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 February 2017

  2. Video: Ferrari adds stickers to new car 09:32

    Video: Ferrari adds stickers to new car

    Watch as sponsor logos and decals are applied to Ferrari's new Formula 1 car, the SF70-H.

    F1
  3. In photos: Formula 1 designs of 2017 09:26

    In photos: Formula 1 designs of 2017

    Formula 1's 2017 cars are gradually being presented through 'launch week', in the build up to pre-season testing in Barcelona.…

    F1
  4. 08:54

    Photos: Ferrari presents 2017 challenger

    F1
  5. Ferrari reveals 2017 car, named SF70-H 08:50

    Ferrari reveals 2017 car, named SF70-H

    Ferrari has taken the wraps off its 2017 Formula 1 challenger, called the SF70-H, during an online launch at Fiorano, where it…

    F1
  6. 08:45

    Follow Ferrari's 2017 car launch live!

    F1
  7. Bottas thrilled by first Mercedes outing 08:14

    Bottas thrilled by first Mercedes outing

    Valtteri Bottas labelled an "amazing" first experience with Mercedes after he took to the track as part of a filming day at…

    F1
  8. Register for GPUpdate Manager 2017! 08:02

    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
  9. Pirelli gets title sponsorship for three races 07:42

    Pirelli gets title sponsorship for three races

    Formula 1 tyre supplier Pirelli is to act as the title sponsor for three Grands Prix in 2017. Pirelli joined the sport in…

    F1
  10. Video of the Day: Mercedes W08 tech 05:38

    Video of the Day: Mercedes W08 tech

    Aldo Costa (Engineering chief) and Andy Cowell (Engine chief) talk about Mercedes' new W08.

    F1
  11. Thursday 23 February 2017

  12. 19:03

    New: Follow GPUpdate on Instagram!

    F1
  13. Hinchcliffe and Wickens set for test swap 18:45

    Hinchcliffe and Wickens set for test swap

    Long-time friends James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens will sample each other's race machinery as part of a car swap across the…

    Indy
  14. Toro Rosso's STR12 runs at Misano 18:01

    Toro Rosso's STR12 runs at Misano

    Toro Rosso's STR12 has completed its first laps after the team carried out a filming day at Misano in Italy. Toro Rosso joins…

    F1
  15. Hamilton in 'positive place' with Mercedes 15:30

    Hamilton in 'positive place' with Mercedes

    Lewis Hamilton says he feels in a positive place with Mercedes off the back of a winter of reflection, which came after a tense…

    F1
  16. Mercedes confident amid suspension row 14:31

    Mercedes confident amid suspension row

    Toto Wolff says that Mercedes is "very confident and comfortable" over the legality of its suspension system, amid a row which…

    F1
  17. Pirelli to bring backup tyres to F1 testing 14:29

    Pirelli to bring backup tyres to F1 testing

    Pirelli's backup tyres will be available to teams and drivers during pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya…

    F1
  18. Bottas completes first laps with Mercedes 14:14

    Bottas completes first laps with Mercedes

    New Mercedes recruit Valtteri Bottas has completed his first laps with the team as he sampled the W08 EQ Power+ during a filming…

    F1
  19. Video: Mercedes formally presents W08 13:32

    Video: Mercedes formally presents W08

    Mercedes unveils the W08, featuring comments from Toto Wolff, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

    F1
  20. Hamilton, Bottas to split each test day 13:09

    Hamilton, Bottas to split each test day

    Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will split running on each day of testing at the Circuit de…

    F1
  21. 11:23

    Photos: Mercedes' 2017 F1 car on-track

    F1
  22. Mercedes W08 hits track at Silverstone 11:15

    Mercedes W08 hits track at Silverstone

    Mercedes' new car, dubbed the F1 W08 EQ Power+, has broken cover at Silverstone, with Lewis Hamilton completing its first laps…

    F1
  23. Ericsson's initial impressions 'really good' 10:16

    Ericsson's initial impressions 'really good'

