- in Technology
From going to-to-toe with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, to some of the most scintillating and memorable drives in Formula 1 – John Watson’s record in the sport certainly isn’t a bad one.
The Northern Irishman’s F1 career spanned a twelve-year period from his first Grand Prix entry, at Silverstone in 1973, to his last appearance at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1985.
He made over 150 starts, notching up twenty podium finishes and taking the chequered flag on five occasions.
In times of both triumph and tragedy, Watson recalls each of his five victories in a stellar career.
1976 – Austrian Grand Prix – Osterreichring
John Watson’s first victory in Formula 1 came in Austria during a troubling period in Formula One, just two weeks after Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident at the Nurburgring.
Watson was driving for the American team Penske, who had themselves faced tragedy a year earlier at the Osterreichring circuit.
“Certainly the Seventies was a period when there were a number of accidents, some of them fatal,” recalled Watson.
“In the Austrian GP in 1975, the iconic Penske driver Mark Donohue had lost his life and that had led me to take over that seat at the team.
“A year later, Team Penske and myself were in a position where we had a competitive car, in part because we had the perfect set of Goodyear tyres that transformed its performance.
“The race had started on a damp track, with four or five of us jockeying for position on the opening few laps but, eventually, I took control of the race and took the chequered flag to score my first victory.
“It was the only victory for Penske in Formula One and it was the last Grand Prix win for an American-owned team.”
Team owner Roger Penske pulled the team out of F1 at the end of that season to concentrate on Indycar in the States.
“Roger Penske made a pragmatic call – but a great shame in my opinion,” added Watson.
“It left me in the situation at the end of 1976 where I was without a drive. The best option, with most drives allocated, was to move back to Brabham, who I was happy to team up with as I’d had a good relationship with them earlier in my career.”
The 1976 Austrian Grand Prix was also notable as the last time a female driver completed a Grand Prix, as the Italian Lella Lombardi finished in 12th for Brabham.
“The fact is that there simply hasn’t been, subsequently, another female driver who justified a place on a team,” Watson remarks. “There’s still a yawning gap there for a woman driver to step into.”
1981 British Grand Prix – Silverstone
Watson would wait five years to taste victory once more. After two seasons driving for Brabham, including a sixth place finish in the Drivers’ Championship in 1978, he moved to McLaren and, after some lean years, the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone would be one to savour.
“My home Grand Prix was, of course, very important for both me and the team. My family were present that day,” Watson remembers.
“In the previous two races that year, I had finished third in Jerez and then second in France. So, come Silverstone, the press were predicting a win.
“Silverstone is a high-speed circuit, tending to favour the turbo-charged cars of Renault and Ferrari at the time, but that McLaren was also a great car.”
“I had a setback mid-race when I just managed to avoid a tangle between Gilles Villeneuve and Alan Jones ahead of me but the engine had stalled. I had just enough momentum to get it back into gear, switch the fuel pump back on again and bump start but I’d lost five or six positions.
“As the race progressed, the McLaren was faultless, while the Renaults ahead suffered mechanical problems.
“I was able to pass Rene Arnoux for the lead and then there was a real reaction around the circuit from the fans because of the prospect of a British driver in a British car winning the British Grand Prix. I had to deal with all that.
“I didn’t want to just assume the win at that point, so those closing laps were like walking on eggshells.
“The team was telling me to slow down from the pitwall but I did it my way. I was in control and certainly didn’t need those instructions – but their nerves were understandable.
“They needed the victory so badly. McLaren had been in a lean period.”
Indeed, Watson’s win was McLaren’s first for four years and it was also significant for being the first time a car with a carbon fibre composite chassis had recorded a victory.
“That win was an endorsement of Ron Dennis and John Barnard, and the technology the pair had brought to McLaren,” added the Belfast-born driver.
“The introduction of carbon fibre technology in the manufacture of a race chassis was a seismic moment for motorsport. All of a sudden this new material had, in effect, stamped its future with that victory at Silverstone.”
1982 Belgian Grand Prix – Zolder
Watson again finished sixth in the drivers’ standings in 1981 but the following year enjoyed his best season in the competitive McLaren, taking third place overall.
He enjoyed two victories, starting with the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder but pre-race was totally overshadowed by the death of a popular fellow driver:
“On the Saturday, Gilles Villeneuve had been in a collision and lost his life,” said Watson.
“He was a charismatic driver and had been exciting to watch race – the kind of driver a lot of race fans flocked to watch.”
Villeneuve’s team, Ferrari, withdrew but the race would go ahead despite the tragedy.
“Somebody had to win the race on the Sunday,” Watson said. “Starting mid-grid, I remember making progress through the field.
