Despite laughable budgets and two serious shunts, John Watson finally got the F1 chance he deserved. Paul Fearnley retraces the Ulsterman’s torturous route to that first GP win
Bill Ivy breezed into top-flight motor racing. The chirpy biker with the fashionably straggly hair roared into Thruxton’s paddock aboard his beloved Maserati Ghibli, fired off a few wisecracks, plonked his backside into an ex-Winkelmann Brabham and slapped it on pole for the first heat. It was the Easter Monday Formula Two meeting of 1969; it was Ivy’s first qualifying session in a car. He’d already stolen the show.
Tucked away in the same paddock, ‘hiding’ behind a neatly trimmed beard and beneath a brown suede trilby, was John Watson. This 22-year-old from Belfast was five seasons into his racing career, but for a lad with a long-held distant dream of becoming a grand prix driver, the journey began here. Today.
Even via ferry — transporter and a brace of year-old Lotus 48s safely stowed away — the mainland was, physically, but a short hop away; psychologically, the crossing was a quantum leap. The Irish scene was bustling. Self-contained, too. Big fish, small pond — few had bothered to test the waters elsewhere: the craic wasn’t as good, the competition was too good. Watson was different. Or was he? He was having doubts: “When I looked around and saw all those big names — Hill, Stewart, Siffert — I thought, ‘Just what the hell am I doing here?”
He had a point. There was an incredible entry for this opening round of the European series: Beltoise, Cevert, Regazzoni, Courage, Bell and, of course, the king of F2 himself — Jochen Rindt. Watson was a hotshoe back home in his dinky Brabham `twink’ — regular wins at Phoenix Park, first 100mph lap of Bishopscourt — but he was out of his depth here, surely? He’d never seen the track, never driven a car with wings — never even driven the car, the ex-Jackie Oliver works machine. Gerry Kinnane’s ground-breaking Team Ireland was small beer here, and it took some persuading to get ‘Wattie’ to leave its truck.
He was in Ivy’s heat — 2.6sec and two rows behind him, but ahead of Regazzoni’s Ferrari 166 — and finished 11th, a lap down, after the engine had cooked on the line. This gave him a slot on the eighth row for the 50-lap final… alongside Rindt! The Austrian had been 2sec quicker than everyone else in practice, and he’d led the second heat until his Brabham punctured. The 45,000 crowd was buzzing: a Rindt charge was on the cards.
It would be wrong to suggest that Watson sat glued to Jochen’s gearbox as he blasted to the front in quick sticks — but he wasn’t a million miles away. Indeed, he was in a stunning fifth place when he understeered off at Cobb on lap 30.
“I’d passed some good people: Servoz-Gavin, all three Ferrari drivers,” he says. “I was shy, but I had self-belief; it’s fair to say, though, that I had surprised myself. And this set the seal on my desire; I’d been able to measure myself against strong competition. My family realised that what I’d been dreaming about was now a possibility. They realised that I wasn’t going to be satisfied working in the business [his father’s “wind tunnel of a garage” — hence the hat and racing at the weekends. They made a commitment to me, made some sacrifices so that I could move on.”
Watson was born into a racing family, his father Marshall having won the first touring car event to be held in Northern Ireland — at the wheel of a Citroen Light 15! A strong character, Marshall was happy to champion his son’s cause; John’s first racing car may only have been an Austin-Healey Sprite, but its go-faster bits and sharp preparation put most of its rivals to shame. The Crossle sports-racer that followed it was a minter, too. The reputation was starting to build, and with a 1600 Ford twin-cam dropped into the back of an ex-works F2 Brabham, it was time to venture abroad: Formula Libre at Mallory and Oulton, that sort of thing. More of a raiding party than an invasion.
