John Watson and the art of the pass


Drawing parallels between Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo and serial overtaker John Watson

Already I’ve stumbled across what is sure to remain my favourite stat of the year.

It refers to John Watson’s points finishes for McLaren in 1983 – and it is this: an aggregate improvement of 102 places over his grid positions across those six races.

Had he softened his MP4/1C’s rear anti-roll bar earlier than he did in Detroit, it would have been 103: “Suddenly the car was much better. Not as loose. I’m not sure I’d have caught Alboreto for the win though.”

He finished third that day from 21st on the grid – and set fastest lap with five to go – yet it’s a performance overshadowed by his 1982 Detroit victory from 17th.

And that, in turn, is overshadowed by his 1983 Long Beach win from 22nd.

At Long Beach in 1980, for instance, he finished (a lapped) fourth from 21st: “I don’t even remember finishing that race.”

To be fair it must have been a bit of a blur.


Period unreliability played its part no doubt – but, on the other hand, there was no DRS.

And 102 is, well… 102!

‘Wattie’ will concede that probably he ought to have been a row or two or three nearer the front – like team-mate Niki Lauda tended to be – but that’s not to say he couldn’t qualify: for a goodly chunk of 1977 only Mario Andretti’s Lotus 78 ‘wing car’ was consistently faster over a single lap than the Ulsterman’s Brabham BT45B-Alfa Romeo.

But some ho-hum McLarens – “M28 was a disaster and M29 not much better” – and the rise of the turbos limited his chances to shine in what many consider the final arbiter of speed and therefore a GP driver’s worth.

And today he’s somewhat cheesed about it – on Daniel Ricciardo’s behalf: “He’s an outstanding Grand Prix driver: the best overtaker in the field. Yet Red Bull is placing its chips more on Max Verstappen.

“What’s more important: being a tenth or two quicker or winning races?

“Daniel’s got a good racing brain. He understands a lot about what makes either the car work or how to use its/your advantages during a race.

“Last weekend’s was a copybook race for a guy starting on the third row and winning: he didn’t bump wheels or bang into anybody; he waited for his chance and then took it.

“He understands – like Jackie Stewart did – that you don’t need to be on pole and lead every lap to win a GP.”

Indeed all six of the charismatic Australian’s victories to date have been achieved from the second row or beyond.

So how does he do it – in a car with a good chassis hampered by a lack of power and straight-line speed?

“All his passes [in China] were made in a straight line – and that’s not by chance,” says an empathetic Watson. “He wasn’t trying to pass into a closing gap. He wasn’t trying an impossible move around the outside. He makes his passes before the other guy can turn in. He doesn’t lock up and he makes the apex.

“He comes from a long way back and so there’s a lot of positive thought in his passes. He’s fully committed.

“Sebastian Vettel didn’t defend. Maybe because he didn’t think Ricciardo was going to make the pass from so far back. Maybe because he knew that he was. It doesn’t matter. 

“Ricciardo’s built a reputation and his rivals recognize it. They know who the racers are.

“Bottas was criticised for not having a go at Vettel in Bahrain. I think he did the right thing for Bottas at that time: he needed points after his Melbourne disappointment.

“Besides, would Vettel have been prepared to step aside? Probably he thought, ‘I don’t think this guy’s going to do it.’

“Whereas Ricciardo’s move on Bottas in China was about as squeaky as you can get. He [Valtteri] shut the door as much as he dared – but knew that Daniel was coming through. Had it been Räikkönen – although I’m not sure Kimi would have gone for it –Bottas probably would have closed it completely.

“It was important that Ricciardo maintained his momentum at that precise moment. That’s key. Overtaking is partly physical but also a frame-of-mind thing.

“For instance Niki should have won in Detroit in 1982. But he thought the place a waste of space – ‘You can’t overtake here!’ – and so spent lap after lap sat behind Pironi and Cheever. He’d pre-judged it.

“Then along comes silly old me – thicko John – and I pass all three in one lap: bosh, bosh, bosh! Suddenly Niki puts in another computer chip and passes Cheever and Pironi.

“Eventually, though, he collided with Keke Rosberg. Yet I’d had no trouble passing Keke [for the lead]: he knew I was quicker, saw me coming – I made a positive clean pass – and he didn’t even try to block me.

“I thought I was a better driver than Niki in terms of overtaking and racing, i.e. able to hustle a car. This in part stemmed from set-up: I preferred a car that steered from the rear and consequently that gave me more options in a race context. 

“Niki wasn’t a risk-taker; he assesses and calculates. He flies ’planes by the book. It’s how he runs his life. His mantra. And it’s worked for him. 

“He was a good qualifier. Very precise set-ups are good for quali but, I believe, not as flexible in racing. 

“Niki’s greatest strength, however, was pulling a team around him and subjugating the other driver.”

Marlboro McLaren International dropped out-of-contract Watson the moment that Alain Prost came late onto the market for 1984.

And the incumbent Lauda summoned every last byte of that famed mental strength to beat the faster man.

By a half-point.

Having come through from 11th to finish second in the decider. 

In the penultimate round he had finished fourth from 15th.

Watson’s point finishes

Year Grand Prix Finished Started
1974 Monaco 6th 21st
1974 Austria 4th 11th
1974 USA 5th 7th
1976 South Africa 5th 3rd
1976 France 3rd 8th
1976 Britain 3rd 11th
1976 Austria 1st 2nd
1976 USA 6th 8th
1977 South Africa 6th 11th
1977 Sweden 5th 2nd
1977 France 2nd 4th
1978 South Africa 3rd 10th
1978 Monaco 4th 2nd
1978 Spain 5th 7th
1978 French 4th 1st
1978 Britain 3rd 9th
1978 Dutch 4th 8th
1978 Italy* 2nd 7th
1979 Argentina 3rd 6th
1979 Belgium 6th 19th
1979 Monaco 4th 14th
1979 Britain 4th 7th
1979 Germany 5th 12th
1979 Canada 6th 17th
1979 USA 6th 13th
1980 USA Long Beach 4th 21st
1980 Canada 4th 7th
1981 Spain 3rd 4th
1981 France 2nd 2nd
1981 Britain 1st 5th
1981 Germany 6th 9th
1981 Austria 6th 12th
1981 Canada 2nd 9th
1982 South Africa 6th 9th
1982 Brazil** 2nd 12th
1982 USA Long Beach 6th 11th
1982 Belgium 1st 10th
1982 USA Detroit 1st 17th
1982 Canada 3rd 6th
1982 Italy 4th 12th
1982 USA Las Vegas 2nd 9th
1983 USA Long Beach 1st 22nd
1983 San Marino 5th 24th
1983 USA Detroit 3rd 21st
1983 Canada 6th 20th
1983 Germany 5th 23rd
1983 Dutch 3rd 15th

* First two on the road penalised 1min

** First two on the road disqualified

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