Ask any knowledgeable contemporary F1 fan to recount John Watson’s F1 career, and you would be lucky to even get a shrug. Competing with the likes of Villeneuve, Peterson, and Hunt, Watson displayed the polar opposite of their spectacular styles; even he would admit to consciously avoiding risk. He was one of the few talented F1 pilots that deserved much better results than shown, but the constantly changing fortunes of the “binge-and-bust” 70’s-era Formula One teams for whom he drove, made choosing a successful team a desperate gamble.
Nevertheless, his world-class car tuning abilities and smoothly aggressive style brought him within 5 points of being the 1982 World Champion and delivered two of the most determined victories in Grand Prix history.
For John Watson, the itch to become a racing driver began during later childhood, as he attended the annual Tourist Trophy event at a circuit just outside Belfast, called Dundrod. The six-hour World Sports Car Championship race attracted the top drivers in the world from both sports cars and Grand Prix. Watching the best blast around in factory Mercedes, Astons, Jaguars and Maseratis started a fire in his imagination that was impossible to extinguish.
Watson grew up in a racing family; his father owned a motor business and competed in local races in Ireland. Between his father’s hobby and his reading all the accompanying racing magazines and books, the fire to be a driver accelerated. By the time it was expected that Watson would take over the family business, it was clear that the enthusiasm Watson lacked to run the family’s motoring business was more than offset by his desire to compete as racing driver.
The family relented and Watson dedicated his next few years to finding the path toward his calling.
His first outings in the mid-1960s were driving an Austin Healey Sprite. He quickly switched to open-wheelers, as his speed and pace became apparent against the more seasoned pilots in Ireland and the UK. His family found a used Brabham BT30, and he graduated to Formula 2 in 1970. A broken arm and leg in an accident at Rouen ended that first season, but he returned the following year, with even quicker lap times.
His determination attracted Paul Michaels, who ran the Hexagon motor trading group. Michaels forged a deal with a fellow car trader (and future F1 boss) Bernie Ecclestone for the one-off lease of a rather tired Brabham BT37 for Watson to race at the 1973 British Grand Prix.
That race would become infamous for Jody Scheckter’s opening lap spin that eliminated 11 cars. Watson, who qualified 23rd, avoided the melee, and ran as high as sixth before fuel system problems dropped him to 16th, finishing right behind Emerson Fittipaldi. Delighted, Michaels gave him another ride at the end of the year, and Watson was contracted for a full-time drive with Hexagon for the 1974 F1 season.
The year-old customer Hexagon Brabham BT42 gave the bearded Watson a tremendous 6th place in Monaco. He was then upgraded to the more competitive BT44 with a 4th in Austria, a 7th in Italy and a 5th in the US Grand Prix. He finished 15th in World Championship points in his first full season.Then his progress stopped.
Hexagon’s 1975 expansion plans collapsed through lack of funding and Watson was left without a drive. He had also driven for John Surtees in Formula 2 that year, so he negotiated a seat for the 1975 season. While Surtees’ competition history was formidable (World Motorcycle Champion before becoming Formula 1 Drivers’ Champion in 1962), his team management abilities suffered in comparison to other teams. Watson pushed hard in the outdated TS16, but his season was essentially a right-off; five DNFs and no points. Yet, as in racing in the day, seeds were sown that revived his career beyond anything he could imagine.
In Austria that season, Mark Donohue had lost his life driving the Penske PC1. With Surtees deciding to suspend operations at the end of that year, Watson approached the new Penske team for a seat at the US Grand Prix. Watson qualified 12th and finished 9th; more importantly, he and Roger Penske found they liked the combination and Watson was signed for 1976.
With Watson aboard, the Citibank Penske team began to quickly improve; his first podium with a 3rd in France and another in Great Britain demonstrated his acumen for sorting out a chassis and developing its potential.
During that season’s German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Niki Lauda was locked in the no-holds-barred battle with James Hunt for the 1976 championship. The race had started wet, but had turned dry and Lauda had changed tires and was charging back to the front when his car snapped sideways just before the Bergwerk corner. His car hit the embankment and burst into flames. Several drivers ran to his aid and struggled to remove him from the car. Watson’s Penske PC4 arrived just as Lauda was being hauled out of the car. Watson got down on his knees and laid Lauda’s head on his lap to keep him as settled as possible as they waited for the ambulance.
