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 November 2017

  2. Albon excluded from F2 qualifying results 19:16

    Albon excluded from F2 qualifying results

    ART Grand Prix's Alexander Albon has been excluded from the results of Friday's qualifying session at Yas Marina after officials…

    F2
  3. 17:36

    Follow us on Instagram for the best photos!

    F1
  4. 17:34

    Latest F1 photos: Friday in Abu Dhabi

    F1
  5. Vettel: No need for drastic set-up changes 17:29

    Vettel: No need for drastic set-up changes

    Sebastian Vettel believes Ferrari does not need to undertake many changes prior to Saturday's qualifying session in Abu Dhabi…

    F1
  6. Ricciardo expecting to be jumped in qualifying 17:15

    Ricciardo expecting to be jumped in qualifying

    Daniel Ricciardo has played down Red Bull's chances of competing with Mercedes and Ferrari over the course of the Abu Dhabi…

    F1
  7. Hamilton makes 'good progress' on first day 17:02

    Hamilton makes 'good progress' on first day

    Lewis Hamilton was encouraged by Mercedes' start to proceedings at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as he set the quickest ever lap of…

    F1
  8. Video: Rosberg's title-commemorating watch 16:22

    Video: Rosberg's title-commemorating watch

    In his latest vlog, Nico Rosberg visits Singapore to pick up a watch produced by IWC, created to mark the first anniversary of…

    F1
  9. F1 to present new logo after Abu Dhabi race 15:44

    F1 to present new logo after Abu Dhabi race

    Formula 1 Chairman and CEO Chase Carey has confirmed that the sport will introduce a new logo after Sunday's season-ending Abu…

    F1
  10. 15:40

    Latest F2 photos: Friday at Yas Marina

    F2
  11. Markelov takes first F2 pole at Yas Marina 15:39

    Markelov takes first F2 pole at Yas Marina

    Artem Markelov controlled qualifying for the Formula 2 Feature Race at Yas Marina, taking pole position – his first – for…

    F2
  12. 14:37

    Abu Dhabi GP: Full Practice 2 results

    F1
  13. Hamilton leads Vettel in second practice 14:33

    Hamilton leads Vettel in second practice

    Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets during Friday evening's second practice session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with…

    F1
  14. Correa issued with pit start for blocking 13:21

    Correa issued with pit start for blocking

    Jenzer driver Juan Manuel Correa must start Saturday's first GP3 race from the pit lane after he was judged to have impeded…

    GP3
  15. 12:45

    Follow second practice for the Abu Dhabi GP!

    F1
  16. Stroll wants 'team player' at Williams in 2018 12:18

    Stroll wants 'team player' at Williams in 2018

    Williams driver Lance Stroll says he merely wants a "team player" to join him at the outfit in 2018, following the retirement of…

    F1
  17. 11:50

    Latest GP3 photos: Friday at Yas Marina

    GP3
  18. Russell nets GP3 pole to ensure ART sweep 11:49

    Russell nets GP3 pole to ensure ART sweep

    GP3 Champion George Russell claimed pole position for the final round of the campaign with a superb late effort in hot and sunny…

    GP3
  19. Norris: Carlin Formula 2 seat would be a 'risk' 11:36

    Norris: Carlin Formula 2 seat would be a 'risk'

    McLaren protégé Lando Norris says graduating to Formula 2 with Carlin would be a "risk", amid speculation that the Briton…

    F2
  20. Hartley set for another grid drop at finale 10:44

    Hartley set for another grid drop at finale

    Brendon Hartley is set for another grid penalty at this weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after a ninth MGU-H was fitted to his…

    F1
  21. 10:35

    Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Full Practice 1 results

    F1
  22. Vettel heads close first practice session 10:33

    Vettel heads close first practice session

    Sebastian Vettel topped a close first practice session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull all…

    F1
  23. 08:45

    Follow first practice for the Abu Dhabi GP!

