Hook, line and thinker

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John Watson’s approach to racing was always well thought-out. Now his passion for fishing helps him reflect on life – and F1

By Rob Widdows

Away from the pressures of grand prix racing, drivers are well used to the one that got away, some of them to landing the big catch. Fishing, intriguingly, is a favoured pastime among racers. Ross Brawn enjoys a day on the river, the ultimate escape from the tensions of the pit wall, while Jacques Laffite never went to a race without his rods. Engineers Frank Dernie and Mario Ilien, too, are racing fishermen. Even Eddie Irvine, a man known – forgive me – for casting wide his net, likes to dabble in a little fishing.

John Watson discovered his love of the sport as a child in Northern Ireland where his parents had a boat on Belfast Loch. His homeland is still his favourite haunt, having returned this spring for the mayfly season on the banks of Loch Mask and Loch Corrib, a mecca for mayfly anglers in this raw and beautiful corner of Ireland.

When motor racing took over his life and he came to England, the Ulsterman bought a house by the sea in Sussex. He lived there throughout his grand prix career, within earshot of the waves, but he had no time for his hobby. Too busy trying to get his name painted on the side of a Formula 1 car.

“I was there 19 years and often thought about it but never seemed to have the time,” Wattie tells me as we return to the beach at Pagham. “Motor racing consumes you at grand prix level; you’re packing your bags and travelling every two weeks, and your mind is focused on the car, the team and the races. As a child in Ireland it was a wonderful way to spend time and I always loved the outdoors, the countryside and the way nature works. On family holidays, in Waterville on the coast of County Kerry, we always found somewhere to fish, a river or a loch, and the love of it was very much in the family. So it became a big interest in my life.”

He sets up his rods, unpacks the folding chair Mercedes-Benz sent him for his birthday, baits the hooks with ragworm and casts into the waves. He’s hoping for sea bass, or mackerel, for his supper.

“When I came to live here I saw the sea every day. But it didn’t seem like real fishing to me, you know, coming from Ireland where we were fly-fishing with a gillie, catching wild salmon and trout. So I never realised I could catch sea bass in Pagham Bay, and the motor racing was taking up all my time,” he says, finishing his preparations for the day. His beach rods are made from carbon-fibre; fitting for the man who claimed the first ever grand prix victory for a carbon-fibre chassis when he won the British GP at Silverstone in 1981 in the McLaren MP4/1.

“Yes, it was a great day, for me and for the team. They were so proud of that win, both John Barnard and Ron Dennis and everyone including Marlboro, of course, who’d taken the risk to support a new team with new technologies. I remember Ron Dennis leaning over the pit wall, trying to slow me down towards the end. It meant a lot to him, that win, so much work had gone into the new team and building the new car. But I’d already cut the revs, I was already slowing myself down, I couldn’t go any slower,” he laughs.

The lines are baited and Watson watches nervously, scanning the surface of the sea for any sign of interest from the fish. Then we settle down to wait.

“I can’t think of anything nicer than sitting here on a summer day,” he smiles, “just the sea, the sky and the fresh air. Maybe I’ll read up on the latest dramas in Formula 1, listen to some cricket on Radio 5 and generally chill out. Perfect. There’s just nothing better than just sitting and watching the tide come in and go out. And it’s great whatever the weather.” There’s something of the poet, of the Van Morrison, within this thoughtful Irishman. “Yes, my Irish roots mean a lot to me, “he says, “and I love Van’s song about his journey to Coney Island on the coast south of Belfast. So passionate, so emotional, and a song about the Irish landscape.” So, yes, there is a sense that Mr Watson has found his place in the world, snuggled into a cockpit from which he may watch his later years unfold before him.

In his grand prix career Watson was known for his attention to detail, his obsession with set-up and his desire for everything to be perfect. He applies the same analysis to his beloved fishing and is certainly dressed for the part. Khaki combats, Timberland boots and one of those fishing jackets covered in pockets and zips and things. On the lapel he wears a tasteful porcelain fish given to him by Brawn.

“It’s my nature. I need to know as much as I can, about the equipment and about the best way to fish in any particular circumstance,” he muses, “and in my racing, when I first broke into F1, I drove the cars for what they were, just got in and raced. But as you get older and gain confidence, you want the details to be right.

“I mean, the seat and the pedals were always important to me, having them exactly right, especially the brake pedal. Little things like that are important and you can get too fussy about it. I was maybe pernickety about things like the position and angle of the brake pedal, but then I’m like that with my hi-fi and my wine. When I’m passionate about something I like to get it right, have the best possible kit.”