Watson was stunned by what he saw. Parts of Lauda’s scalp were charred black and there were also severe burns to his forehead. Lauda remained conscious and begged Watson to tell him what his face looked like. Watson whispered, “You’re fine, you’ve nothing to worry about, you’re OK’.”Lauda was calmed as Watson tried to assure him as much as he could.
It was a moment they would never forget. These two men would remain close from that day forward, bonded as friends and incredibly, later as trusting teammates with two teams.
Just two weeks later, the Penske team arrived for the Austrian Grand Prix, where a year earlier, Roger Penske and the team had lost their beloved friend and driver, Mark Donohue. Watson had worked tirelessly to make their PC4 a serious frontrunner that was also easy to drive. He felt the car was just on the cusp of becoming a winner, so much so that he bet Roger Penske that when he eventually won, he would shave off his beard. Qualifying second, Watson battled a damp track that became worse as a heavy rainstorm swept through; his easy-to-drive Penske delivered as promised, giving Penske their sole F1 win, Watson his first victory and a clean shaven face.
At the end of 76 season, Penske dropped out of Formula 1, leaving Watson to scramble to find a seat. By this time, Bernie Ecclestone, the former auto trader who had arranged the car for Watson’s F1 debut, had become owner of the Brabham team. A meeting was arranged and within 24 hours of losing the Penske drive, Ecclestone signed Watson for the 1977 season.
It seemed like a great career move at the time. The Brabham BT45 had Martini sponsorship, a powerful new 12 cylinder Alfa-Romeo engine, and the proven genius of designer Gordon Murray. And, clearest sign of all, the car’s potential had encouraged new World Champion Niki Lauda to forsake Ferrari to team with trusted friend Watson. Unfortunately, the Alfa engine was overweight and prone to detonate with no warning. While Murray produced a car that was fast, he was powerless to effect any reliability on the engine. During the season, Watson’s BT45 experienced 11 DNFs, six from engine and gearbox failures.
A good example might be the French Grand Prix. Andretti was on pole with Hunt second, Nilsson third and Watson fourth. Hunt got the best start and led into the first corner, with Watson second. He passed Hunt on the fifth lap and started to increase the gap. Andretti claimed second and began to catch Watson. Over the next 75 laps Watson and Andretti battled nose-to-tail,
but Watson resisted every advance until the final lap when his Alfa engine lost power; instantly Andretti knifed past for the win. It was that kind of season for Watson, with Lauda’s results even worse.
The 1978 season arrived with promises of more competitiveness. Murray had fashioned a striking new BT46; its wedge sides, pointed nose and ultra low rear deck looking fabulously futuristic. Murray had also planned to use the car’s shape to pull a surprise. The development of “ground effects” had made the Lotus ultra-competitive; its inverted winged side pods produced downforce at high speeds that “stuck” it to the tarmac. Murray countered with a BT46B for Watson and Lauda that used a fan to suck the air from beneath their cars, producing an even more effective vacuum at all speeds.
In Sweden, the pair sandbagged their competitiveness in practice and then simply disappeared into the distance during the race. The paddock was stunned and believed the car was illegal, however an FIA inspection declared it clearly legal. Nevertheless, Ecclestone, who was vying for leadership of the Formula One Constructor’s Group knew the car’s threat would cost him the support of the other owners. Further, as the FIA was now threatening to intervene, Ecclestone voluntarily withdrew the car. Watson’s season’s advantage suddenly evaporated.
During the season, the Alfa engine continued to cost Watson valuable points and even victories. Indeed, five times during the Brabham Alfa years, had Watson been driving the slower car gridded next to him, rather than his Alfa-powered car,
he would have finished at least in the top three. Fed up with the contradiction in performance, Watson replaced James Hunt at McLaren for the 1979 season.
Rather than another career move to avoid trouble, instead McLaren brought more misery. The McLaren M29 was greatly off the pace due to the team’s failure to master ground effect technology; every attempt to improve the cars repeatedly failed. He also had to deal with a newcomer teammate called Alain Prost. Watson, once a regular front row qualifier, was now related to mid-to-lower field. The record showed, between his Brabham-Alfa and early McLaren years (1977-1980) Watson suffered 19 DNFs due to engine and gearbox failures.
Prost, although quick, fared no better. Little did Watson know that these dreary years with McLaren would lead, in the end, to his renaissance and his most memorable victories.
Ron Dennis, in tandem with other marketing partners, took over McLaren in 1981 as the new McLaren International, just as Renault bought out Prost’s contract. Watson retained his seat and began developing the radical John Barnard-designed MP4, using the sport’s first carbon fibre monocoque.
