Patrick Watts is the new star of historic rallying reports Paul Lawrence
Patrick Watts’s press-on approach made him a star of one-make racing in the 1980s and a cult hero in the British Touring Car Championship in the ’90s. Now, after a break from the sport, he’s taken to historic rallying like a duck to water.
“I’m loving it,” says Watts, who now has five events in the Armajaro MSA British Historic Rally Championship under his belt. The most recent of them, the season opener for 2005, netted a first victory for his thundering Sunbeam Tiger on the Robin Hood Forest Stages in Nottinghamshire. The fact that he inflicted a defeat on the seemingly invincible Porsche 911 of reigning champion Dessie Nutt made the result all the more significant.
“It’s gone full circle really,” says Watts. “I got into racing because I enjoyed fiddling around with mechanical things. I’d built up my Tiger in the early ’90s as a road car and I just wanted to have some fun.”
The desire to join the BHRC ranks followed an article he read in which Ray Bellm extolled the enjoyment to be had on the stages.
“Rallying has taken me back to what I was doing in the late 1970s,” says Watts, who does much of the preparation on the Tiger, just as he did on his Mini Seven racer as a young hopeful.
“When I was a kid I used to watch Mini racing at Brands. My heroes were Chris Tyrrell and Steve Hall,” he recalls. “Then I was competing against them. I started in Mini Sevens; a very competitive series. If you won it you got a 1275GT.”
He duly progressed through the Metro Challenge and then got his big break with Austin-Rover: “They asked me if I wanted to be a works driver in the BTCC. I think I would have been champion in 1984 if Austin-Rover hadn’t pulled out over eligibility wrangles on the TWR Rovers. The Roger Dowson Metro side got involved and we were withdrawn from the championship.”
So Watts went back to one-make racing, where good prize funds and a road car for the champion allowed him to make some money out of racing: “The one-make stuff was great because everybody had equal machinery — you weren’t competing against open cheque books.”
After racing in Group N for Peugeot, he finally returned to the BTCC, but it was initially with Mazda: “Des O’Dell at Peugeot said to me, ‘Patrick, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you’re not driving for us in the BTCC. The good news is that we’ve got Robb Gravett!'”
After five seasons with Peugeot, the BTCC career ended in ’98. Watts had a brief stint in Australian Super Touring before concentrating on running his business. Finally, 12 months ago the Tiger was ready for rallying and he arrived at the 2004 Robin Hood as a complete novice: “I started with Nick Leston as my co-driver, who knew his way down to the local pub. And we got lost on the way to the first stage. But now I’ve got Elgan Davies co-driving.”
Two months later Watts was setting fastest stage times over the daunting tarmac roads of the Epynt ranges in mid-Wales. “Everybody reckons the Tiger has got a lot of power, but it’s only about 245bhp,” says Watts, “and the discs are about the size of a kart’s. When we went to Epynt, Elgan would call a 90 left about 80 yards before the junction. I said, ‘Call it 80 yards plus a quarter of a mile so that I can start planning this slowing-down business!”
But the rallying bug had bitten. Watts is back for more in 2005 and even has another, lighter Tiger under construction: “The thing about rallying, compared to racing, is that two or three extra brake horsepower isn’t going to win you a rally. It’s very enjoyable and no one is trying to get your drive!”