From 22nd to 1st: Watson on his Long Beach F1 overtaking masterclass


Forty years ago today, John Watson rocketed through the field to win from 22nd in Long Beach – it's a record which has never been beaten

John Watson McLaren 1983 Long Beach GP

Watson celebrates a record-breaking win at Long Beach '83

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Forty years and one day ago, John Watson and Niki Lauda were sat slumped in front of McLaren team boss Ron Dennis and tech chief John Barnard in the team’s Long Beach pits, slightly at a loss.

The driving pair had both contrived to have one of the worst qualifying sessions of their careers on the same weekend. 22nd and 23rd? It didn’t look good.

In this darkest of moments though, Watson felt he might well have the situation sussed, and would go on 24 hours later to deliver a blinding win in the Californian sunshine with a record which might never be broken.

Remembering how he raced from 22nd to a famous victory, four decades later, Watson says “the car did everything I wanted – we were just so quick”. No-one has ever come from further back to claim a GP win.

Horrendous qualifying sessions in both the ‘83 season-opener at Rio and the next race in the US originated from a last-minute revision in the technical regulations from Jean-Marie Balestre’s FISA (now FIA), causing McLaren, Williams and Brabham plus others to scramble into frenzied redesigns of their cars.

4 Niki Lauda McLaren 1983 launch

FISA rule changes caused McLaren and co to make serious design alterations


“Balestre decided that he was going to do away with ground effects, his diktat was everybody had to have a flat-bottomed F1 car,” remembers Watson. “Nobody really knew what the future was going to be.”

The upshot of this was, at least in the short-term, that teams with turbo engines such as Renault and Ferrari were now supposedly at an advantage, as they relied on more of their pace coming via the immense horsepower at their disposal rather than aerodynamics.

Of F1’s golden age garagistas continuing to rely on their trusty Cosworth DFVs, Brabham was still working through its BMW turbo gremlins, Williams had only just done its Honda deal and the McLaren TAG-Porsche was still someway down the pipeline.

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At least over a qualifying lap, performance suddenly became an uphill struggle for McLaren. Not having the sheer turbo force to brutally coax its tyres to life on a single outlap, the Woking cars were left circulating on dead rubber.

The scale of this new problem became apparent to Watson when he first drove the rapidly revised MP4/1C at practice for the Brazilian GP.

“You thought ‘****ing hell, this has got no grip!’”

“It was a bit of a wake-up call because all of a sudden you thought ‘****ing hell, this has got no grip!’” he says.

Team-mate Lauda would qualify eighth, 1.5sec off Keke Rosberg’s pole time, while Watson was a further second back – and 16th.

However, what McLaren was losing in the early season’s qualifying session, it would make up for on grand prix Sundays – due to the MP4/1C being something of a Michelin whisperer.

“As it turned out, particularly in Rio, that actually was a really lovely race car,” Watson says.

John Watson McLaren 1983 Brazilian GP

Watson flew at Brazil ’83 – a good omen for Long Beach

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“The problem we had was to get the core of the tyre working in the correct temperature window. But in the race [with the McLaren being kinder to its tyres] we flew.”

In Rio — a foretaste of Long Beach — Watson saw off five cars on lap one and was second halfway through the race when his engine let go.

The potential was obvious. Dennis and Barnard weren’t particularly convinced two weeks later after qualifying in Long Beach though, as an indignant Watson and Lauda lined up 22nd and 23rd.

“It was all doom and gloom on the faces of the team – always blame it on the drivers!”

The MP4/1C was really suffering round street circuit’s twists and turns, particularly over its concrete surface sections. Watson was confident he could get something out of the race though, having found an extra edge himself in the weeks preceding.

“At the end of ‘83, Ron, Niki and myself sat down. Ron said Niki’s physical trainer, a great man named Willi Dungl, would now be available to me and the team,” says Watson.

“As well as exercise, we would do physio work, monitor my blood sugar and dietary preparation.

“I became a disciple of all this stuff, because I found it interesting. Niki was a bit more sneaky: he still liked a cigarette, liked a double espresso, a whisky from time to time.”

Watson was then able to follow the fitness work to the letter after avoiding a near-disaster with the press.

