Johnson passed on F1 champion out of loyalty to his ‘little mate’

Dick Johnson (left) and John French (right)

Australian touring car legend Dick Johnson has told of how he passed up an opportunity to drive with the reigning Formula 1 champion Alan Jones for his famous 1981 Bathurst 1000 victory in favour of his “little mate” John French.

The US Grand Prix was originally to be held at Watkins Glen on October 4, the same day as the Bathurst 1000, but the track was dropped from the calendar in May due to the circuit’s financial difficulties and replaced by the Ceasars Palace Grand Prix as the season closer on October 17.

This freed up Jones for his Bathurst debut before heading to Las Vegas for the final round of the F1 championship two weeks later.

French had driven with Johnson the previous year when their Tru-Blu XD Falcon hit a rock early in the race in one of the most famous incidents in the history of Mount Panorama.

A national campaign driven by Channel 7 commentator Mike Raymond was launched on air during the race and enough money was raised to support Johnson into the following year’s national championship, which he won.

Johnson then elected to drive alone in the Hang Ten 400 at the Sandown International Raceway where he finished second to Peter Brock, before giving French the Bathurst call up.

“John Crawford was looking after AJ and suggested that he should drive with me at Bathurst,” Johnson told Speedcafe.com.

“I said ‘Why would I want a world champion when I have my little mate ‘Frenchy’?’

“We had been through everything together the year before and to be honest, I was never going to have anyone else in the car with me.

“As it turned out, it was the right move and to this day we still enjoy everyone talking to us about that victory and that car.

“He still remains the oldest Australian driver to win the race (Kiwi Jim Richards was the oldest race winner when he won in 2002 at the age of 55 and 41 days) and I still believe he is one of the most underrated drivers ever to be produced in this country.”

Jones did make his Bathurst debut in 1981 with Warren Cullen in a Commodore, but the car was out of the race after Lap 48. The race was red flagged and declared after 120 laps because of a major accident at McPhillamy Park.

French was at the wheel of the Johnson Falcon when the race was stopped.

Johnson has recounted the Jones’ story as a personal tribute to French, who celebrates his 90th birthday today.

Jones finished fourth with Cullen in 1983 and then returned to finish third with Colin Bond in a Sierra in 1988. His best result was a second with Allan Grice in 1995.

Jones travelled to Las Vegas after his Bathurst 1000 DNF in 1981 and won what was his original F1 retirement race to finish third in the world championship behind Brabham’s Nelson Piquet and his Williams team-mate Carlos Reutemann.

Ironically, 21 year later, Jones had his last start in the Bathurst 1000 with Johnson’s Shell Helix team in an AU Falcon he drove to seventh place with Greg Ritter.

More than 100 guests attended a morning tea on Wednesday to toast French at the newly-opened Gold Coast Motor Museum, which has been built by Gold Coast brothers Grant and Carl Amor.

Traditionally, the gathering is an annual reunion hosted by motor racing stalwart Ian Maudsley in August, but COVID-19 restrictions meant this year’s event had to be cancelled and a more casual function was held to mark French’s milestone birthday.

“I guess I’m glad he picked me,” French laughed to Speedcafe.com about Johnson’s 1981 co-driver selection.

“That was a pretty special win and it’s great that the car is still around for people to enjoy.

“But the older I get, the faster I was.”

Johnson also recounted the classic tale about French filling up the XD Falcon’s centre console with Vegemite sandwiches and orange quarters for his stints during the 1981 race.

“In those days Bathurst was the last race of the year and you basically brought the car home and parked it in the shed for a few months before you touched it,” said Johnson.

“I remember going to the car after that ‘81 race and thinking ‘what’s that bloody smell?’

“Looked in the console and there were the remnants for some Vegemite sandwiches and some old oranges.

“He was always pretty good on the tooth!”

French, with the sharp wit he is still renowned for, replied “Well, a man’s gotta eat.”

French was born in Millaa Millaa in Northern Queensland on November 28, 1930 and he raced from the 1960s well into the 1980s.

He won the Australian GT Championship in 1962 driving a Centaur-Waggott and won the Sandown 500 in 1969 in a Ford Falcon GTHO with Allan Moffat.

He finished first in class and second outright in a single-driver entry Bryan Byrt-backed GTHO Phase III at Bathurst in 1972.

French, who was a successful cyclist in his youth, was a well-known multi-franchise car dealer selling BMC vehicles, Alfa Romeo, Renault, Peugeot and Subaru in Brisbane.

He has been a regular attendee at one-off special events like the Leyburn Historic Sprints and was invited to be a part of the Pirtek Legends event at the Gold Coast 600 in 2009 and 2010 at the age of 78 and 79 respectively.

The Leyburn Historic Sprints are held each year in recognition of the 1949 Australian Grand Prix which was held just down the road on an old airstrip.

Ironically, French rode his motorcycle out to Leyburn from Brisbane (now 2.5 hours on reasonable roads), as an 18-year-old with a mate to watch that original Grand Prix.

“Yep, I was there for the Grand Prix and have been to most of the Leyburn Sprints since they started 25 years ago,” said French.

“It was disappointing they had to be cancelled this year because of COVID-19 but I am already looking forward to August next year.”

The 25th anniversary 2021 Leyburn Sprints will be held on August 21-22, 2021.

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