It might have been different in 1969, but that Thruxton shunt forced Watson to return home for the remainder of the year while the family regrouped to buy him a Brabham BT30 for another crack at F2. “We wondered about F3, but the cars I’d been driving in Ireland were already quicker than F3s, so I didn’t see the point,” he explains. “Money was very tight, though: it was me, a mechanic, a Transit and a trailer, one spare engine, two sets of wheels, one spare nose — but I was very determined.” Which is how he found himself living in London and arriving back at Thruxton, one year on, again in a car he had never driven… He put it on the front row for heat two! Alongside him was Ickx’s works BMW and the Lotus 69 of… Rindt. He finished behind this illustrious pair in the race, too, and was running fifth in the final when he crashed at… Cobb. Unlike 1969, however, his campaign did not end in Hants: he DNQ-ed at Hockenheim, qualified on the front row at Montjuich, finished ninth in the Eifelrennen (his first visit to the Nurburgring), retired at Zolder, collided with Peterson’s March at the ‘Palace and flunked at Hockenheim’s second meeting. The daunting Rouen was next…
“I loved that place,” he says. “I was flat through those downhill sweepers on only my third lap in practice.” And then a tyre blew. “I was coming back up the hill. Bang! The car spun at 140mph and hit the Armco on both sides of the track. I opened my eyes and realised that I had an extra joint in my forearm! I’d broken my left leg and ankle, too. The medics took me to the worst hospital I’ve ever seen, some sort of nunnery.” Bernie Ecclestone rescued him and had his pilot fly him back home, but another season had been curtailed.
In some ways, though, 1971 was even tougher. Watson had escaped from the hated London and relocated to Church Farm Racing’s old Bognor Regis base, but his reworked car was now a year old and the budget was even tighter: a DNF equalled no prize money; no prize money meant no next race. Cautious with revs and cagey in traffic, he still finished the season in the red. The family had to call time. It looked to be all over.
* * *
“There was this Irish guy who looked like Jesus, in a Lotus 48. That was never a good car, and so when he charged through the field with it at Thruxton, he really caught my attention.” It would be two years, though, before New Zealand’s Allan McCall and Watson would work together. And theirs would be a partnership forged in tragedy. When McCall’s best buddy, partner in the Tui team and promising racer, Bert Hawthorne, was killed at Hockenheim in 1972, Watson was not the first man he thought of as the ‘replacement’ — but he had no cause to regret his eventual decision.
McCall: “Bert lived in Ireland until he was eight; my family was Irish. What else could I do? John supplied a very fast V6 Transit, and we just got on with it. He was a class act, his track skills were faultless. If he had a weakness, it was that he tried to look after our very meagre budget too well.” Old habits…
The results were not spectacular, the Tui’s 1740cc Hart engine up against the advance of the 2-litres but, crucially, Watson was being paid to drive somebody else’s car — and getting noticed: “I wasn’t aware of it. But I guess that some people were able to see the speed, to see beyond the retirements, to take into account my circumstances.”
When a contractual problem prevented Peter Gethin from driving Chevron’s B20 F2 car in the Rothmans 50,000 at Brands Hatch in August, Watson got a last-minute call-up. The race was a weird affair, a 118-lap Formula Libre job — F1, F2 and F5000 — and Watson impressed as its fastest F2 runner. A problem with the fuel breather forced him into a second pitstop, and he was classified sixth after a late collision — but the boss of Hexagon of Highgate had seen enough. In fact, Paul Michaels had been convinced for a while, having checked out Watson’s performance in a Chevron B21 in April’s 1000-kilometre race at the same track. Michaels had somehow ended up with the ex-Eifelland March 721 in a swap deal made with famed Irish car dealer ‘Monkey’ Brown — he’d handed over a Bugatti in exchange! — and was now looking for someone to drive it. ‘Monkey’ had recommended Watson…
With its strange periscope mirror, the Eifelland had been a laughing stock, yet it allowed Watson and Michaels to prove that they were serious contenders with a storming performance in their first attempt at F1, the end-of-season Victory Race, again at Brands. With the car put back to March spec, Watson ran as high as fourth in wet conditions before fading slightly to sixth: “It was so terribly easy. What was all the fuss about Formula One? I drove freely that day, without expectation. It was a good feeling.”
Michaels: “That afternoon turned out to be the most expensive of my life. There was no big plan to continue in F1, but I was so impressed with John, and we hit it off so well, that I was keen to do more with him.”
Watson, though, was suddenly in demand, and he signed with Ecclestone’s Motor Racing Developments for 1973, to drive its works F2 BT40 and contest some F1 races, and also with Mirage, to share an M6 with Mike Hailwood. And having worked so hard to get this far, he was determined not to let a sticky throttle get in the way of his big chance: the debut drive of Gordon Murray’s first F1 car, the BT42, in the Race of Champions in March.
