They raced against each other for many years and together in Formula 1 for three seasons but throughout there remained a strong mutual bond between Niki Lauda and John Watson that defused the competitive tension.
“I think it’s a reflection of the era in which we grew up,” Watson says. “We first met in 1971, when we were competing in European F2. We were part of a band of brothers, travelling from one event to the next, eating in the same restaurants, staying in the same hotels – much quainter than the horrible big things grand prix teams use today. It was very easy to develop friendships and Niki and I always got along well.
“It was soon apparent that there was much more to him than just natural ability, too – he was obviously quick, but he swiftly established himself as a great communicator, able to tell his mechanics what needed changing. That might sound fundamental, but he had a way of doing it very concisely, using far fewer words than most of us, and it was very effective…”
Lauda and Watson teamed up in F1 for the first time in 1978, with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo team, and finished fourth and sixth respectively in the world championship. “What I most remember about that season,” Watson says, “is the fun we had – and Bernie was very much part of that. Everything would be intensely competitive at the track during the day, but then we’d all go out together for a nice meal.
“It was the same when we were at McLaren in the early 1980s. I’d been there for two or three seasons before he joined – and, obviously, he wanted to take control when he arrived, but that was fine. It was actually very satisfying when I could trigger an outburst of, ‘How’s f***ing Watson done this?’ or ‘How’s f***ing Watson done that?’ I relished the challenge of taking him on and it never affected our relationship.
“Is there a tendency for people to underrate Niki? I think there is. He might not have been as spectacular to watch as some of his rivals, but raw speed is only part of a driver’s armoury. Niki was also fiercely intelligent and it was a combination of factors – his speed, his analytical mind, his ability to manage races – that made him a formidable opponent.
“He was absolutely one of the greats.”
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