Instantly, Watson knew had the tools to regain his form. He realised that the light, but stiff composite could enable him to refine the handling of the car due to the elimination of chassis flex and corner wind up. The car was able to reduce the wear of its Michelin tires, compared to its rivals, although the car’s weakness was that it couldn’t develop core tire temperature on certain circuits. His hard work paid off by that summer with his first victory in five years at the British Grand Prix. It was also McLaren’s first victory since James Hunt’s 1977 win in Japan and also the first victory in F1 for a carbon-fibre car. Most significantly, this victory re-established Watson as a frontrunner.
Watson reunited with old teammate Lauda for 1982. Lauda had retired in 1979, but returned when he realised he still had the ability and fortitude to win. It didn’t take him long to prove his case; he won the Long Beach Grand Prix in only his third race of the season. Watson knew he would have to up his game to stay with his old friend. He found victory in Belgium just a month later, and the pair proceeded to challenge for victory for the remainder of the season against the more powerful turbocharged cars from Renault, Ferrari and Brabham.
Detroit had joined the 1982 calendar as a new race venue. A temporary street circuit, Detroit’s narrow track, bumpy surface and start and stop sections between corners made it next to impossible for the powerful turbo cars to accelerate without losing control. Watson’s McLaren, with its naturally aspirated V8, was more forgiving. However, the MP4’s Michelin core temperature problem would mean trouble if the weather was cold. It was; Detroit delivered two unseasonably cold and wet days of qualifying. With McLaren’s Michelins not able to produce the proper heat, it seemed certain the teammates would remain stranded at the back of the grid; Lauda, 10th and Watson,17th.
As the events unfolded in Detroit the next morning, it was proof that in those days, nothing was certain.
Race day dawned hot and humid; with the improved conditions the relative qualifying performance between cars would vastly change. It was all up to the drivers to find the key to adjusting their cars for the new conditions.
Before the start, I photographed a very relaxed Lauda and Watson joking together, seemingly unconcerned about their starting positions.
It seemed as if they knew a secret. They did.
Michelin had told them that if they used a different tire compound, their MP4’s grip would dramatically improve. Instantly, they knew they had a chance to win; both made the change.
At the start, Prost’s Renault vaulted into the lead, but on the seventh lap, there was a red flag, halting the race. The cars returned to the pits and waited for nearly an hour, while all manner of repairs were made by the mechanics.
This time, the Watson and Lauda I photographed were steely-eyed. Their tires were working as promised and Watson couldn’t wait to exploit them. Together, they plotted how they would tear though the field, and tear they did.
At the restart, Prost again leapt to the front, but by lap 21, Rosberg had passed Prost’s Renault for the lead. Prost was soon out. Lauda was up sixth place, behind Rosberg, Pironi, Giacomelli, Cheever. By lap 30, Lauda was joined by Watson, who had already passed nearly half the field from 17th. Within a lap, Watson was past Giacomelli, and within a few more, he passed Lauda, Cheever and Pironi on the same lap. By lap 37 Watson was past Rosberg and went on to win by 15-seconds over Cheever. Never before had anyone ever made up so many positions to win a modern Formula One race. The victory vaulted Watson, a now 36-year-old Grand Prix veteran, into the lead in the world drivers’ championship standing with 26 points.
Watson arrived at the season’s final race in Las Vegas with an outside chance to win the World Championship: to be champion, he had to win the race. He came up one position short, finishing second to hand the title to Keke Rosberg.
Watson had just one more season in F1, but he left the sport with a bang.
Returning to Long Beach for the 1983 US Grand Prix West, the normally-aspirated McLarens of Watson and teammate Niki Lauda again suffered from lack of heat in their Michelin tires, and could only manage 22nd and 23rd positions in qualifying. Once the race began, Patrick Tambay, Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite wore away their tires as they battled each other, while Watson and Lauda quietly moved through the field. By lap 28, the McLarens were lying 3rd and 4th.
Lauda had led the duo from the start, while Watson was conserving his tires. By lap 33, Watson’s tires had the advantage. He made his move, out-braking his teammate at the end of Shoreline Drive. He was now 20 seconds behind the two leaders and within just three laps, he caught and passed both Patrese and Lafitte. Watson took the checkered flag nearly a half minute ahead of Lauda for his 5th and last career victory.
Detroit’s record had been erased. Watson had required just 70 minutes to make up 22 places. It was, and remains, the farthest back from which a modern Grand Prix driver had ever come to win a Formula One race.