2 John Watson McLaren 1983 Brazilian GP

Watson and Lauda were under pressure form the team after poor qualifying

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“During the Brazil weekend, a number of the British Fleet Street media approached me and said, ‘John, we understand you’re going on this Marlboro South America promotional tour. We think this would make a great story: Britain’s leading F1 driver, going to Argentina six months after the secession of the Falklands War.’ I said ‘Ah, I hadn’t thought about that…’”

Watson went straight to the US instead, and it was just him and Dungl getting the body and mind in order in the run up to Long Beach.

“He got to know me way better than he would have done,” says Watson. “It was seminal for me, not just on the physical side, but also on the focus and self-belief: ‘You know what? You’re a ****ing good race driver’. It was confidence boosting.”

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Watson would need that in spades starting in 22nd on the Long Beach grid but, when the flag fell, despite falling behind Lauda, progress was immediate.

“Unsurprisingly, the car began to transform from one that couldn’t get grip, to having more grip, being balanced and really dialled in,” he remembers.

The two McLaren men began to climb up the order in tandem, aided by typical reliability issues of the era and some slightly comical prangs.

Leaders Patrick Tambay and Rosberg had been squabbling for some time in the early stages. Rosberg did a 360-degree spin whilst trying to overtake at one point, before Tambay turned in on the Finn at that hairpin on lap 25 – the Frenchman was out, with Rosberg soon following.

Behind them, Lauda and Watson had been overtaking competitors in formation at almost a car a lap, aside from seven laps spent behind a typically uncompromising Alan Jones, back in F1 with Arrows.

2 John Watson McLaren 1983 Long Beach GP

McLarens are just visible at the back as race gets underway

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By lap 28 the McLarens had overtaken nearly 20 cars – only Williams’ Jacques Laffite and the Brabham of Riccardo Patrese were in front of them. Four tours later Watson dispensed of Lauda “taking a punt” with a signature move: tyres smoking, McLaren squirrelling as he managed to get it slowed down not a moment too soon.

“I was basically very good on brakes – I would just focus on that,” he explains.

“I didn’t worry about the gears going six, fifth, fourth, third, whatever. Just put the foot on the brake and 100% commitment. Then I’d just go from six to third. I wasn’t rolling my foot, trying to blip the throttle going down each gear. I think that that gave me certain advantages in the braking area.

“I used that to very good effect on that particular weekend. And the car was just so quick. I could hustle the hell out of it.”

Watson was quickly in hot pursuit of leader Laffite, haring away at an entirely different pace to Lauda.

“Once I got ahead of Niki, then I was off and running. Ten laps later I put it up the inside of Laffite. He saw that was I coming and there’s no way he was gonna stop me. He moved slightly to the left, clearing the entry to the corner.

“From that point onwards, all I could do was lose the race.”

Amazingly Watson was now in the lead with the best part of half the race left – he moved into first on lap 45, having a lead of almost 28sec over Lauda when he took the chequered flag thirty laps later.

Further bolstering his speed was his preference for Michelin’s ‘05’ compound. On that day in Long Beach driver, car and tyre were an irresistible combination.

“When I got back to the paddock, the look on the faces of Ron Dennis, John Barnard, [Marlboro sponsorship guru] John Hogan and Paddy McNally – they all needed to go to the medical centre to be given treatment for shock because they couldn’t believe we’d finished one-two!” laughs Watson.

Willi Dungl 1993

Fitness guru Willi Dungl said he foresaw Watson’s brilliant win

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Other weren’t so surprised: “Willi Dungl looked at me after the race and said ‘John, I knew you were going to win today.’”

Out of contract at the end of the year, the Ulsterman would be moved aside for Alain Prost, his F1 career over. Watson would never be able to properly take advantage of his newfound fitness and self-belief when the turbo TAG-Porsche McLaren came on line, but takes some satisfaction in taking his greatest win in his final F1 season.

“It’s a record that’s likely to stand for some considerable time,” he says, speaking at a time when Andretti’s attempts to get on the grid are still a hot topic.

“If you don’t have 24 cars on the grid, there ain’t anybody going to beat my record starting from where I started.”