alan did not suffer any reliability issues this time round though, instead being caught up in a first lap collision with Jonathan Palmer’s Zakspeed. Alas, onto pastures new, and Imola for the third round, where Jones would be the recipient of a brand-new THL2 with the Ford V6 sat behind him. Tambay was stuck with the old Hart-engined car, but still managed to qualify 10 places ahead of Jones in 11th. That the team was now getting some speed out of the old car whilst he was having to bed in the new one must’ve been jarring for Jones, but as Tambay could only rack up 5 laps before his engine expired Alan would get to lap 28 before his new car decided enough was enough and overheated. Alan was yet to finish a race for Haas-Lola, or even reach halfway! Jones had commented fairly on the new chassis, saying it’s handling was a big improvement on the old car, but also mentioned that he felt the Ford engine was way down on power compared to the others. At Monaco, Tambay too received a new THL2 and put it 8th on the grid, with Jones again 10 places back on his teammate in 18th. Jones retired embarrassingly just two laps in, falling victim to Monte Carlo’s penchant for marrying armco with F1 cars. Tambay was having a stormer in the second car, running well and racing with Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell before coming together in a big accident at Mirabeau just 11 laps from the finish, where the Haas-Lola flipped over the Tyrrell and nearly fell over the armco to the Portier corner some 30 feet below! The Frenchman was luckily unhurt and walked from the wrecked car shaken but not stirred.

Jones practising in Monaco 1986. His race would only last 2 laps, though he was spared the more spectacular exit from the race made by his teammate Tambay.

Qualifying was not going well for Jones, Tambay having had the measure of him quite substantially all season, and that pattern continued into Belgium. However, come race day, Jones’ car only fell 3 laps short of completing the race, falling foul to an empty fuel tank, something that was common in the turbo days where drivers were in control of the engine’s boost with little information as to how much petrol they were using. Tambay didn’t complete a single lap in either Spa or Canada, having a first lap accident in the first and a bigger one in morning warmup in Montreal, meaning his car was too damaged to take the start, plus some nasty injuries that were to keep him out of the car for the next round. Jones however finally finished a Grand Prix in the Lola, finishing 10th of 12 finishers and 3 laps down on Nigel Mansell’s Williams FW11. Progress had eventually been made, on both the car and engine fronts, however the onset of summer had seen a management change at title sponsor Beatrice, and the deal was cancelled, leaving Ford as the sole backer of the team for the rest of the season. It may have been an odd introduction, but Ford technically had a defacto works outfit in F1 for the first time, at least since the launch of the DFV-powered Lotus 49.

The circus moved onto Mo’town and with it came a temporary replacement for the stricken Tambay. Carl Haas had tried to get rising Indycar star, and son of Mario, Michael Andretti, but couldn’t manage to get the necessary Superlicence due to an apparent feud between Bernie Ecclestone, FISA and the CART sanctioning body for Indy racing. Another American, Eddie Cheever, himself an ex-Renault driver like Tambay, stepped in to drive the second THL2 round the streets of Detroit. The rigours of a full-time return to F1 racing were definitely starting to show for Alan Jones, who again was significantly outqualified by his new one-off teammate, only managing 21st on the grid to Cheever’s promising 10th. What was a return to form was the team’s reliability woes, which manifested itself this time in broken steering for both cars, causing each to retire within just 4 laps of each other, Cheever making 37 laps to Jones’ 33. 11 races into the team’s existence and they had only had a car reach the finish 3 times, never having two finish one race. It wasn’t necessarily one main issue either, as the car seemed to suffer from a new race-ending woe each week. Teething troubles are to be expected in new cars from new teams, but this was below average reliability even for the famously fragile cars of the Turbo era. For someone of Alan Jones’ success and reputation, being a genuine backmarker, alongside the recalcitrant cars of Minardi, Osella and Zakspeed can’t have been either enjoyable or dignifying. Nevertheless, to Paul Ricard and the French Grand Prix, and the return of Jones’ teammate Tambay.