“I should have come in,” he admits, “but I didn’t want to let the team down. I decided to drive around the problem.” It was a decision he would regret, spearing off at Stirling’s early in the race. “I didn’t hit the barrier too hard, but it folded — and so did my right leg!” It was another bad break, another interruption, his new-look career halted almost before it had begun. He returned in June, at Le Mans, desperate to make up for yet more lost time, but in his absence the third BT42 at the British GP had been promised to Andrea de Adamich. Michaels stepped in, persuading Ecclestone to loan him an old BT37 for the race. It was a bag of bolts, and Watson retired it with a failed metering unit, but not before he had set the sixth-fastest lap. Yes, the field had been depleted by the big shunt, but the signs were there if you cared to look.
Hexagon now decided to square the circle: with backing from businessman John Goldie, it would tackle an entire F1 season with Watson, who felt right at home in this tight-knit, single-car outfit. “That was a very good team, with some fantastic people. I got on particularly well with the Firestone guy, Bruce Ashmore; he was absolutely brilliant at translating my feedback.”
The results in that brown BT42 were solid in a particularly competitive season — sixth at Monaco bringing Watson his first F1 point — but matters really perked up with the arrival of a BT44: John crashed it at the ‘Ring, finished fourth in Austria (a superb comeback drive after an early pitstop for new tyres) and qualified fourth at Monza…
“Gordon Murray is an absolute genius,” he says. “I think he was the first to understand tapered titanium variable springs and rising-rate suspension. The BT44 was fantastic it was perhaps the best Formula One car I ever drove.”
Unfortunately for Watson, it wasn’t the strongest, a rear suspension failure pitching him into the barriers at the Lesmos right at the death in practice. The works loaned him its T-car for the race, but brake woes dropped him to seventh. The season ended on a high note, though fifth at Watkins Glen and the team hoped to run two cars in 1975. Privateers were a dying breed, however: the money never arrived; Hexagon’s big adventure was over.
Michaels: “That was a shame, because we had the makings of a very good team. And in John I was convinced that we had a potential champion. He was quick and free from bullshit: he admitted to mistakes, and when he told us to do something to make the car go faster, it always went faster.”
Surtees was hardly cashed-up either, but it offered Watson a Plan B for 1975, and he grabbed it. Second and fourth places in the early-season British non-championship F1 races gave grounds for hope — as did a strong qualifying run at Montjuich Park — but the season descended into disappointment with the “little bit heavy” TS16. When the team was forced to pull out and reassess, Wattie landed a JPS Lotus 72 drive at the Nurburgring (its front suspension broke!), but he feared yet another hard winter: “It was at that meeting, though, that I had a chat with Heinz Hofer [Penske’s F1 team manager]. He told me that the team had me in mind for 1976. Then Mark Donohue was killed at the Oesterreichring, and they asked me to race at Watkins Glen.”
It was a massive hole to fill: Penske and Donohue had been America’s Clark and Chapman. But once again it was a single-car team with good people; Watson felt comfortable. The feeling was mutual and Penske signed him.
The Geoff Ferris-designed PC3 began 1976 well, but it was badly affected by the aerodynamic rule changes that came into force in Spain in May. Penske ordered Ferris to pen a new car, but his PC4 proved disappointing — initially.
“Roger is very hands-on,” says Watson. “He was busting his balls that year, flying to and from The States every other weekend. But he was very sharp, and after looking at the McLaren M23, he told us to fit a spacer to lengthen the wheelbase, and to fit a normal front wing. These changes transformed the car.” Watson arrived at the Osterreichring in August after two thirds (Paul Ricard and Silverstone) and a disappointment at the Nurburgring (seventh). A year on from Donohue’s fatal crash, a Penske lined up on the front row. Was destiny calling?
The early stages were tense, Peterson’s March and Scheckter’s six-wheeled Tyrrell both getting their noses in front of a hectic slipstreamer. But by lap 12, Watson was back ahead. And by lap 15, he was pulling away: “Here I was, leading a grand prix at last — but what was I doing that was in any way different to what I had always done?”
Just as it had at Thruxton in 1969, it felt easy, natural. Calm confidence oozed from the cockpit of the shy guy from Ulster. The laps were reeled off and the long-awaited win understatedly accepted: he’d done it once, he could do it again. Of course, he couldn’t have known that Penske would pull the plug on its F1 programme in December, or that his next GP victory was five years away. But one thing he knew for sure, as did Roger Penske — who had made a win-and-shave bet with him — as did the whole paddock: it was time for him to step out from behind that beard.