Beyond the chequered flag: John Watson

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.

Watson tackles Monaco
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.

Watson wins at Silverstone
"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.

Watson leads Lauda at Brands Hatch, 1983
"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."

Mike Seymour
Twitter: @MikeSeymourF1


Previous instalments: Mika Salo / Thierry Boutsen

related

Comments

Latest News
Full
Compact

  1. Friday 24 March 2017

  2. 03:26

    Latest F1 photos: Friday in Melbourne

    F1
  3. Video: CNN's Formula 1 2017 preview 03:20

    Video: CNN's Formula 1 2017 preview

    CNN looks ahead to the 2017 F1 season, featuring interviews with Valtteri Bottas and Stoffel Vandoorne.

    F1
  4. Pérez lands first fine of 2017 for speeding 03:14

    Pérez lands first fine of 2017 for speeding

    Sergio Pérez has been hit with the first fine of 2017 after he was caught speeding in the pit lane during Friday's opening…

    F1
  5. 02:36

    Australian Grand Prix: Full Practice 1 results

    F1
  6. Hamilton fastest as 2017 season begins 02:35

    Hamilton fastest as 2017 season begins

    Lewis Hamilton comfortably topped Friday's first practice session for the Australian Grand Prix, finishing over half a second…

    F1
  7. 00:42

    Follow first practice for the Australian GP!

    F1
  8. 'Confident' Viñales eyes race pace focus 00:22

    'Confident' Viñales eyes race pace focus

    Early Qatar Grand Prix pace-setter Maverick Viñales says he will focus on long-run speed after he bolted to the top of the…

    MotoGP
  9. Video of the Day: Ricciardo on Australia 00:12

    Video of the Day: Ricciardo on Australia

    Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo looks ahead to the Australian Grand Prix, his home event.

    F1
  10. Thursday 23 March 2017

  11. 18:14

    Latest MotoGP photos: Thursday at Losail

    MotoGP
  12. 18:12

    Qatar Grand Prix: Full first practice results

    MotoGP
  13. Viñales comfortably clear in first practice 17:54

    Viñales comfortably clear in first practice

    Yamaha's new recruit Maverick Viñales built on his pre-season form as he romped clear of his rivals during the opening practice…

    MotoGP
  14. Video: Dan Fallows on Red Bull's RB13 16:06

    Video: Dan Fallows on Red Bull's RB13

    Red Bull Racing's Chief Aero Engineer Dan Fallows discusses Formula 1's 2017 regulation changes, which include wider tyres…

    F1
  15. Lowe: Williams can win as customer team 14:32

    Lowe: Williams can win as customer team

    Paddy Lowe, newly-signed Chief Technical Officer at Williams, is adamant that the team can win races and titles as a customer…

    F1
  16. Hamilton plays down Rosberg absence 12:22

    Hamilton plays down Rosberg absence

    Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton says the absence of reigning World Champion and former team-mate Nico Rosberg on the grid this…

    F1
  17. Background: FIA drops 'Verstappen rule' 11:16

    Background: FIA drops 'Verstappen rule'

    FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting has outlined why Formula 1's so-called 'Verstappen rule', regarding moving under braking, has…

    F1
  18. FIA confident of protest-free season-opener 11:02

    FIA confident of protest-free season-opener

    Formula 1's governing body, the FIA, is confident that the Australian Grand Prix will not involve any protests over suspension…

    F1
  19. Lorenzo: Initial struggles were a 'shock' 10:42

    Lorenzo: Initial struggles were a 'shock'

    Jorge Lorenzo says his initial lack of pace upon his switch to Ducati came as a "shock", but is confident that he can continue…

    MotoGP
  20. 10:02

    Latest F1 photos: Thursday in Melbourne

    F1
  21. Force India's new livery breaks cover 09:49

    Force India's new livery breaks cover

    Force India's all-new matte pink livery has broken cover ahead of this weekend's season-opening Australian Grand Prix in…

    F1
  22. Video: Toro Rosso drivers in Casio time trial 08:02

    Video: Toro Rosso drivers in Casio time trial

    Toro Rosso drivers Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat take part in a time trial with partner Casio at St. Kilda.