    F1
  24. Video: Mercedes staff form human F1 car 08:26

    Video: Mercedes staff form human F1 car

    Watch as Mercedes staff gather outside the team's factory in Brackley to form the image of a Formula 1 car, in celebration of…

    F1
  25. Hamilton won't change approach for finale 07:24

    Hamilton won't change approach for finale

    Lewis Hamilton says he will not change his approach at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, vowing to "give it everything…

    F1
  26. Video: Alonso enters the world of eSports 05:32

    Video: Alonso enters the world of eSports

    FA Racing G2 Logitech G: a joint venture between one of the most iconic Formula 1 drivers in the world, Fernando Alonso, and one…

    F1
  27. Thursday 23 November 2017

  28. 17:02

    Latest F1 photos: Thursday in Abu Dhabi

    F1
  29. Alonso: Zero doubts over McLaren-Renault 16:22

    Alonso: Zero doubts over McLaren-Renault

    Fernando Alonso says he has "zero doubts" with regards to McLaren's decision to unite with Renault, as it prepares for its final…

    F1
  30. Hamilton: Last race with good-looking cars 14:16

    Hamilton: Last race with good-looking cars

    World Champion Lewis Hamilton feels that this weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be the final Formula 1 event with good-looking…

    F1
  31. Pirelli confirms Hyper Soft, seven slicks 12:47

    Pirelli confirms Hyper Soft, seven slicks

    Formula 1 tyre supplier Pirelli has confirmed that it will create seven slick compounds for the 2018 season, introducing the…

    F1
  32. Video: Pirelli's 2018 F1 tyre compounds 12:47

    Video: Pirelli's 2018 F1 tyre compounds

    Watch an animation of Pirelli's 2018 Formula 1 tyre range, following the introduction of the pink-banded Hyper Soft tyre, and…

    F1
  33. Ericsson: My F1 future reliant on Ferrari 11:06

    Ericsson: My F1 future reliant on Ferrari

    Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson accepts his future in Formula 1 is reliant on the levels of collaboration between the Swiss team…

    F1
  34. Video: 10 incredible electric vehicle creations 10:53

    Video: 10 incredible electric vehicle creations

    From lightning fast hypercars to a flying taxi... Formula E presents some of the most impressive electric vehicles in production…

    FE
  35. Ma gets NIO reserve driver role in Formula E 10:16

    Ma gets NIO reserve driver role in Formula E

    Ma Qing Hua will act as NIO's reserve driver for the upcoming Formula E campaign. Ma was the first Chinese driver to make an…

    FE
  36. Mazepin gets tyre test run with Force India 09:02

    Mazepin gets tyre test run with Force India

    Nikita Mazepin will return to Formula 1 test action with Force India during next week's post-race tyre running at the Yas Marina…

    F1
  37. Preview: Abu Dhabi set for F1 2017 swansong 07:12

    Preview: Abu Dhabi set for F1 2017 swansong

    The 2017 Formula 1 campaign comes to a conclusion this weekend with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit.…

    F1
  38. Video: Porsche reviews 2017 WEC season 05:42

    Video: Porsche reviews 2017 WEC season

    Porsche reviews its 2017 World Endurance Championship campaign, as it bows out of the LMP1 class following another victory at Le…

    WEC
  39. Wednesday 22 November 2017

  40. Mercedes 'determined' to cap year with win 16:20

    Mercedes 'determined' to cap year with win

    Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says the manufacturer is "determined" to sign off from its title-winning campaign with victory in Abu…

    F1
  41. Video: di Grassi's guide to Audi's FE car 15:38

    Video: di Grassi's guide to Audi's FE car

    Join reigning Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi as he gives a tour of Audi's e-tron FE04, which will be used in this season's…

    FE
  42. Todt to run unchallenged in FIA election 15:07

    Todt to run unchallenged in FIA election

    Jean Todt is poised for a third term as the FIA's President after he was listed as the only candidate for the upcoming…

    F1
  43. Honda eyes positive end to McLaren chapter 14:12

    Honda eyes positive end to McLaren chapter

    Honda says it hopes to cap its three-year relationship with McLaren on a positive note at this weekend's season-ending Abu Dhabi…

    F1
more news