After finding success as a driver, James Watt turned his attention to race preparation. He hasn’t looked back since. Motor Sport pays him a visit
Words: Richard Heseltine. Photography: Phil Starling
As ambitions go, it’s a big ‘un. “We have a team of guys who are young and motivated,” says an evidently enthusiastic James Watt. “A bold statement, perhaps, but we look to Prodrive as our model. We want to participate at the highest level in contemporary and historic motorsport and have the competitive desire to do so.”
We’re not about to argue. Since its formation in 1998, James Watt Automotive has quietly established itself as a major player in historic racing, with several high-profile restorations under its belt in addition to its rising reputation as a player in international GT racing.
A talented driver in his own right, Watt’s future was determined at an early age: “I was born on a Tuesday and I was at Oulton Park the following Saturday and Cadwell Park a day later. My mum and dad were mad keen on motorsport and my formative years were spent watching racing before I could compete myself. I went on to drive for quite a few years [culminating with the ’92 RJB Group Six title], and spent six years at McLaren watching and learning the trade before setting up on my own.”
Since then, the Staffordshire-based concern has broadened its outlook, encompassing several distinct strands. Most recently, it’s taken on a raft of highly specialist projects, not least the restoration of the one-off McLaren M25 F5000 car: “It was a full-blown effort as the car had been converted to M23 F1 spec at some point and we had to return it to its original configuration. We were reliant on other people’s memories. Bob Evans [the car’s original driver], among others, was able to shed some light.”
JWA has found some level of fame for its Matra sports prototype rebuilds on behalf of a South American client: “We’ve discovered that we can only confidently keep control of the timeline and quality by doing work in-house. Therefore, we have at our disposal as complete a range of skills as we can bring together. For example, we employ a former aircraft fabricator who is accomplished in the use of exotic metals, and a time-served machinist with tool-making capabilities to drive our CNC four-axis mill. We also have a graduate engineer with CAD skills, which has particularly helped us with the Matras. Some of the safety factors on these cars can be bettered in the modern era with the improvement of friction coefficients in brake systems and tyres. As we replicate critical components, we need to stress analyse and, in a surprising number of instances, we have had to increase the specification of materials and methods while remaining faithful to the original design concepts.
“I’m proud of our Matra engine build work. The looks on the faces when we start these cars is a great reward [latest project being the rebuild of a Matra-powered Ligier JS17]. To occasionally drive them is a fantastic privilege too. It’s also the most challenging thing I have been involved in: restoration of these cars has very nearly broken the resolve of our organisation but we are now an ace away from success, touch wood. The Matra chassis have been relatively straightforward; time-consuming and quirky, but fathomable. However, the engines which arrived with us in a disassembled state have proved a massive challenge. With the assistance of EPAF, an organisation set up to provide access to the Matra archive, we should see the fruits of our labours running reliably in competition this year. Or, alternatively, me shaking uncontrollably in a corner.”
Broadening its scope with re-engineered classics — “we’ve been commissioned by Mill Lane Engineering to do all of its restoration work” — JWA is also set to emulate the other team with these famous initials (“the Gulf Porsche 917 is still my favourite car”) with an attack on modern endurance events.
“In 2001 we rented out a TGP car to Paul Daniels, who was tired of receiving poor value from hire-drive deals in contemporary sportscar racing and wanted to put together his own team: he asked us to supply back-up and knowhow. That was in 2005. We campaigned a Porsche 911 GT3-RS in four Le Mans Series rounds, earning the first world championship points for the team and harassing the works-assisted Porsche teams, with Dane Allan Simonsen sharing the car. We were totally in awe of the established teams at the beginning of the season, but once we’d taken a few scalps we were quite happy on the world stage. We’ve upgraded to a GT3-RSR for ’06 and were disappointed not to have our Le Mans 24 Hours entry accepted. I hope that our LMS activities this year will help towards the ACO making a more favourable decision for ’07. I’ve dreamed of Le Mans since I was five years old. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to visit until I was either driving in the 24 Hours or running a car, so a ‘JWA Porsche’ racing at the Circuit de la Sarthe will be the culmination of a dream!”