    F1
  23. GPUpdate readers back Vettel for victory 07:09

    GPUpdate readers back Vettel for victory

    GPUpdate.net readers have narrowly backed Sebastian Vettel to claim victory at this weekend's season-opening Australian Grand…

    F1
  24. Register for GPUpdate Manager 2017! 07:02

    Register for GPUpdate Manager 2017!

    Have you ever dreamed of owning a Formula 1 team with your ideal driver pairing and engine? GPUpdate.net readers can now sign up…

    F1
  25. Hamilton: Ferrari the favourite for 2017 05:13

    Hamilton: Ferrari the favourite for 2017

    Lewis Hamilton has reiterated his belief that Ferrari will be a genuine threat to Mercedes in 2017, going as far as to state…

    F1
  26. Pérez reveals post-Barcelona weight loss 04:43

    Pérez reveals post-Barcelona weight loss

    Sergio Pérez has revealed that he has lost around two to three kilos since the pre-season testing period in Barcelona, where…

    F1
  27. Nissany moves to RP Motorsport in 3.5 04:32

    Nissany moves to RP Motorsport in 3.5

    Roy Nissany has switched to RP Motorsport in World Series Formula V8 3.5, with Damiano Fioravanti in turn joining Barone…

    World Series
  28. Whiting: Cockpit protection call next month 03:41

    Whiting: Cockpit protection call next month

    F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting says a decision over whether extra cockpit protection – such as the halo – will be…

    F1
  29. Wehrlein officially cleared to race in Australia 03:23

    Wehrlein officially cleared to race in Australia

    Sauber driver Pascal Wehrlein has been officially cleared to take part in this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, following…

    F1
  30. Video of the Day: Australian GP track guide 03:12

    Video of the Day: Australian GP track guide

    Force India's Sergio Pérez talks you through a lap of Albert Park, home to the Australian Grand Prix.

    F1
  31. Wednesday 22 March 2017

  32. Video: Rossi visor cam footage at Barber 19:02

    Video: Rossi visor cam footage at Barber

    Ride onboard with Andretti Herta Autosport driver Alexander Rossi at Barber Motorsports Park.

    Indy
  33. 17:02

    Follow GPUpdate on Instagram in 2017!

    F1
  34. Dovizioso hopes for Qatar victory challenge 16:24

    Dovizioso hopes for Qatar victory challenge

    Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso is optimistic that he can fight for victory at this weekend's season-opening race in Qatar…

    MotoGP
  35. Sainz Jr. optimistic of points-scoring start 14:44

    Sainz Jr. optimistic of points-scoring start

    Carlos Sainz Jr. is confident he can take a strong haul of points from this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, as he bids to…

    F1
  36. Feature: How did class of 2017 fare on debuts? 11:02

    Feature: How did class of 2017 fare on debuts?

    Williams driver Lance Stroll will be the only full rookie on the 2017 Formula 1 grid when the season begins with the Australian…

    F1
  37. Gelael set for Formula 1 test runs with STR 10:47

    Gelael set for Formula 1 test runs with STR

    Formula 2 racer Sean Gelael is to make his Formula 1 test debut with Toro Rosso in Bahrain next month, and is also set for…

    F1
  38. Vettel settles on 'Gina' for 2017 car name 09:39

    Vettel settles on 'Gina' for 2017 car name

    Sebastian Vettel has named his 2017 car, the SF70H, 'Gina', according to reports. Vettel, who made his Formula 1 debut with…

    F1
  39. Video: Red Bull's 'Dinghy Dash' in Melbourne 09:12

    Video: Red Bull's 'Dinghy Dash' in Melbourne

    Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen get set for the Australian GP by tearing up the Yarra River.

    F1
  40. Abiteboul confirms Renault ERS issue fixed 08:13

    Abiteboul confirms Renault ERS issue fixed

    Renault Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul says the manufacturer has addressed the Energy Recovery System (ERS) issue which…

    F1
  41. Koiranen absent from opening GP3 test 07:53

    Koiranen absent from opening GP3 test

    Koiranen GP will miss this week's opening GP3 test of the campaign at Estoril, amid doubts over the team's participation in the…

    GP3
  42. Márquez starting 2017 'better' than 2016 07:32

    Márquez starting 2017 'better' than 2016

    Marc Márquez reckons he and Honda are in a "better" position to tackle the upcoming MotoGP season, compared to 2016, as he…

    MotoGP
  43. 06:46

    Latest F1 photos: Wednesday in Melbourne

    F1
more news