Assessment: John Watson

Finding the right niche

John Watson’s Grand Prix career effectively finished a few days after the 1983 South African Grand Prix. After five years as a member of the Marlboro McLaren squad, he found himself dropped from the 1984 line-up when Alain Prost unexpectedly came onto the market following a split with the French Renault Elf team. Suddenly, the man who had almost seemed “part of the furniture” in F1 circles was out of work. It all happened very abruptly indeed.

Watson admits that “the business of McLaren sorting out my contract for the following year had frequently been a last minute kind of thing. There had never seemed to be much urgency about it.

“I mentioned to the Marlboro people after the Kyalami race that it was getting round to contract time and that we ought to discuss it. Then, a couple of days after I returned home, I heard that Prost was out at Renault and in at McLaren. So that was the end of my stint with them.”

In pure racing terms, it was less than ‘Wattie’ deserved at the time on the strength of his own performances. Granted, we all knew Prost was good, and it is now accepted that he is more than good. He is brilliant. But Watson was seldom a slouch in Grand Prix terms, often eclipsing twice-World Champion Niki Lauda in the two seasons that they raced alongside one another at McLaren.

An assessment of Watson’s career is not only worthwhile, but also timely. The three years following his involuntary retirement from the sport’s top echelon, the Ulsterman’s racing fortunes were patchy. But now he is back with a regular drive in a high-profile team — the Silk Cut Jaguar line-up fielded by Tom Walkinshaw Racing in the World Sportscar Championship.

More importantly, at 41, Watson is no longer a frustrated Grand Prix ace or a part-timer, seeking to fill in his time between F1 commitments with outings in these highly competitive English machines.

“I accept that my F1 career is over now and my sights are totally focused on putting my entire effort into the Jaguar project,” he says positively. “More importantly, I’m not saying that as a concession. I always hoped that when my F1 career was over I would be able to continue enjoying my racing in another category such as sports cars or saloons. Well, that’s what I am doing now with Jaguar.

“As well as being a professional driver I have always been an enthusiast, and the idea of driving for a team with the history and sense of tradition of Jaguar is something which I’m really excited about. I will be giving it everything I’ve got.”

Watson’s Grand Prix career encompassed five victories, two of which were truly outstanding and one, the last, so amazing that nobody quite understood why or how it had happened.

Driving for the American Penske team, Watson’s triumph in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix was masterly. His precise, artistic touch got the best out of the competitive Penske PC4, and there was no doubting the fact that John was in complete control from start to finish. He followed that up by dicing wheel-to-wheel with James Hunt’s McLaren M23 at Zandvoort, only losing a chance of taking the lead when the gearbox broke beyond half distance. It was great stuff.

Sadly, at the end of the year Penske withdrew from F1 and John found himself on the market. He was immediately snapped up to drive in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo team alongside Carlos Pace. Powered by their thirsty Italian flat-12-cylinder engines, the Brabham-Alfas were powerful but heavy machines. John immediately underlined his stature by taking a spell in the lead of the first race of the year, the Argentine Grand Prix at Buenos Aires.

After three races, the mantle of team leadership fell onto his shoulders after the untimely death of Pace in a light aircraft crash near Sao Paulo, in his native Brazil. In the races that followed, I always felt we saw Watson at his consistent best. In my view, although he won no races during his two years at Brabham, he drove some of his most Impressive races during this time.

He dominated the 1977 French GP at Dijon, only losing to Mario Andretti’s Lotus mid-way round the last lap when the Brabham hesitated momentarily, low on fuel. He spent such of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the head of the field. He was on pole position at Monaco. What’s more, he sustained this momentum through the 1978 season when Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone brought Niki Lauda, fresh from Ferrari as reigning World Champion, into the fold as his partner.

Watson has frequently made the point that, on reflection, perhaps he was not quite as aggressively assertive as Ecclestone would have liked. “There’s no question in my mind that I was a match for Niki in terms of aggression and competitiveness when I was strapped into the cockpit,” he muses, “but Niki was much more aggressive out of the cockpit. I was more placid. I sometimes thought that Bernie interpreted that as a weakness on my part.”

By the end of the 1978 season Ecclestone had decided to replace Watson with Nelson Piquet, the brilliant young Brazilian newcomer who had built up a storming reputation on the British F3 scene that same summer. It was difficult to see where Watson might find another berth, but tragedy intervened to open an unexpected door for 1979. Ronnie Peterson, who had signed to join the McLaren team, died after his Lotus crashed heavily in a multiple accident at the start of the Italian GP. John, perceived as a steady and reliable performer, quietly accepted the vacant position.

