In summing up his very long career in motorsport, John Watson once described himself as “the least macho racing driver”. But today the Northern Irishman known to many as ‘Wattie’ is celebrating his 66th birthday.
He started out racing in the mid-1960s in an Austin Healey Sprite before he made the move to single-seater racing. Immediately successful in Formula Libre, he crossed the Irish Sea and moved to the UK to try his fortunes against comparatively tougher competition.
By 1970, he was racing in Formula 2, but he crashed his Brabham BT30 at Rouen, breaking an arm and a leg. Having recovered, he was back in action the next year, and drove some scintillating races in his elderly privately-run car against much better-funded works drivers.
By 1973, he was started to attract serious attention, but he broke his leg again when his throttle jammed open while contesting the Race of Champions early in the year. Once mended, he made his long-awaited Grand Prix debut and secured a full season with the small Hexagon Racing team, running a privately-entered Brabham.
He claimed a fine sixth in his first proper season, and drove masterfully once the team upgraded to the BT44 chassis, but his career prospects seemingly went belly-up when the team was unable to continue the following year.
He joined the Surtees team in 1975, and aside from some good performances in the non-championship races, the year was a disaster and team boss John Surtees closed down the team before the end of the year.
His lifeline came with the new Penske team, which quickly snaffled him up before the end of the year, and together he and team boss Roger Penske forged a great relationship, peaking with Watson claiming the team’s sole Grand Prix win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. Watson would be forced to part with his beard as part of a wager he’d made with Mr Penske!
But for the third time in three years, his employers shut up shop at the end of the season, but ‘Wattie’ was signed up by Bernie Ecclestone to partner Carlos Pace at Brabham for the 1977 season. Tragically, Pace would be killed early in the year, and Watson had to shoulder much of the development work for the team. A near-win in France was about the only highlight in a tough season.
His fortunes improved the following year – he was at least a regular points-scorer – but paired alongside new team-mate Niki Lauda, Watson looked less than spectacular.
He moved to McLaren in 1979, and after two seasons of little reward with the team, the outfit’s new management (led by Ron Dennis) and Formula 1’s first monocoque car – the MP4 – saw Watson claim victory at the British Grand Prix in 1981. It was a lucky win helped by the retirement of leader Rene Arnoux, but it put him back in the spotlight after a long absence.
The 1982 season was John’s best year, narrowly losing out on the title to Keke Rosberg in a closely-fought season that saw eleven different race-winners. No one, aside from Rosberg, had any consistency that year, and Watson was a case in point: brilliant one weekend, anonymous the next.
By now he was gaining a reputation for his ‘burn from the stern’ drives, and perhaps his greatest success came at the following year’s Grand Prix at Long Beach, where he charged through to win after a disastrous qualifying session that saw him start 22nd (pictured)!
He lost out another year with McLaren when it opted to sign Alain Prost at the eleventh hour, and this brought down the curtain (aside from a one-off race in 1985) on a career that saw over 150 Grand Prix starts.
Post-F1, ‘Wattie’ moved into the world of sports car racing before finally hanging up his helmet, only to don it once again in 1991 to help the new Jordan team develop its first-ever F1 chassis, the 191.
Articulate and never short of an opinion, Watson has proven to be an adept performer in the commentary booth, enjoying a long stint as an F1 commentator with EuroSport.