Beyond the chequered flag: John Watson
12 August 2013 – For the latest instalment of a series running throughout the season, GPUpdate.net reminisced with five-time Grand Prix winner John Watson. From claiming Penske's only Formula 1 victory to outscoring Niki Lauda in the same machinery, the Northern Irishman turned plenty of heads during his spell in the top echelon.
Born in Belfast on May 4 1946, Watson was instantly immersed in the motoring world. His father, a successful car dealer, played a key role in the early days, purchasing an Austin-Healey Sprite for his 18th birthday. After a selection of "weekend driver" outings, an opportunity to race in Formula 2 arose, a breeding ground that would open the door to Formula 1. And on the back of a non-championship outing in 1972, Team MRD acquired his services at Silverstone and Watkins Glen the following year. Although he endured retirements at both events, Goldie Hexagon Racing stepped up to offer a full-time drive for the 1974 campaign, during which he would record his first points.
Of the break, Watson recalls, "I had signed with Bernie [Ecclestone] at the end of 1972, essentially to be a Formula 2 driver with some hope of moving into Formula 1. He still held certain rights and he made available one of the 1973 Brabham BT42s that the team had used. That was supplied by Paul Michaels at Hexagon; with engineers that he had in his own business and a couple of other people we sort of set out on the trail, which of course you could do at that point in Formula 1. Midway through the season Bernie enabled us to have access to a BT44. This was a significant step forward for me, it was a great car. It elevated me from where I was on the grid to much further up, virtually the midfield of the top ten."
A transitional phase followed for Watson in 1975, with Goldie Hexagon unable to raise the funds required to enter two cars under the sport's ever-developing regulations. Appearances for Team Surtees and Team Lotus yielded little in terms of results, but throughout the year he had been forming a strong relationship with Penske. When Mark Donohue tragically lost his life during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix, he was drafted in for the Watkins Glen finale, which would lead to another permanent drive.
After a solid start to the 1976 season, Watson tasted champagne on the Formula 1 podium for the first time at the French Grand Prix, before adding another third place finish to his name in Britain. But greater success was to follow at the Österreichring where, one year after Donohue's passing, he stormed to a poignant maiden victory.
"I don't know how you can ever analyse an event like that. Sod's law is as good a one as any," Watson comments. "To win that race, the irony of it is almost unbelievable. It was the single Grand Prix win that [team owner] Roger [Penske] had and for me it was my first Grand Prix victory. I didn't really care where it came I was just delighted to have it. Thereafter I won only four more races, but it's getting that first win that is the most important. Once you’ve done that you move on and you become a slightly higher elevation amongst those that are racing that haven't won. You've got World Champions, Grand Prix winners and the rest. So I'd left the rest and joined the winners."
Just as he had settled at the outfit, Watson received a subdued phone call from Roger to state that Formula 1 was to be dropped from the team's motor racing agenda. His next step would be a two-year stint at Brabham, after "knocking out an agreement" with his manager and Ecclestone in the latter's London apartment the following day.
A clutch of rostrum finishes during this phase convinced the renowned McLaren squad to put a contract on the table, and so began a five-year relationship. Things started well with a podium in Argentina, but it would take two seasons – the first of which was so incident-filled for new signing Alain Prost that the Frenchman abandoned his long-term contract with the team – plus the arrival of Ron Dennis and talented designer John Barnard before he enjoyed stable frontrunning machinery.
"The MP4/1 took a little bit of time to become a consistent car," says Watson of McLaren's 1981 creation, having endured the troubles of the M28 and M29 designs. "Part of it was that John made cars in an extremely exacting matter. During the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, the car started to really work well and we had the first podium with it. Then we went to the French Grand Prix at Dijon and got second. And at Silverstone, through a whole load of events beyond my control, I ended up winning the Grand Prix."
For the next two years, Watson enjoyed a fascinating intra-team battle with Niki Lauda, whom he had partnered at Brabham in 1978. He outscored the then two-time World Champion in both seasons, coming within five points of the 1982 title. And, aided by a pair of masterful winning drives from the back at Detroit, 1982 and Long Beach, 1983, he has been able to draw a detailed conclusion about their time as team-mates.
"Niki has got many, many qualities and great strengths, but he has also got certain elements within his nature where he pre-determines circumstances," says Watson. "He would not be the natural racer that I would consider myself to be. He was an extremely effective driver, especially at the front, but not necessarily a street fighter. Not that I specialised in it, but I had those abilities to not have a negative thought.
"If you can think of other drivers, the good racers are positive when they make overtakes. They commit, they make sure that the car they're going to pass knows they are going to pass and it's sort of a job done. In some respects that car sometimes says, 'I’m not going to fight.' You almost send out a telepathic message to that driver; I did it lots of times. It's a great feeling to have, because you are effectively able to control somebody else's judgement. I think I had that quality, I don't think Niki had it to the same degree.
"But I'm referring to my own strengths here. It's also important to explain that Niki built a team around himself. Once he had done that, certainly at Ferrari where he won his first two world titles [in 1975 and 1977], he was dominant and very hard to beat."
Watson brought his Formula 1 career to an end in 1983, making a brief return at Brands Hatch two years later when Lauda sustained a minor injury. Away from single seaters, he finished runner-up in the World Sportscar Championship, driving a Jaguar XJR-8 alongside Jan Lammers. He also took part in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans on seven occasions, recording a personal best finish of 11th position in 1990.
Now commentating on various racing categories around the globe, how does the 67-year-old reflect upon his time in the sport? He philosophically explains, "I think there were opportunities that I didn't fully exploit, or through circumstances that I wasn't able to exploit. I think I should have won many more races and I should have been better placed to win the title at Las Vegas. That was a shame, looking back on it.
"But if you look at what I would call the great drivers in Formula 1, winning a single World Championship doesn't make you a great driver, it means you're just a driver. The drivers that have won multiple World Championships, in particular those that have won multiple World Championships in different cars, mark out the truly great from the great from the winners and the trash behind. I'm happy with what I achieved, but I know I should have done better. But I can't change it and I don't ever dwell on it."
Previous instalments: Mika Salo / Thierry Boutsen