John Watson on Penske's triumph over tragedy: 'The irony wasn't lost'

F1

Austria '75 found Penske at its lowest ebb – but then a year later it fought back, with the help of John Watson, a 'magic' set of tyres and a Gillette-themed bet

John Watson, Penske-Ford PC4, Grand Prix of Austria, Osterreichring, 15 August 1976. John Watson driving the Penske-Ford PC4 on his way to victory in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images)

Watson helped the Penske team rally from one its lowest ebbs to a finest hour

Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images

Mark Donohue, in his own quiet way, was everything to Roger Penske and his racing team. Such a brooding, deep thinker, that he was dubbed by some as ‘Dark Monohue’, the racing driver cum engineer who not only piloted but also developed many of Penske’s cars.

During practice the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue was involved in a crash which not only tragically killed a marshall, but also lead to his own death. He didn’t realise it at first, but a blow to the head sustained in the impact led to a brain haemorrhage and within 24 hours he was dead. Penske and his team were shaken to the core.

“Penske asked would I be interested in driving – I didn’t have to think very long” John Watson

Regrouping, the squad hired John Watson to help get its F1 quest back on course, and incredibly, almost a year to the day after Donohue’s death, the Northern Irishman helped them take its first GP win, breaking his own duck too.

This weekend marks 45 years since that famous race for the red, white and blue team, on a day when Watson says “myself and the car were one.” It remains the last time an American team won in F1.

Watson had previously been driving for a Surtees team which didn’t attend all the world championship races in ’75. As a result, the Ulsterman had a few dates free in his diary.

Penske Watson

Penske (left): not a fan of the beard

Grand Prix Photo

“Throughout the year, I had contact with members of Penske – principally with Heinz Hofer, who ran the F1 team whilst Roger was flying in and out from the US to most grand prix,” Watson says in conversation with Motor Sport.

“I was getting the impression that Mark Donohue probably wasn’t going to continue in Formula 1 in 1976, and Heinz always said to me ‘If we ever have an opportunity, we’d love to talk to you.’

“After the tragedy, I was approached by the team and asked would I be interested in driving for them at the USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen anyway – I didn’t have to think very long.”

The one-car Penske team at the time was the only American outfit on the grid – Watson was about to discover the Stateside squad did things a bit differently to their European counterparts.

“I went over to Penske’s headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania,” he remembers. “Where, principally with the assistance of one of their chief engineers, Don Cox, we took the bare chassis of a Penske PC3 on this big skid plate.

From the archive

“One of the things that Donohue believed was that you can determine the mechanical quality of a car by going around this big circular piece of tarmac – and then when you get that result, you add the bodywork!”

Watson thought the team were onto something with the PC3, helping it build up two examples for the ’76 season – but then the American outfit was thwarted by unforeseen circumstances.

“A regulation change came in early in ’76 which meant that the tall air boxes were removed and also the wing rear wing position came in close to the car,” he says. “All that screwed up the aero package on the PC3 – it never had the same kind of balance as it had prior in its original configuration.”

To fix the solution, the ever pragmatic Penske – dubbed ‘The Captain’ for his industrious nature – cast his eye over the rest of the grid for the solution.

“Roger said ‘Let’s build our car again’, Watson says. “Looking at other cars, the McLaren, he said ‘I want you to put a big spacer in between the engine the gearbox like an M23 and put on a normal set of normal canard fronts wings – and the car was transformed.”

At its first race in Sweden, the team were lost, but then two podiums from the next three races – Watson’s very first in F1 – justified The Captain’s decision to go back to the drawing board, the result being the PC4.

“The car did all the things it should have been, but initially didn’t,” Watson says. “At the French GP, Brands Hatch – and then it all came together in Austria.”

Watson Penske Austria 1976

The PC4 helped Penske get back on the pace

DPPI

Today, Roger Penske, dubbed the Captain, has a sprawling business empire. Employing over 60,000 people, as well running IndyCar, NASCAR, and soon also Porsche’s sportscar teams on the weekend, the Pennslyvanian has interests worldwide.

However, hard as it is to believe now, Penske was still then a relatively poor relation on the F1 grid in the mid-70s. As a result some performance-related privileges afforded to teams like Ferrari and McLaren were hard to come by – but at the Österreichring, the boys from Pennsylvania lucked out.

“Everybody was running crossply Goodyear tyres,” Watson explains. “And one of the difficulties with these was to getting continuity in the circumference of the tyre.

Watson pits 2

Watson was James Hunt’s closest challenger in qualifying, lining up P2 on the grid

Grand Prix Photo

“If you were a ‘contracted’ Goodyear team, you got first dibs when the tyres were made available. Guys from Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus and Tyrrell got in first and took the best matched front and rear pairs.

“Depending where you were in status in the field, you ended up getting what was left. We didn’t have different compounds then – in those days the tyres were a little short concrete and clay.”

“The basic handling was transformed – it became a racing car”

For once though, Penske found the ‘magic’ set.

“In Austria our tyre guy Jerry, out of all the sets of tyres I could get, ended up with one which was just unlike anything else – I don’t know what it was.

“There were fundamentals that were hidden in the car’s performance, but you put these tyres on and it came alive. The basic handling was transformed – it became a racing car.”

Hunt was the class of the field in qualifying and thus on pole, but as a result of the rubber revelation, Watson was second – the only other driver to get within a second of McLaren driver.

Come raceday, Watson was now sitting on a damp grid at the formidable Österreichring for his first-ever front row start. Next to him was a pumped up James Hunt who was looking to consolidate his championship lead with Niki Lauda out of the picture, who was recovering from his nearly fatal crash at the Nürburgring.