    Marcus Ericsson says he was encouraged by his first impression of the Sauber C36-Ferrari after carrying out a filming day at the…

    F1
  24. 09:08

    Overview: 2017 GP3 Series driver line-up

    GP3
  25. Hubert completes ART's GP3 line-up 09:04

    Hubert completes ART's GP3 line-up

    ART Grand Prix has completed its driver line-up for the 2017 GP3 campaign with the recruitment of Frenchman Anthoine…

    GP3
  26. Video: Daniel Ricciardo's 2017 helmet 09:02

    Video: Daniel Ricciardo's 2017 helmet

    Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo presents and talks about his helmet design for the 2017 season.

    F1
  27. Szafnauer: Force India full of 'true racers' 07:48

    Szafnauer: Force India full of 'true racers'

    Force India's growing success in Formula 1 is a result of it building a workforce of "true racers", according to Chief Operating…

    F1
  28. Video of the Day: Formula 1 paint job 05:36

    Video of the Day: Formula 1 paint job

    Mercedes' highly-skilled paint shop artists apply the finishing touches to the new F1 W08 Hybrid.

    F1
  29. Wednesday 22 February 2017

  30. Sauber conducts filming day in Barcelona 19:39

    Sauber conducts filming day in Barcelona

    Sauber has become the first team to run its 2017 Formula 1 challenger on-track, after the outfit conducted a filming day at the…

    F1
  31. 19:08

    Photos: Sauber C36 on track in Barcelona

    F1
  32. Video: New Sauber C36 hits the track 18:49

    Video: New Sauber C36 hits the track

    The Sauber C36-Ferrari, launched earlier this week, hits the race track for the first time in Barcelona.

    F1
  33. Williams confirms schedule for testing 16:41

    Williams confirms schedule for testing

    Williams has confirmed its driver line-up for the pair of pre-season tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Felipe…

    F1
  34. Pérez dreams of maiden win with VJM10 16:12

    Pérez dreams of maiden win with VJM10

    Sergio Pérez is "dreaming" that he and Force India will be able to achieve their first victory together in 2017, following the…

    F1
  35. Mallya hits back at Abiteboul comments 15:49

    Mallya hits back at Abiteboul comments

    Force India co-owner Vijay Mallya has hit back at Renault's Cyril Abiteboul, after the Frenchman suggested lesser-resourced…

    F1
  36. Hamilton reveals helmet design winner 15:34

    Hamilton reveals helmet design winner

    Lewis Hamilton has revealed the winner of his helmet design competition. Hamilton launched the competition at the end of last…

    F1
  37. 14:22

    Gallery: Force India pulls wraps off VJM10

    F1
  38. Force India reveals VJM10 at Silverstone 14:16

    Force India reveals VJM10 at Silverstone

    Force India presented its 2017 challenger, dubbed the VJM10, during an official launch ceremony at the Silverstone circuit on…

    F1
  39. Norris joins McLaren driver programme 12:03

    Norris joins McLaren driver programme

    British racer Lando Norris has joined McLaren's Young Driver Programme. Norris, 17, claimed the Toyota Racing Series, Eurocup…

    F1
  40. Video: Hülkenberg on 2017 season 11:22

    Video: Hülkenberg on 2017 season

    Nico Hülkenberg looks ahead to the 2017 F1 season, his first with the manufacturer Renault team.

    F1
  41. Palmer: I can hit ground running in 2017 09:24

    Palmer: I can hit ground running in 2017

    Renault's Jolyon Palmer believes he can "hit the ground running" from the start of the 2017 Formula 1 season due to his greater…

    F1
  42. 09:16

    Overview: 2017 GP2 Series grid so far

    GP2
  43. Albon graduates to GP2 with ART GP 09:13

    Albon graduates to GP2 with ART GP

    Alexander Albon will make the step up to GP2 with ART Grand Prix in 2017. English-born Thai racer Albon, 20, finished…

    GP2
more news