A tenths affair

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John Watson 1982

In a crazy mixed-up year, one man burst from deep within the josteling pack to make a bid for the title. Eventually, however, his problems in qualifying overtook him

John Watson is in rarefied company in this sequence of articles. But then, on his day, he could beat anybody. In a season that shifted like the sands of the Sahara, this underrated Ulsterman had as much right to the title as the rest who were scrabbling for it — for nobody raced better than him that year.

A one-lap qualifying blast on super-sticky tyres, however, was turbo territory; it was a matter of damage limitation for the Cosworth runners. Keke Rosberg was superb in the Williams, landing an average grid slot of 6.06, five places clear of Watson, who outqualified the Finn just once. Indeed, only three times in 15 attempts did the McLaren man line up inside the top 10. His team-mate, the returning Lauda, managed it on eight occasions.

“I ran a very different set-up to Niki,” says Watson. “My centre of aerodynamic pressure was further back and I liked a softer front end. This gave me a driveable car that I could hustle. But, above and beyond this, there was a political situation I was having to deal with.”

The super-ambitious Ron Dennis and John Barnard had muscled their way into the team in 1981, but previous supremo Teddy Mayer was still playing a key role: he was Watson’s race engineer. “Teddy and I wanted to go in a different set-up direction to that which John, who is a very smart guy, was recommending.

I just wanted to go as fast as possible, but I think Teddy really enjoyed the politics.”

Rarely able to get sufficient heat into his tyres in qualifying trim, Watson was on the back foot, if not the back row. That he might still have won the title from an average grid position of 11th says a lot about a manic season — and a heap about a driver happier on full tanks and harder tyres. In the 11 races he finished, he made up 65 places from his start position to his end result.

Watson’s campaign began quietly — bar a driver’s strike! — with a sixth in Kyalami. It might have been fourth, ahead of Rosberg, had not his rear anti-roll bar refused to adjust. Okay, so it was only a couple of points gone, but these were to become like gold dust as the year panned out.

A second came his way in Rio when Nelson Piquet and Rosberg were disqualified.

After a bad qualifying at Long Beach — 11th to Lauda’s second — Watson used Michelin’s softer race tyres. And flew. Up to third. Until lap 29 of 75, which is when he pitted for new rubber. He charged again to finish sixth. Which was roughly what he deserved; the MP4B, however, deserved better that day.

He put things right in Belgium, a perfect race set-up and stylish drive giving him a win — from 10th on the grid. He went seven better in downtown Detroit, winning from 17th! Thirteenth at the restart, he was simply mesmeric. He passed three cars in half a lap at one stage, and was leading by lap 37.

But he couldn’t work a miracle every time. Sandwiched between his wins was Monaco. He qualified 10th and was in seventh when an oil leak caused his battery to short on lap 36. Given this race’s Mack Sennett-like finale, more points had gone begging, for he had been running ahead of de Angelis (classified fourth) and Daly (fifth) when he retired.

A sense of normality descended in Canada: Sixth, fastest Cosworth, in qualifying; third, first non-turbo, in the race. It appeared that Wattie’ had got his situation taped: he was leading the title race by 10 points from Pironi — and he had a reliable car…

He would fail to score in the next six races.

Holland was a wipe-out because of a rogue set of tyres. Britain ended in a shunt, ‘Wattie’ for once failing to escape the midfield scrum unscathed (while Lauda won at a canter). A broken battery lead halted him in France when ahead of Michele Alboreto, whose Tyrrell would finish sixth.

In Germany, he drove beautifully and was set for a vital third when his V8 cut out…

“It was on the approach to the Ost chicane. It had done it in practice and I’d got away with it…” This time, though, the right-front suspension was broken — eight laps from home.

In Austria, a split water pipe cost him a point (gold dust, remember).

Pironi was by now in hospital and so Keke was the title threat. He held a three-point advantage over Watson going into the Swiss GP. One brilliant drive later, he was 12 to the good. ‘Wattie’ had been mighty at Dijon, too — until he bounced across a kerb and tore a skirt while trying to take sixth on lap 17. Of course, if he’d qualified fourth, as Lauda had, instead of 11th, it might have been different.

He kept his title hopes alive with a superb performance (in the race) at Monza to claw the deficit back to nine points, with one race to go. It was just too much.

However, had he been able to find a few tenths, on a handful of laps during the year, it would have been him aiming to stay out of trouble in Vegas, and Keke who was des perate for a win and a slice of luck. PF