The 1976 season was a pivotal one in Alan Jones’ career. He might have already been a Formula One driver, but by no means was he a star. In 1975 he’d raced for privateer Harry Stiller and the team owned by former dual world champion Graham Hill. For ’76 he signed with another ex-world champion team owner, John Surtees. But these teams were among the alsorans. For the moment in F1, Jones was relatively unknown; a mid-field driver at best, making up the numbers at worst.
These were frustrating times for Jones. His spells with Hill and Surtees were unhappy experiences. In AJ’s view, both Hill and Surtees had not come to terms with the fact that they were no longer driving, and neither was willing to accept the opinion of their actual driver.
By the end of ’76, after a wretched year of Surtees’ interference, Jones was almost willing to give up the dream of F1 and look for something else. In his book, Driving Ambition, published just after he’d won the 1980 world championship, Jones reflected on the situation he’d been in during the mid’ 70s: “…having raced for Hesketh and Graham Hill and John Surtees, I was actually no longer interested in another Formula One drive unless I could get myself into a properly professional team.
“I felt I couldn’t keep running around in circles any more, and if Surtees didn’t release me from my contract, I’d go over to the United States and do a season of USAC racing.”
Or Formula 5000, which he in fact had already been doing. As a professional driver, while trying to establish himself in F1 he sought extra curricular racing activities in both F5000 and the Can-Am. Indeed, his exploits in these spheres of racing would continue to overlap over the following two years – and by then he really was a bona fide F1 star – as detailed in our Can-Am MkII feature in AMC #96.
Jones’ entre in F5000 came not in a five-litre V8 car but rather a March powered by a 3.4-litre V6 Ford Cosworth Capri engine similar to the one powering Allan Moffat’s Cologne Capri Jones raced the Capri-engined March in 1975 in European F5000 racing with some success.
For ’76 he got the opportunity to sample a Chev-powered Lola in the US series.
As Jones explains in his recently released autobiography, AJ – how Alan Jones climbed to the top of Formula One: “I had a relationship with Teddy Yip, because I knew him from running in the Macau Grand Prix on my way home each year. I got on well with him, and as it turns out he was looking for a driver for the SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 Championship in the States.”
The American schedule clashed with the F1 calendar only once; Jones would miss the second of two Elkhart Lake rounds while contesting the Dutch Grand Prix. It would be a busy time involving lots of trans-Atlantic flights to and from the States: the series opener at Pocono was held on the weekend between the Spanish and Belgium GPs.
At Pocono Jones was accompanied by an Australian teammate in Bruce Allison. The latter’s 10th place would be his only result for the series. Jones was seventh. He’d qualified third but finished a lap down ‘after some dramas’.
At Mosport in Canada for round two, Jones won, heading home Jackie Oliver’s Dodge- powered Shadow by a slender margin. Oliver had led for the first 36 laps, then Jones slipped ahead when Oliver was baulked by the lapped Horst Kroll (this led to a post-race punch up, which left Kroll threatening to sue Oliver…).
No aggro for AJ, though, especially given opening round winner Brian Redman had only finishing eighth. For Jones, it was ‘an almost perfect weekend’.
For the next round, at Watkins Glen, Jones switched to Theodore’s other chassis, a March. The result was the same, although it came after a struggle.
“Qualifying didn’t go so well as I adjusted to the March 76A I was given that weekend, but I came second in my heat which improved my grid position and then I just had to take over the running in the main race from Al Unser, and I won the race from him by quite a margin.”
Mid Ohio was, according to Jones, ‘a great track but in the middle of nowhere’. There he qualified third fastest and finished third in his heat (just ahead of, by coincidence, Surtees F1 teammate Brett Lunger) but did not start the final.
Missing the second Elkhart Lake round did not help when it came to Jones’ hopes of winning the series. At least the final, at Riverside, didn’t clash with an F1 race, although like the first Elkhart Lake round, it had F1 engagements on either side.
At Riverside Jones qualified third, finished third in his heat and then fourth in the finale. Following Jones home at day were Vern Schuppan and Warwick Brown.
Three Australians in the top 10 in the final SCCA F5000 race was a fitting reflection of how well the Australian drivers acquitted themselves on the US F5000 stage right through that period.
Jones and Brown would go on to star in the subsequent Can-Am ‘MkII’, but for the moment Jones would have to be content with fourth overall, behind Brian Redman, ‘Big Al’ Unser and Jackie Oliver. It was during the ’76 US F5000 season that Jones made the acquaintance of Shadow’s Jackie Oliver. Over the coming months Oliver would lure Jones to Shadow to drive the team’s F1 car. And that’s when AJ’s F1 career really started to take off.