Still dominating: John Watson's Detroit GP-winning McLaren MP4/1

Historic Racing News

John Watson drove this McLaren MP4/1 to a famous victory in Detroit. Almost 40 years later, the restored car is still running at the front

Steve Hartley McLaren MP4-1 at Brands Hatch 2021 - blurred image

1982 Detroit GP-winning McLaren was in action at Brands Hatch last month

Will Broadhead

Sergio Perez’s victory on the narrow roads of Baku may have been dripping with drama, but it was nothing compared to the F1 street race witnessed exactly 39 years before.

From 17th on the grid, John Watson triumphed in the first grand prix to be held in Detroit, at the wheel of the revolutionary McLaren MP4/1, which had introduced the first entirely carbon fibre monocoque the previous year.

The exact car that that he drove to that now famous victory is racing, and winning once again, in the Masters Historic F1 Championship, at the hands of Steve Hartley.

The John Barnard-designed McLaren had a complete rebuild before the 2019 season, and after a truncated 2020, Hartley is campaigning the immaculately presented machine again. Most recently he took it to a double win at Brands Hatch, as the Masters series visited the historic Kent circuit for a tremendous weekend of racing across all classes, with 4000 fans also allowed in to enjoy the event.

It continues that car’s run of glory, which began on June 6, 1982 in Detroit, where a circuit had been plotted through the rebuilt city centre. “Wild and woolly street racing with bumps, surface changes, tarmac, concrete, manhole covers, solid walls and a tunnel, what more could you want?” asked Denis Jenkinson in his race report for Motor Sport.

Those solid walls claimed casualties from the first practice session and the new track shook up the starting order, aided by rain during the second hour of qualifying.

Among those caught out was the reigning world champion Nelson Piquet who failed to qualify at all. McLaren also appeared to be in trouble, with Niki Lauda starting tenth and Watson seven places further back.

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The race itself was chaos from the start: six cars were out of the race before three laps were chalked off, as Mauro Baldi’s Arrows ploughed into several fellow tail-enders at the hairpin. The red flag was deployed four laps later when Riccardo Patrese’s Brabham was caught in the aftermath of a crash between Roberto Guerrero and Elio de Angelis, catching fire after hitting the wall.

At the restart, Alain Prost looked to be stretching out an unassailable lead in the Renault until engine trouble allowed Keke Rosberg through. At the same time, Watson and the McLaren had found their groove: the Michelin tyres that had struggled to heat up in qualifying, were proving fast and durable.

Watson was 13th for the restart, but had already climbed to seventh after 21 laps and was on the tail of team-mate Lauda. A crash and a pitstop moved Watson up to fifth and the race looked settled, Jenkinson reported.

“But one lap later a remarkable thing happened. Watson overtook Lauda, Cheever and Pironi all in one lap, not in a scuffle as seemed probable, but one at a time, each under braking for a different corner! Even ‘Wattie’ wasn’t sure how it happened, he was just into a nice rhythm and did not want to spoil it”

Rosberg was helpless to resist the charging McLaren and, with thinning tyres, dropped behind Watson on lap 31. Watson sped away and, at the end of it, was victorious by a gap of 15 seconds over his nearest challenger, Eddie Cheever.

Unsurprisingly, it was a win that lived long in the memory of Watson. And when a chance encounter got him chatting to Hartley, the Worcestershire businessman was sold on the car.

John Watson on the podium after winning the 1982 Detroit GP

Watson celebrates victory in Detroit


Hartley says that he always wanted to race, after a childhood spent filling schoolbooks with doodles of racing cars and jet aircraft. Although he dabbled with other cars the aim was always an F1 car and after campaigning an Arrows A4 he had his eyes set on a better machine. “I always thought I would buy a Williams, an FW08,” he says. “But the McLaren came up for sale and then the strangest thing happened, I was on a flight home from the Monaco Historic and John Watson was stood next to me in the queue for the aircraft. We struck up a conversation and chatted about the car all the way home, he was even more enthusiastic about it than I was!”

Easy isn’t a word that springs to mind when thinking about the task of piloting a grand prix machine, but that is exactly the adjective that Hartley uses when describing what it’s like to drive. “I would get out of the Arrows, and I would be sweating buckets, the MP4 isn’t fatiguing in the same way at all, it’s just so easy. It’s so much more advanced than the Arrows, every little detail is taken care of, to ensure maximum performance is achieved from the investment McLaren made in developing the carbon fibre technology; the chassis alone probably cost more than Arrows budget for their entire car! Ron Dennis is an absolute perfectionist, and it shows in this car.”

From the archive

He’s talking of course about the carbon fibre tub, built with an awful lot of expert input from chief designer Steve Nichols. “Barnard gets the credit” says Steve, “but Nichols was the real brains.” The all-carbon monocoque was a first, and after being told it wasn’t possible by several firms, Hercules Aviation assisted McLaren with the project, and the design was realised, and the rest, as Hartley puts it, “is history”.

Now the history is firmly on display for us all to enjoy in the Masters championship, but does Hartley still lust after an FW08? “I wouldn’t change the McLaren” he says. “And whilst I’m still scoring podiums and competitive, I’ll carry on doing what I’m doing, although I would like to give some up and coming youngsters the opportunity to race it at some point, like Callum Grant who works for me at my engineering firm.”

Opportunities like that don’t come along every day, but for most of us, its continued presence on the grid offers us the chance to get up close to a key piece of automotive history, that was pivotal in the development of modern racing cars.