That John Watson never won a grand prix for Brabham defies logic, for he was so close so many times. But this missed opportunity really hurt, he tells Adam Cooper
John Watson scored his first grand prix win in Austria in 1976, and his second in Britain in ’81. Those two career landmarks were separated by almost four years of frustration and disappointment for the Ulster driver, who at times thought the second win was never going to come.
But no single race was as cruel as the 1977 French GP at Dijon-Prenois, when `Wattie’ came within a mile of what would have been a glorious victory over Mario Andretti’s Lotus.
When Penske decided to switch to ChampCar racing at the end of 1976, John moved to Brabham to replace the Ferrari-bound Carlos Reutemann. Bernie Ecclestone’s outfit had endured a difficult first season with Alfa Romeo flat-12 power, but Watson knew the team well, and believed in the ability of designer Gordon Murray to turn the situation around in ’77.
That faith was repaid at the opening round in Argentina, where he qualified second. His front suspension failed in the race, but a second place for team-mate Carlos Pace showed that the combination had potential. This was further underlined in South Africa, where Pace qualified second and Watson set fastest lap.
“It was a good car,” John recalls. “The Alfa Romeo was a nice engine to drive, for the flat-12 offered tremendous flexibility.”
After Kyalami, the team was rocked by the news of Pace’s death in an aeroplane crash in Brazil. Watson stepped up to the challenge of remotivating the team, and was a regular front runner. He took pole at Monaco, and then qualified second in Belgium, only for Andretti to take him off on the opening lap.
“I was pissed off with Mario because I had the lead going into the chicane behind the pits. And he just misjudged it. But in those days you didn’t harbour those kinds of grudges.”
In Sweden, John again qualified second, but this time his race was ruined by an assault from Jody Scheckter. At the time, he was in second place behind Andretti, who would eventually run out of fuel with three laps to go. Another chance wasted.
Then came Dijon. John qualified fourth, but a blinding start got him ahead of the Lotuses of Andretti and Gunnar Nilsson, and left him behind only James Hunt. It took him just five laps to relieve the world champion of the lead. Some 12 laps after that, Andretti also passed Hunt for second, and thus John had black and gold in his mirrors.
“To me, it was a bit of a David and Goliath race; I was Goliath and Mario was David. The downside of the Alfa at that stage was that it needed a lot of fuel, and so carried much more than did a DFV-powered car. So we were heavy at the start.
“Dijon was one of those circuits where it was virtually impossible to pass, even in those days, unless the guy ahead of you made an error. I knew Mario was all over me like a rash, but I was able to maintain my advantage round the back of the circuit and then, coming onto the pit straight, I could get into that long right-hand corner and Mario couldn’t get a run at me. I could then take the thing up the hill past the pits, and maintain my distance.
“I also realised that if Mario got ahead of me, I couldn’t get back. I knew I could stay ahead of him, but if he got ahead of me he had enough advantage on certain parts of the circuit to stay ahead. He had a car that was more nimble, arguably easier on its tyres — all those kinds of things. It had less weight, because of lower fuel levels, so it would have been at an advantage, particularly in low-speed corners, and marginally so in the medium-speed corners. In high-speed corners, there wasn’t much difference.”
John led from laps five to 79, and never put a foot wrong, despite intense pressure. But this race had 80 laps, and that last 2.36-miles proved to be every driver’s worst nightmare.
“Everything was normal, and I was thinking, ‘Wow! Here we go, number two, a nice win under a lot of pressure.’ I got to the lowest part of the circuit, which was the downhill left-hander, accelerated to the hairpin at the far side of the circuit, which was an uphill second-gear corner, turned in, picked up the power. And all of a sudden, B-r-r-r-r-r-r’. It just died.
“I couldn’t believe it. Mario saw me slowing down, and now he had the momentum, and I’d lost it So he was able then to get up alongside me, then fractionally ahead. The engine coughed back into life at this point as fuel got back into it.
“We went virtually side-by-side into the next left-hand corner, which took us back onto the original circuit. But he was on the inside and had the advantage, and again the thing gave a hiccup. And that was it. All over.”
Barely able to believe his misfortune, Watson followed Mario round that last sweeping right and up the hill onto the pit straight After 109 minutes of racing, he’d lost by a mere 1.5sec. It might as well have been a lifetime.
“The little amount of fuel that was in the car was being surged under braking and cornering. And that was enough to cause it to go away from the valve that was feeding the collector tank. Whether it was because of a faulty valve or there was not enough fuel, I just don’t know.”
When he got back to the pits, John couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“What can you say? Everybody was gutted. Bernie was gutted. I was gutted. Alfa was gutted. I was pissed off because I thought I’d done a good job on the day. Very often races are won not by being the quickest — all that matters is getting across the line first. I’d done a good job of bringing the car home, I thought, until the last lap. The win was there, but for a mile.”
The 1977 season still had some trouble in store for him. Just two weeks later at Silverstone, he lost a victory after a famous battle with Hunt, this time because of a fuel-feed problem. At Hockenheim, he was in second, and about to take the lead, when the engine blew. And so it went on. In fact, he failed to score a point between Dijon and the end of the season. Not surprisingly, it got him down.
“When events conspire to cause you not to get the results or consistency of performance that you’re looking for, then you again start to become — in your own thinking and your own perspective — slightly negative. And then you start to think, ‘What’s going to go wrong now?’ So you start being negative in your approach to it It’s almost as if you’re willing things to go wrong.”
In 1981, Watson would take a more satisfying second place at Dijon in the McLaren MP4. And two weeks after that, Lady Luck finally smiled on him, at Silverstone.