Can-Am MkII: The Aussies
While the original Can-Am in 1966-1974 was dominated by Kiwis and lightly spiced by Australians, the shoe was on the other foot for the series’ second coming from 1977. Alan Jones, Geoff Brabham and Warwick Brown all starred. And a surprising number of other Aussies had a dabble.
While the original Canadian-American Challenge Cup,1966-1974, was dominated by New Zealanders and lightly spiced by a quartet of Australians, the shoe was on the other foot for the series’ second coming from 1977. Alan Jones, Geoff Brabham and Warwick Brown all starred, with several others providing back-up.
Jones scored his first major title with the 1978 Can-Am Challenge but has always played it down as little more than an opportunity to make a buck with minimal stress. Or, in AJ-speak, “cruise and collect.” That the gritty Aussie and his semiworks Lola-Chev T333CS were the class of the field is beyond contradiction – nine pole positions from as many attempts, and by large margins, settles that argument – but it turned out to be a bigger battle than AJ expected. The title was not decided until the very last race.
Joining the then struggling Williams F1 team for ’78 seemed risky, but the deal with US Lola importer Carl Haas to drive his Citicorp-backed car, raced to victory the previous year by Patrick Tambay, was a solid-gold endorsement of AJ’s rising reputation. Jones won his first grand prix in 1977 in Austria for the Shadow team, dovetailing F1 with a handful of starts for Don Nichols’ squad in the single-seater sports car category’s inaugural season. But the Dodge-powered Shadows’ lack of pace and reliability masked his sublime driving skills. Little wonder he jumped ship to join the reigning champs at Haas as Tambay’s replacement.
1978 would be a busy year for AJ. The eternal hustler ran the 16-round World Championship with races every second weekend and the lucrative 10-round Can-Am with races on alternate weekends, plus plenty of testing in between for Williams and tyre supplier Goodyear.
“I’d do F1 one weekend, then go testing for Frank in the week, then fly to America for the next weekend’s Can-Am,” Alan Jones recalled in British magazine Motor Sport. “But Carl had a good set-up and it was pretty much C&C – cruise and collect.
“The boss of Citicorp couldn’t believe I commuted from England for each race and he said to Carl, ‘This boy has to fly Concorde’. ‘Good idea,’ says Carl, ‘if you want to pay for it.’ So he did. The Concorde lounge at Heathrow gave you free international calls, so I’d camp outside the door waiting for it to open like it was a Harrods sale, to get all my phone calls done on the house.”
Williams was not only concerned about AJ’s workload, but the risk of racing on rudimentary North American circuits. The team’s technical chief Patrick Head later said that Jones promised he’d take it easy as he headed off to the races, “but I knew for sure that once strapped into that car he’d give it absolutely everything he’s got. It’s the only way he knows…”
And so it proved. Jones headed off to Road Atlanta for 1978’s opening round and took pole by a whopping 1.4 seconds from fellow Aussie Warwick Brown (VDS Lola), self-proclaimed ‘half-Aussie’ Elliot Forbes-Robinson (Lola-based Spyder), American Al Holbert (Lola) and South Australian Vern Schuppan in his converted Elfin MR8 Formula 5000 car. No wonder that by the end of the year the series would be known as ‘Formula Aussie’!
Jones won that race by 36 seconds. AJ recovered from a high-speed tyre blowout on the banking at Charlotte to finish second after leading comfortably, and won the third round at Mid-Ohio, leading every lap from pole. These dominant performances put him comfortably at the top of the points (and money) tables. But then he ran into “a bit of bad luck” that derailed his title charge. Despite another string of blazing poles, Jones clipped a kerb and damaged his suspension while leading comfortably at St Jovite – “Brain fade, driving like an old lady all day,” he admitted – finished out of the points after blowing a water hose at Watkins Glen, and placed only third at Trois-Rivieres with a bent gear selector that prevented him from changing gears.
In between, he’d scored two more victories at Road America and Mosport, but Brown in his VDS-run Lola had become a model of
This page: AJ might consider the ’78 Can-Am season a case of “cruise and collect” but, as the images above show, that year’s champ was still having one very big go.