John Watson on the McLaren MP4

In retrospect John Watson and Andrea de Cesaris deserve a lot of credit for climbing into the unproven MP4 and heading into the unknown. While Andrea was just 21 ,and perhaps a little lacking in, er, imagination,Wattie had seen a lot of shunts up close. In 1973 he broke his legs at Brands Hatch when a Brabham tub folded around him; he knew that an accident could hurt.

“When you get involved in something as new and as different as that,” says Watson, “there’s always a sense of apprehension. But I think the more I became familiar with it. the more I understood about, the more I had confidence in it.

“However at first it was difficult to accept the trust of John and Hercules that this was a better construction than a metal chassis. Somebody had to have a shunt in the bloody thing to prove a point, and Andrea was the one who managed to do that fairly regularly!

And it did confirm that carbon construction, correctly applied, was the way to go. It wasn’t always used correctly by others.

“The thing that was notable about the car was in terms of comfort; parts of your body suddenly developed bruises which you didn’t get before, for example when you braced yourself down by the steering wheel bulkhead, and on your elbows when you hit the side. Carbon was so unyielding. Aluminium always seemed to give fractionally, was perhaps that bit softer, whereas this was unbelievably painful.”

Wattle’s accident in the Italian GP put any niggles about cockpit comfort into perspective. “There had been a lot of shunts, but Monza was very graphic because it was televised, the shunt was widely seen.When I got out of the car it was only then I realised I’d lost my engine and gearbox. I just saw this engine sliding across the track and thought whoever was behind me and had a massive one! I had no injury whatsoever, barely even whiplash, but when I got back to the pits everybody was concerned that I’d been seriously injured or maybe worse. I just said, ‘Sorry guys, the engine’s off…’

“I believe the chassis was then taken back to Hercules. They used it to display the strength and properties of the material, particularly to the US military — they were looking for a lightweight form of underbody cladding for helicopters, to prevent serious damage from groundfire. It was part of their sales pitch; Hercules would show the video, and people would go, ‘Gee, how’s that guy — is he alright?’ And then they’d pull back the curtain and there was the bare chassis. It probably more than quadrupled any investment they made…”