“We’d made some very good decisions about the car on the Sunday morning, and those decisions played out in my favour and gave me a great car in an attritional race. My third world championship win gave me immense pleasure – in a certain context.”
Watson adds it was a victory that owed much to strategy: “Keke Rosberg simply wore his tyres out ahead of me. I’d looked after mine better and so by the tail of the race I was in a much better position and was able to catch him.
“At the end of the day, it’s about who takes the chequered flag first and not how you get to the penultimate lap leading, but then lose victory.”
1982 Detroit Grand Prix – Detroit City, USA
Within a month, Watson claimed his second win that season at the Detroit Grand Prix.
Three races were held in the States in 1982 and the Michigan venue would provide one of Watson’s finest moments, claiming first place after starting seventeenth on the grid. Not everyone was impressed with the venue but Watson won friends for his enthusiasm:
“It was a brand new circuit, a bumpy street circuit,” he recalls. “In the build-up, some of my peers were, bluntly, rude about inner-city Detroit. I was delighted to come to the ‘Motor City’, the home of Motown and the heart of the motor industry in America, and said I was looking forward to the Grand Prix.
“I think the media over there picked up on it – someone saying something positive.”
The Grand Prix was held on what Watson refers to as a ‘matrix’ circuit – “all ninety degree corners and straights” – and ended up being something of a two-part race.
“The race was red-flagged after Roberto Guerrero and Ricardo Patrese came off – and then recommenced an hour or so later,” he explains.
“The strength of the McLaren, yet again, was in a racing context. Good intelligent preparation and the right grade of tyre gave me a car I was able to drive well pretty much anywhere on the circuit and, as the race progressed, I found I was the quickest by a country mile.”
Watson quite simply carved through the field, at one point memorably overtaking Eddie Cheever, Didier Pironi and team-mate Niki Lauda, all in the same lap, to move up into second place.
“Keke Rosberg was now leading and had posted the fastest lap, only to be told over his radio that I’d taken 3.5 seconds off that,” Watson muses.
“I caught him, overtook him and pulled away – but because it was a two-part race, with times counting from both ‘halves’, I still had to extend my lead to ensure I took first place with the combined times.
“The car performed flawlessly and it may sound strange to say it but I could then have completed another Grand Prix distance.
“It was easy in terms of physical effort because the car did all the work. If the driver has to do all the work then there is something wrong with the car.”
1983 US Grand Prix West – Long Beach
The following year would be Watson’s last full season with McLaren. Again the States proved to be his happy hunting ground, with an historic win on the Long Beach circuit in California.
Watson was again forced to perform his race-day heroics after a poor qualifying which left him and team-mate Lauda began 22nd and 23rd respectively on the starting grid.
“Long Beach was a street circuit but was configured with a more natural feel,” he remembers. “Again, it was an example of the McLaren being an outstanding racing car.
“We weren’t able to get the best out of it in qualifying, largely because it was light on tyres with a light fuel load. However, come the race, we got more energy into the tyres because of the fuel load we were carrying and the car just came alive.”
In warm, sunny conditions, the McLaren pair tore through the field and Watson romped to victory, almost thirty seconds ahead of his team-mate by the finish:
“Niki just dropped away, shame he didn’t do that more often. That said, Niki and I were team-mates in 1978 at Brabham and then at McLaren in ’82 and ’83.
“Over those three seasons, we scored identical total championship points (84). So, there you go – a driver from Northern Ireland and a three-time World Champion had the same score in total over three years with two different teams.”
Watson’s win was a record in the modern F1 era – twenty-second was the farthest back a driver had ever come from on the grid to go on and win a race.
It proved to be the last time the popular Long Beach held an F1 Grand Prix, as the circuit turned its attentions to the CART championship from 1984 onwards – but Watson regrets its exit from the calendar:
“Long Beach had all the qualities for a Grand Prix,” he explains. “South of Los Angeles, it was always sunny, it looked good on TV, what with the bay and marina.
“But it came down to a commercial decision between Bernie Ecclestone and those running the circuit. It was CART’s and then IndyCar’s gain, but I think it was also one of Formula One’s great losses.”
As for pressing John Watson to pick a favourite win out of those five memorable Grand Prix victories, it’s rather like asking a father to pick his favourite child:
“I didn’t win a huge number but each one of them is special,” he concludes. “Your first win is like your first child – but each victory had a unique quality.
“Silverstone was important for McLaren’s future and Belgium was an excellent team effort to get the car to perform with a strong finish.
“Detroit had a novelty factor, as we didn’t know what to expect and Long Beach – that just gave me great satisfaction.”
John Watson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Haydn Parry.