Paul Ricard was and is very much a power circuit, with the long Mistral straight and the high-speed Signes corner being a real test of the muscle in your car. With the Ford engine still not being completely up to scratch the two Lola’s couldn’t pull much out of the bag in qualifying, Tambay returning to the car with his normal speed and placing the car 13th and Jones sticking his in his now usual area of 20th place. Getting used to starting in any part of the grid is dull if it’s not pole position, but having Sandro Nannini’s Motori Moderni-powered Minardi lining up ahead of the works Ford engined Lola of Jones was indicative of big problems for the Haas team. Jones spared the car any reliability blushes by crashing on lap 2, whilst Tambay pulled his usual ‘trick’ of dragging the car to within sight of the end before the brakes gave up on lap 64, 16 laps short of the finish. Again, a Lola-Ford mechanical issue and again a new one to others gone before.

The British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch was significant for a number of reasons. Frank Williams was back in the pits for the first time since his car accident which had left him paralysed, Jacques Laffite’s distinguished career ended sadly when he broke both his legs in an accident at the start of the race, and Alan Jones outqualified his teammate for only the third time in the season. Tambay continued his form and had a decent race until the car’s gearbox went bust on lap 60, again within 15 laps of the finish. Jones managing to get round 22 laps of the Grand Prix loop at Brands before throttle trouble ended his afternoon. 3 races and a hat-trick of double retirements, all for a variety of different mechanical maladies as well as driver error. At the front of the grid the survival of Frank Williams had inspired Nigel Mansell to wins in France and Britain, and a title charge was very much under way fighting alongside Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Alan Jones had been there before just 5 years earlier, but he was a long, long way away from anything like that kind of competitive duelling, too busy fighting to keep his car running for more than a quarter of a race distance.

Jones rounds Druids corner at Brands Hatch. One of the few events where he had the measure of teammate Tambay in qualifying.

Things improved massively at the Hockenheimring in Germany. Both cars qualified in their usual positions, Tambay 13th and Jones 19th, but in a typically attritional race at the flat out blast through the forests that is Hockenheim, both Lola’s made the finish for the first time. Patrick Tambay finished 1 lap down in 8th, with Alan Jones a further lap down but only place back in 9th. No mechanical woes at a circuit so demanding on the engine, gearbox and brakes must’ve been both a relief and a glimmer of hope for the two Haas drivers that better things were to come. The first Hungarian Grand Prix saw another finish, this time just for Tambay’s car, but a highest finish of 7th and fantastic qualifying positions of 6th for the Frenchman and 10th for Jones were even more encouraging signs that the car was improving quickly, at a bumpy twisty track where the chassis could compensate for any lack of power. The next race was to be the zenith of their season.

The Österreichring was surely one of the most beautiful and brutally fast circuits in the world. Banked turns over rolling hills, the cars never dropped below 3rd gear and easily topped 200mph at several points around the track. Horsepower and high-speed balance were the key to unlocking a fast lap time at the Österreichring, and with the Lola-Ford cars not being as refined as their rivals’, Tambay and Jones couldn’t replicate their Hungaroring speed in qualifying and lined up 13th and 16th on the grid for Sunday’s race, though having said that they were in exalted company as Ferrari could only get Stefan Johansson’s car to 14th. The massively powerful BMW 4-cylinder units had blasted the two Benetton’s to the front of the grid, with home favourite Gerhard Berger sitting in 2nd. 1400bhp in qualifying trim was nothing to be sniffed at.

