What Winners Wear #1: We're kicking things off the right way with Formula 1 legend Mr John Watson MBE and his special Rolex...
John Watson, from Northern Ireland, remains a cult hero for so many people. The winner of five Formula 1 races in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Wattie’ was best known for his prodigious skills at overtaking: the ability to slice through traffic almost as if it weren’t there. The decisive yet artful way in which he did it made those at the receiving end almost feel like they had just been pickpocketed. Before they knew it, that position they had been so closely guarding was gone, subtly lifted by automotive sleight of hand.
John enjoyed some particularly famous races on the street circuits of America: places where improvisation and bravery really count. At the first-ever Detroit Grand Prix in 1982, for example, he made his way up from 17th on the grid to win: overtaking three cars during one lap alone, on a circuit where passing was said to be almost impossible. One year later, he won at Long Beach in California, having started from 22nd on the grid. It was a masterclass that is still talked about now.
But his most treasured watch relates to another street circuit entirely. In fact, the most famous one of them all: Monaco. In 1977, John – who was driving for Brabham at the time – claimed his very first pole position around the twisty streets of the tiny principality. And his reward was a Rolex Oyster, which is still on his wrist to this day.
“The story of the watch is very simple,” says John, now aged 73 but still working enthusiastically as a TV commentator.
“Rolex traditionally provided a watch to the pole position winner at every Monaco Grand Prix, and about a week after I took the pole in 1977 a box arrived for me with this Rolex Oyster in it. First of all, it’s a lovely watch, classic in style and also it just feels right. You know, when you put it on your wrist, it doesn’t feel top-heavy or anything: it simply fits and feels very comfortable. And it’s a watch that I wore subsequently for the next 42 years. I don’t wear it every day, but I still wear it quite often and it always makes me feel proud to have that memory of what I did 42 years ago.”
John absolutely gets it: part of the enduring appeal of watches for people like us is that they mark occasions as well as simply the time. And every time you look at the time, those occasions are commemorated and remembered. Watches are monuments that you wear on your wrist. And the Rolex is not the only special watch that John has in his collection.
“The Rolex means a lot as it represents my first pole position, but I was also very kindly given a watch a year earlier by Heuer and Goodyear, to celebrate my first Grand Prix win in Austria in 1976,” he remembers. “They presented me with an Autavia, which I still have as well. They engraved it; my Monaco Rolex isn’t engraved actually, which is a shame as I would have quite liked to have had something on it.”
You always remember your first watch though. And for John, there was a sentimental reason behind it: his love of Porsches, as an up and coming race driver and car nut. Probably the most famous of all the Porsches is the Carrera and John’s father owned one in the 1950s, which helped spark his son’s passion for cars. And watches, as it turned out.
“In 1972 I was in London and I went past a shop called Road and Racing Accessories,” remembers John. “They had a Heuer Carrera for sale and something about it just struck me, so I did something extremely rash. I bought it. I think it was around £180 or £200 but for me, it was a fortune. And I felt guilty for weeks after for blowing that amount of cash on something as irrelevant as a watch. But I still have that watch to this day. I’ll go through cycles of wearing the Autavia, the Carrera or the Rolex.”
There are another two watches in John’s collection that relate to his Formula 1 career.
“More recently, in my McLaren days, McLaren secured sponsorship from Ebel in about 1982, who were making a new range of watches that were very, very attractive sports watches, very thin,” he recalls. “So I have one of those, and then later they made a chronometer – which was also very elegant, maybe finer in terms of its design and the face particularly. So, I have both those watches, but the one I tend to wear most often would be the Rolex.”
Motorsport and watches are very closely associated, but unlike the images you see in films, drivers don’t actually tend to wear their watches when they’re racing. “During the period I was racing in, the 70s primarily, it became apparent that anything you wore – I mean in the 70s, everybody had gold medallions and gold bracelets – was a risk,” explains John. “Fire was always the biggest fear every racing driver had, and unfortunately I think I had realised from other people’s sad experiences that if you were wearing any form of jewellery – whether that be a stainless steel watch or a gold bracelet or whatever – that’s only going to contribute to any potential injuries. So I always took my watch off in the car and it was a bit like swimming naked: you felt free.”
After John finished his Formula 1 career, he raced at Le Mans for a while before hanging up his helmet for good. He actually returned to competition only a couple of years ago, driving a historic Porsche at the Mille Miglia race in Italy (an event that’s sponsored by Chopard). John, though, wore his Rolex: probably the first time in decades that he had driven competitively wearing a watch. And that competitive urge, always measured by time, remains a key part of his life now.
“One of my worst habits when I’m travelling is the desire to get on an aircraft first, the desire to get off it as quickly as possible, the desire to get through immigration first, the desire to get to the car rental company first and the desire to get on the road first and ultimately to get to the race track or the hotel first,” he confesses.
“So, in a sense, time is still consuming me and taking me over. Even when it comes to stupid things: I live in Oxford, and whenever I go to the Westgate Shopping Centre there, if I’m behind a car going into the car park, I’ll still race them to the ticket gate to get my ticket first and get ahead. It’s all very sad but just a part of growing old, I suppose! Although I guess I’ve always been a bit like that…”