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When Bernie told a world champion to throw a sickie

NEWS STORY
07/08/2017

Just a week after Felipe Massa pulled out of the Hungarian Grand Prix after feeling unwell, 1980 world champion Alan Jones has revealed how Bernie Ecclestone once instructed him to 'pull a sickie' in an attempt to avoid a political row.

The year was 1985, the event was the South African Grand Prix.

Jones, now in the latter stages of a career which had seen one title (1980) a brace of thirds (1979 and 1981) and twelve wins, was racing for the Haas-Lola team... no relation to the current contenders.

At the time, the American outfit was sponsored by Beatrice, a company founded in 1894, which started off producing butter and went on to become a global corporation, diversifying into many different areas including chemicals, car hire and brassieres, employing hundreds of thousands.

1985 was also the time of Apartheid, and while many sports had by now boycotted South Africa, despite increasing pressure Formula One was not one of them.

While some governments attempted to prevent their drivers from contesting the event, only France was successful, with Renault and Ligier refusing to compete, though Alain Prost and Philippe Streiff, who were both racing for British teams (McLaren and Tyrrell), did take part.

As part of its global operations, Beatrice had a sizeable presence in South Africa, and ahead of the event, as pressure on the sport grew, American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson warned that if a Beatrice sponsored car participated in the event, he would call on the company's workers around the globe to strike.

At which point Bernie Ecclestone stepped in.

"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," reveals Jones in his autobiography AJ: How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One.

"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."

"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.

"'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,'" he quotes Ecclestone as saying.

"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."

The race saw a Williams 1-2, with Nigel Mansell leading Keke Rosberg home ahead of Alain Prost and Stefan Johansson.

Following the 1985 event South Africa was dropped from the schedule, though it returned briefly in the early 90s (1992 and 1993), with Kyalami also hosting pre-season testing in the early 2000s.

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