In the hot seat

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‘Honest’ John Watson is not one to dodge a tough grilling. The only man to win a GP for Penske tells it like it was, from bad breaks in Brabhams to machinations at McLaren. And as for that beard. . . it’s gone for good

Did breaking your legs affect your career as badly as it did Johnny Herbert’s? Nigel Urwin, London

It hurt my career in 1970 when I broke an ankle, a leg and an arm in my F2 Brabham at Rouen, more than in ’73 when I broke my leg in the Race of Champions, this time in an F1 Brabham, as it was the first time I’d got hurt. It was a rude awakening that this sport is dangerous. When you come back there is a feeling of apprehension. Leg breaks are nothing, but Johnny broke both his ankles which is more complicated. I never had any discomfort from my breaks, but it was clear that he came back too soon.

Why did you and Niki Lauda fall to qualify your McLarens for the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix — and how did Ron Dennis react? Richard Doy, Selby, North Yorkshire

It was because of tyres, which were a big problem for McLaren that year. Michelin was primarily producing tyres more suited to the work and energy of turbo cars. So on the Thursday neither of us qualified. Ron had a strong contract with Michelin and put the hammer down.They had other tyres in development and Ron insisted on them being brought down for Saturday. We were comfortably fast enough in prectice, but then it rained 10 minutes before qualifying. Ron wasn’t impressed. He said he’d rather we both crashed than fail to qualify like that.

How high does the Brabham BT44 rate on your list of favourite racing cars? Steve Lynch, Crawley, West Sussex

It’s certainly in my top three and could even be my favourite. There was something about the car. It was the complete deal and it flattered the driver. It allowed you to do what a driver is supposed to do and built up your confidence. It was a fantastic car. The thing with Gordon Murray was that he didn’t follow convention, like going for slabsided monocoques. Compare it to the McLaren M23 and they were diametrically opposed; the Brabham was short and narrow and the McLaren was long and wide.

How close were you to crashing when Gilles Villeneuve went off at Woodcote in 1981 at Silverstone, and how aware were you of the crowd cheering you on to victory? Gary Spaven, East Yorkshire

I was within feet, if not inches. Gilles was driving like a hyperactive child at that part of the track. When he spun, I couldn’t see for all the smoke from him and Alan Jones. Luckily, Andrea de Cesatis behind me turned sharp left and had his own accident. I stood on the brakes to come to a stop and the car actually stalled. But! still had a little bit of momentum, so I flicked the fuel pump back on and just managed to bump-start. I was pissed off for losing so much time. But as it transpired the race came back to me.

As for the crowd, I was aware of them, particularly after having got past René Arnoux for the lead. But what was most outstanding for me was after the race when we did a lap of the circuit on the back of a flatbed truck. Coming out at Copse the track was absolutely smothered in people. I turned to Jacques Laffite and said, “What are these people doing?” He said, “They are doing it for you.” For me? What had! done? It was bewildering, to be truthful.

Which win do you cherish most: British GP 1981 or Detroit ’82? Molly Campbell-Simmons, Twickenham Middlesex

Silverstone, I have to say, because it was my home grand prix. Secondly, it was the first win for McLaren in its new guise, — the first carbonfibre chassis grand prix victory and my family happened to be there as well. It was a magical experience. But winning from the back at Detroit was very satisfying.

You’ve never raced in historic since you retired. Have you any desire to race again? Tm Harrison, Horsham West Sussex

The difficulty I have is that the only cars I really enjoy racing are contemporary F1 cars and I don’t think I’m on anybody’s shopping list to make a comeback… There is a time to have racing in your life as a driver, and there is a time to move on.

Who was the best talent you raced against In Ireland before coming to the mainland? Gerry Scully, Athlone, Ireland

I would think that the most talented driver was John Pollock. He drove for an entrant called Gerry Kinnane who bought the BT48s I raced with John at Thruxton in 1969. John was one of those guys who had a great gift in a racing car and it was a shame he didn’t have the discipline. A lost talent.

Are you bitter that you were left high and dry by McLaren for 1984? Dave Birchill, Derby, Derbyshire

No, I wasn’t bitter, but I was disappointed. On the way home from South Africa in 1983 somebody said we’d better talk about next year. I said, “Do it now, tomorrow, whenever you like.” On the Monday I got a call from Niki who said, “I understand that Prost is going to drive for McLaren next year and you’re out” Prost had lost the championship to Nelson Piquet and was called to see the Renault board on Sunday. They basically fired him. So Alain phoned John Hogan at Marlboro and said, “Any chance of getting me into Ferrari?” Hogan said, “No, but we’ve got a place at McLaren. Niki’s got a contract for ’84, John’s has expired.” So they took the decision — and I don’t have any problem with that because I’d have done the same thing. They had a chance to get Prost basically for nothing. What I would like to know is, had the situation been the other way round, with Niki out of contract, would they have dumped him? I think they would have done so because his financial demands were becoming quite substantial.

What went wrong when you deputised for Lauda at Brands Hatch in 1985? Sarah Bell, Southgate, Hertfordshire

Nothing particularly. I had done some sportscar races but I was single-seater rusty. By the time the race finished, if I could have done the GP over again, I’d have done a much better job. I had also gone from aspirated engines to turbos. One of my skills was overtaking, but turbos changed things. Turbo cars don’t have a terminal speed. With a DFV at Brands you’d get to 165-170mph into Hawthorns and you could pass into that corner. But with a turbo it kept on accelerating until you put the brakes on, and it required a different judgement to overtake. Now you had to be alongside the car before the corner rather than slipping under somebody and scratching round, which is what I used to do.

Would you ever grow the beard back? Sally Roberts, Weyrnouth, Dorset

I do have a look at it from time to time. The beard was a part of me when I came over from Ireland to England and was with me until 1976. But it’s not the same colour it was the first time around, and I’ve always had a view that you never go back. Plus I don’t want to look like Donald Sutherland…

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