Many racing drivers move from the fast lane  into the slow lane, but this is not a quick decision, it is a gradual change of lifestyle. Racing at the highest level leaves little time for contemplation. There’s a always a plane to catch or a briefing to attend, and yet mind management is a vital part of success in sport and a fisherman learns to calm his mind, rid himself of hurried thoughts and be patient in his quest.

“McLaren was one of the first teams to understand the importance of expanding your mental capacity, and the need for a driver to be completely in control of himself and his situation,” he explains, “and I well remember Ron Dennis telling me that I must attend a seminar given by Edward de Bono on the subject of lateral thinking. De Bono was advising some of the world’s biggest companies at that time and it was new and radical then for motor racing teams. Ron wanted me to be there to broaden my perspective of what is possible, and he was there to learn as well. He knew that lateral thinking would help us all expand ourselves – I didn’t really see how it would help me then, but that was a shortcoming in me and not in the process itself. We use so little of our brain capacity and lateral thinking helps a sportsman make the best of his mental powers.”

Suddenly the rod is bending, the line is quivering. “I think we’ve got an inquiry here,” John cries as he leaps out of his chair and frantically reels in. This looks promising as whatever is on the line gathers pace towards the shore. Up into the sunlight comes a gleaming silver fish, spinning through the air to the arms of its captor. “Mackerel, it’s a fine little mackerel,” he beams. 

He looks like he’s just stepped out of the McLaren at Long Beach in 1983, a grand prix he won with ease. “Yes, I had a special feeling, a special power that day. I’d spent 10 days with our fitness guru Willi Dungl and he improved my mental and physical strength no end, especially as Niki Lauda was away in Argentina in the build-up to that race. Coming through to win from 22nd on the grid, that was special, no doubt,” he says. Watson reckons that was his finest win, the big catch.

“There you are,” he calls, holding up the mackerel, “we can use this one for bait – it’s odd, but fish eat other fish.” Success then, and the line is cast again in the hope of another prize.

He settles back into his chair, this time to catch up on the latest news from Autosport. “I like to keep up; after all I’m still commentating on Sky for the A1GP series.” He peers at me over the top of his magazine. “I tell you what, this is a great season in Formula 1. Hang on, this could be another inquiry.” He jumps up as if the chair is on fire. “No, dammit, seaweed again, you see?” he points to a large lump of weed hanging from his line. “Anyway, where were we?”

We were suggesting that the 2007 grand prix season might be a particularly good one.

“That’s right, very exciting, but the spy scandal is doing nobody any good. I don’t believe for a moment that McLaren as a team has been cheating…” He’s momentarily distracted by another tug on the rod. “Ron has stipulated that he had no prior knowledge of any of it and I believe him. Ron no longer runs the company day to day but he has a highly sophisticated management structure and in every aspect of what he has achieved you have to admire him.

“He is as open, fair and honest as anyone in F1 and I believe him when he says there’s no favouritism with Alonso and Hamilton at this point in the year. McLaren runs as fair a team as anyone in Formula 1 and that team runs through Ron like a piece of seaside rock. I think sometimes he is misunderstood by the media and I know he doesn’t always have a very positive view of journalists either. I just hope none of this overshadows a great season with an exceptional new star like Hamilton. There’s never been a good feeling in the paddock between McLaren and Ferrari and this is another example of that bad feeling. 

“The FIA decided that McLaren as a company, as a team, was not guilty of any crime. I thought Ferrari’s reaction after the hearing was off the clock, totally outrageous. I mean, how can they be allowed to appeal when the FIA’s decision was apparently unanimous. There’s a lot of politics in this – even Neville Chamberlain would have had trouble working this one out. I reckon they should all be locked in a room and told to sort themselves out.”

Sudden commotion. A fish on the line. He looks like he’s carving his way through the field on the streets of downtown Detroit in the summer of 1982. Out of the chair, onto the spinner, reeling in like a winch monkey on an ocean racing yacht. “The seagulls are on it already,” he calls, “they know where the fish are. But we’ve lost it, whatever it was. You need to be quick off the mark at every tug or quiver of the lines.”

One that got away, like Dijon in 1977 when Watson’s Brabham-Alfa ran out of fuel on the last lap, denying him certain victory. Or Silverstone that same year, another sure win under his belt until a valve in the fuel tank failed and the Brabham coasted to a halt. These are the ones that slipped away. On the hook but not landed. 

No matter now. Until the new A1GP season gets under way, the sign on the commentator’s chair reads: Gone Fishing.

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