On race day, the Benetton’s attempted to run away from the field but came unstuck as firstly polesitter Teo Fabi pushed his engine a little too hard trying to regain the lead from Berger, and then the Austrian himself had a long pitstop to change a transistor pack that was failing. Even the big teams weren’t having the best of days, with both Williams retiring around half-distance and Senna’s Lotus only lasting 12 laps.As usual the McLaren-TAG cars were proving more useful in race conditions, and Alain Prost was edging his way into the lead in typical fashion. For the Lola’s, nothing particularly exciting was happening on track, and that was a good thing for once. Tambay had a brief battle with Johansson’s Ferrari whilst in an impressive 5th place, but couldn’t hold on as Prost was bearing down on them to lap both cars. Jones too was having a fairly anonymous race, just keeping a consistently fast pace and not putting too much stress on himself or the car. Things were all going well. By lap 48 and with just 4 to go the top 6 contained the two McLaren’s of Prost and Rosberg, both Ferrari’s and both Lola-Ford, owing no small part to the troubles that befell both Williams and Benetton cars, who both had the pace to win the race and would’ve kept the Haas boys out of any points. Rosberg’s car pulls to a stop, his McLaren’s electrics having frazzled themselves out. Alan Jones is now just a few laps away from a podium position! Unfortunately he wasn’t to keep that place for long, as the hard charging Swede Johansson had a decent amount of fuel left in his Ferrari and was making a push for the podium to join his teammate Alboreto on the rostrum. The Rosberg retirement though had promoted Tambay to fifth, meaning that the team would score an equal amount of points to a Jones 3rd and Patrick 6th, Being two laps down each, they didn’t even need to complete the full 52 laps, just having to wait for Alain Prost to finish to confirm their own results. The Gallic genius swept home to victory and in doing so also enabled Jones and Tambay to score a quite incredible 4th and 5th place result! A race that saw just 8 cars running at the end had spared the Haas cars just this once, and they scored 5 points for their valiant effort, 3 for Jones and 2 for Tambay. A podium had been in reach, but seeing as the remaining cars ahead of them were a McLaren and two Ferrari’s, who could blame the Lola’s for falling ever so short. Was this the cusp of something bigger for the team, or merely a drop in the ocean of their season? Monza would be the test, and the first anniversary of the team’s life in Formula 1, having made their debut at the Autodromo one year earlier.

The Tifosi were out in force as usual for the annual pilgrimage to Monza’s royal park,  hoping to see their beloved red cars score the win for Maranello, il Commendatore and Italy. Their hopes were mostly dashed by a similarly poor qualifying to last time round in Austria, likewise for the Haas Lola’s who lined up 15th and 18th, slipping back slightly from the outing at the Österreichring. Power counted for more here than in Austria where the chassis mattered just as much for balance in the sweeping turns. Here was a stop-start blast through the park land, 200mph passes halted by fiddly chicanes. Jones followed his excellent 4th with another points score, this time with 6th place, two laps back from the all-conquering Williams Honda’s of Piquet and Mansell. Tambay was not so fortunate, his race ending on the second lap after coming together with Patrese’s Brabham. The solitary point for 6th was to be their last, as the Beatrice deal ending meant that money was fast draining out of the team. The progress made in reliability and speed was now slipping away again as the team couldn’t afford to keep up the development pace, Ford only being able to put so much in having already invested so much into the engines. Both cars failed to finish in Portugal, Mexico or indeed Jones’ home race in Australia, despite some encouraging pace shown by Tambay in qualifying 8th in Mexico. Just like in Hungary the car had suited the bumpy track in Mexico City, but an accident on the first tour (something Tambay had fallen foul of alarmingly often) of the circuit on race day put a halt to any progress there. Even after a full year of development and toil, Alan Jones was still over 4 seconds shy of Mansell’s pole time in Adelaide, and a bust engine on lap 16 brought his season to a close frustratingly early, especially in front of his home fans, who nevertheless were treated to an epic race with Mansell’s famous tyre explosion down the Brabham Straight, ending his title ambitions there and then. Alain Prost retained his title in typically measured fashion, and the Haas team had to look forward to next season… if they were going to be there.

Carl Haas spent the off-season frantically trying to find sponsorship to carry on into the 1987 season, but to no avail. Both Jones’ and Tambay’s contracts ended, the team was dismantled and facilities sold off. Bernie Ecclestone bought the FORCE factory, the Ford contract passed to Benetton, and designer Neil Oatley moved to McLaren, where he helped pen the dominant MP4/4 alongside Gordon Murray, taking up the mantle of Head Designer himself when Murray moved onto creating the road-going McLaren F1 supercar.

Alan Jones retired from Formula 1 for a second time, perhaps realising that he was no longer capable to keep up the pace of full time F1 racing in the late Turbo era at 40 years old. He went back to Australia to race competitively in Australian touring cars, competing at the legendary Bathurst 1000 many times. His career was a fine one, but for a season and a half he toiled away for no real reward in a team that had all the necessary parts to succeed but ended up being one of the bigger flops in 1980’s F1.

Brands Hatch photos sourced from http://www.flickr.com/people/antsphoto/

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