Watson became more of his own man from this point onwards, although the machinery failed to come up to scratch in 1979. The ground effect McLaren M28 was a disaster, its lack of form sapping the Ulsterman’s confidence. He had felt poised to sustain the momentum his career had built up during his two years with Brabham, but McLaren let him down quite badly.

The team built a new car, the M29, which allowed Watson to regain some confidence towards the end of the year. A good fourth on its first outing in the British GP at Silverstone and a similar result at Montreal, where he led Carlos Reutemann’s Williams for some distance before spinning, helped salvage his reputation.

He was to spend another four years with McLaren, where his perfectionist approach proved something of a double-edged sword. For John, professionalism meant setting up a car to a painstaking level of perfection. He always knew precisely what he wanted from a chassis, but sometimes found the route to arrive at that destination strewn with problems. When the McLarens were bad, John floundered round almost embarrassingly off the pace. But when he tuned them to his liking, brilliant was the only word to describe him.

Throughout 1980 he struggled to make the unloved M29 work properly. Usually he could not, and his frustration was compounded by the fact that his fresh-faced novice team-mate, one Alain Prost, frequently ran quicker.

But when the Ron Dennis/John Barnard new broom swept through the team, ushering in a new era with the superb carbon fibre MP4, Watson suddenly had a machine beneath him which he knew he could do justice to. He got back into the winner’s circle at Silverstone for the British GP, but his pursuit of Prost’s Renault and Laffite’s Ligier at Dijon and Montreal respectively produced a couple of second places which, in truth, were far more impressive than his sole victory that season.

Partnered by returnee Niki Lauda in 1982 and 1983, Watson felt comfortable running alongside his old Brabham partner and the Austrian makes no secret of the fact that he enjoyed life with John as well. Off-track, Niki had the psychological upper-hand in terms of repartee and banter, but John could often give him a good hiding out on the circuit.

He admits that he “loved turning over the form book, coming through the field from a low starting position to finish strongly.” His win at Detroit in 1982 was right out of that mould. His McLaren scythed through the pack, dodging through gaps that hardly seemed open.

Even Lauda was easy meat that afternoon and Niki admits it. “I just had a mental block about passing people in that race,” he shrugs, “then along came John and he went sailing through without any trouble. Remarkable.”

But if that Detroit performance was memorable, Watson’s final career Grand Prix victory at Long Beach the following year was so remarkable as to be almost inexplicable. Hopelessly off the pace during qualifying, John and Niki lined up 22nd and 23rd — then came galloping through the field to finish first and second, admittedly aided by a high level of retirements.

In many ways that final success encapsulated Watson’s whole ability as a racing driver. Never at his best sorting out the technical conundrums posed by qualifying, John’s racing prowess was terrific to watch when things were running his way. Unquestionably, he was an F1 exponent with boundless natural ability. His was an intuitive talent.

When he lost his McLaren seat at the end of the year, the future seemed uncertain. The 1984 season saw him driving one of the Group 44 Jaguars at Le Mans (he retired), and sharing the winning Rothmans Porsche 956 at Fuji later in the year. “I think it’s fair to say that Stefan Bellof won the race, and I just happened to be driving the same car,” he grins candidly.

An F1 return with Toleman seemed on the cards for 1985, but that sadly fell through. Even now, it is not something that he finds remotely amusing, and one can detect a feeling that he might have been used as a pawn by the team in the complex and unpredictable game of chess which went on in an attempt to secure tyre supplies.

At the end of that season he had one final F1 fling in the best car available, a McLaren MP4/2B, in the Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch. Niki Lauda had hurt his wrist in a Spa practice shunt, so ‘Wattie’ was recruited to deputise for his former teammate. Before he did so, he went through a great deal of soul-searching, particularly after a Donington test session where he was hard-pressed to get within a coupie of seconds of Prost’s best.

In the race he finished seventh, close behind the Arrows of Thierry Boutsen. It was an experience which helped him accept that his F1 days were over— and left him highly impressed with Alain Prost’s driving skill. It says much for his sense of realism that, after the first pre-race trial run, John was reluctant to compete at Brands Hatch. He knew full-well just how crucial continuity is to a competitive F1 driving programme. And he had not had the benefit of such continuity.

“I don’t feel in any way resentful that my F1 days are past,” he says without a trace of bitterness. “You need something beyond a normal commitment to get the best out of today’s Grand Prix cars, a high level of bravado which perhaps I’m no longer capable of producing. I’m much more premeditated in my approach to driving these days. Everything is rational, conforming to a predictable pattern.”

Ideal qualities, one is tempted to opine, for a top-line contender in the World Sportscar Championship. Watson and Jaguar should interlock together as kindred spirits.

John seems more contented and serene than I can remember for years, as he faces one of the most challenging, high-profile seasons of his entire career. The raw materials for success are there, and he seems ideally placed to make them work in his favour. AH