After taking his debut podium just three races earlier, Watson now had the chance to become a grand prix winner. What emotions were running through his mind?

“It was a bit of everything, because the track was damp and we were on slick tires,” he remembers. “It was going to be a tippy-toe through. So you’re looking to find if there were any drying patches.

“But of course, James was a formidable competitor, and had a propensity to not concede.”

Watson wasn’t fazed. As the flag fell, 23 rabid DFVs (and two Alfa Romeos) screamed up the hill. After getting the marginally better start, Watson then engaged in a thrilling drag race with Hunt, remaining fully committed up the inside to snatch the lead as they came out of the sweeping first turn.

John Watson, James Hunt, Penske PC4, McLaren-Ford M23, Grand Prix of Austria, Zeltweg, 15 August 1976. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Watson and Hunt engage in drag race off the start

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

It only lasted two laps though. Ronnie Peterson, finding his March 761 equally pliant in the early laps, peeked round the outside of the Penske at Turn One, continuing in to do so for the rest of lap two before getting better drive out of the last corner and moving into first.

From there Watson started to struggle, forming a nascent ‘Trulli Train’ (25 years before that phrase had been coined) of cars behind him. Scheckter was at the back of rabble, but was soon six-wheeling with his way up the order in his P34 till he too took Watson at the last corner, then the lead three laps later.

The running order was almost a slippery as the conditions, but Watson says he always faith in the conduct of his competitors in doing battle wheel to wheel.

From the archive

“Racing all these guys was very much different to what we have today I think,” he opines. “There was a different level of respect. The concept of people weaving [didn’t exist then] and also breaking zones were so much longer, so you could get the chance to make a braking manoeuvre.”

The dicing continued, until Scheckter allowed himself to be baulked by a backmarker heading down the pit straight on lap 10, allowing both Peterson and Watson to sweep past in a thrilling move. Watson could easily have ended up being sandwiched between a combination of the backmarker, the Tyrrell and the pit wall. What gave him the confidence to put his PC4 there?

“It was just think it was a sense of the feeling that the car was with me,” he says. “We were working as one. If you have that level of confidence and self belief in yourself and your equipment, then you’re able to do these things.”

Watson has a particular view on passing in a race, which frequently allowed him to pull off his signature opportunistic overtakes. He would eventually make it his trademark, but this was his first famous pair of F1 drive-bys.

John Watson, Penske-Ford PC4, Grand Prix of the Netherlands, Circuit Park Zandvoort, 29 August 1976. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images)

Watson was looking to a two-car prong in ’77…

Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images

“If you’re going to overtake somebody, the best way to do it is catch them, pass them and move on,” he says. “Don’t get hung up behind them. If you sit behind somebody lap upon lap, you lose momentum and the control goes back to the car that you’re behind.”

Watson stuck to the philosophy – one lap later he’d got ahead of Peterson too, and was from there unchallenged. The man from Northern Ireland lead serenely home to take Penske’s first win in F1, remarkably just two days short of a year since it had lost Mark Donohue.

Watson says the emotion in the camp was sheer “delight” before going on to add: “I’m sure the irony of the of the situation did not escape all those people that were part of the team on the earlier when they lost, not just their driver, but their talisman in Donohue.

From the archive

“Motor sport was significantly more dangerous then. Nevertheless, we all knew there were risks, and sadly – tragically – people lose their lives. You needed to find a way to compartmentalise that and use all the other aspects of your character personality – just blot it out.”

Following the win, a bet made with the normally pristine Penske had to be honoured. The Captain had ordered Watson to be sans facial hair if they ever managed to win a race together.

“We flew back that night and stayed at Heathrow,” Watson says. “In the morning, for the first time in about seven years, I shaved off my beard. Roger came down in the morning looking for me – he missed me in cafe I looked so different!”

There was more mischief to be had Stateside….

“Back at Penske headquarters, I went down there one day, and Heinz said, ‘Let’s ring up Nikki!’ After going though hell at the Nürburgring, he had now come through it and was able to take phone calls.

“We rang him up and he said [Watson puts on vintage Lauda-spec Austrian accent] ‘Oh! Oh! Very good, very good – I’m glad you beat that f***** Hunt!’

“It was interesting that Niki already thinking beyond his hospital bed and get back behind the wheel, because he has a significant lead in the championship.”

John Watson, Roger Penske, Penske-Ford PC4, Grand Prix of Germany, Nurburgring, 01 August 1976. John Watson with team owner Roger Penske. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images)

…but the Watson-Roger axis was broken up at the end of the season

Paul-Henri Cahier /Getty Images

The fun wouldn’t see out the year though. Watson had been looking forward to kicking on with his American dream team, as rumours of a second car and perhaps even Ronnie Peterson driving it persisted. However, the Ulsterman soon got a – quite literal – rude awakening.

“Suddenly, at some point between the end of the season and Christmas, I got a call from Roger at two o’clock in the morning,” Watson remembers. “Roger said to me ‘John, I want to tell you I’ve decided to withdraw from Formula 1.’ I said ‘You’re joking…’

Penkse had decided to consolidate his sporting activities in the US rather than, in Watson’s words, “go out on a limb in Europe”.

Despite being briefly distraught, Hoffer managed to help negotiate for Watson to join Brabham, before he then went on to claim race wins at McLaren, driving the revolutionary MP4/1 and taking perhaps his most famous win at Detroit in ’82, with a whole flurry of passing moves to come from the back to win.

However, it was with Penske, on its day of redemption in Austria, that Watson truly first marked himself out as a formidable grand prix racer.