- May 04, 1946
- United Kingdom
- Not Active
John Watson, a former Formula 1 driver, is one of the few drivers who became famous not only for his successful racing career, but also for his contribution to the racing world as a sports commentator. Watson's career in F1 lasted from 1973 until 1985, but his racing career did not stop there. He continued racing various sports cars and several prototypes, and he even made seven appearances at 24h Le Mans. His third stint as a TV commentator, continues to this day.
John Watson was born on 4th of May, 1946 in Northern Ireland. His father was a successful Belfast motor trader that could afford his son’s racing enthusiasm. John started racing in Formula Two in 1969, using the family-owned Lotus car. His second car was a Brabham BT30, and in that car he got to compete in the early '70s.
Formula 1 debut at 1973 British Grand Prix
Watson’s first F1 car was a March-Cosworth 721 which he drove on the non-championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch. A year after, he was ready to move up to F1, making his debut in the British GP where he drove a Brabham BT37, and after that competed in the US Grand Prix with Brabham BT42. He retired in both races.
In 1974, he drove for Goldie Hexagon Racing team with a Brabham BT42 and BT44, scoring his first world championship point with a sixth place at Monaco. He scored a total of six points that season. He failed to score points in the following year when he drove for Team Surtees before switching to the American Penske squad.
First Formula 1 victory with Penske at Austrian Grand Prix
He secured his first podium with the third place at the 1976 French Grand Prix. Later that season came his first victory, driving for Penske in the Austrian Grand Prix. After the race, he shaved off his beard, the result of a bet with the team owner Roger Penske.
In 1977 and 1978, Watson raced with Brabham-Alfa Romeo machinery, in the first year for Martini Racing and in the second for Parmalat Racing Team. In 1977, problems with the car, accidents and a disqualification resulted with Watson racing the full distance in only five of the 17 races. In 1978, he reached three podiums and notched up 25 points to earn sixth place in the championship.
In McLaren Team since 1979
For the season of 1979, Watson moved to Marlboro McLaren Team. The next two seasons were without any victories, and finally in 1981, at British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Watson secured his second F1 win.
It was a maiden victory for the trend-setting carbon fibre composite monocoque McLaren MP4 car, designed by John Barnard, and managed by the team’s new boss, Ron Dennis.
New monococque saved his life
Later in the season, the strength of the carbon fibre monocoque was demonstrated when John had a fiery crash at Monza during the Italian Grand Prix. He started seventh on the grid and raced for 19 laps.
Watson lost control of the car, coming out of the high speed Lesmo bends and crashed backwards into the barriers. The car was halved but Watson walked away unhurt. Similar accidents had previously proven fatal, but Watson was uninjured, and that lucky break proved the strength of the new carbon fibre construction.
Third place in the 1982 F1 championship
His most successful year was 1982, when he finished third in the drivers' championship, winning two Grands Prix (Zolder and Detroit). Most impressive was his victory at the first ever Detroit Grand, on a tight and twisty track that was difficult to pass through.
Watson worked his way from the 17th starting position on the grid and charged through the field scoring a victory.
Master-class victory at Long Beach
Watson made a similar master-class victory the following year at the final Formula One race in Long Beach (USA). On the street circuit, he started from 22nd on the grid and succeeded to win the race.
Watson's final victory also included a fight for the position with his teammate Niki Lauda, who had started the race at the 23rd spot, butWatson ultimately finished 27 seconds ahead of his famous teammate.
The last Formula 1 race with number 1 on the car
At the end of the 1983 season, Watson was dropped by McLaren and retired from Formula One. The team boss Ron Dennis decided to sign the Renault refugee Alain Prost for free, instead of Watson, because Prost was under contract to Renault but got fired.
Watson returned for one more race two years later, driving for McLaren in place of the injured Niki Lauda at the 1985 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. He qualified 21st and placed seventh in the race. Interestingly, Watson drove the car with number 1, because Lauda was the 1984 F1 World Champion.
Second in the world with Jaguar XJR-8
It was his last F1 race, but it wasn't the end of Watson’s racing career. After 152 F1 races (5 wins, 20 podiums) he turned to sports car racing. In 1984, he partnered with Stefan Bellof to gain the victory at the Fuji 1000 km.
His biggest success was to reach the 2nd place in the 1987 World Sportcar Championship, alongside Jan Lammers for Silk Cut Jaguar Team in Jaguar XJR-8. They won a total of three championship races (Jarama, Monza and Fuji).
Seven participations at 24 Hours of Le Mans
Watson also competed in 24 hours of Le Mans seven times. His best result was the 11th place in 1990, driving a Porsche 962C for Richard Lloyd Racing. One of the cars he drove at Le Mans was Toyota 89C-V. With that car he finally finished his racing career at the end of 1990.
After that, he retired from racing and opened a school for racing drivers at Silverstone, but his contribution to the world of motor sports did not stop there, as he became a recognizable TV commentator.
Familiar TV face since 1990
His first job was as the Formula One commentator at Eurosport network, which he successfully did until 1996. From 1997, he worked for ESPN and then in 1998 switched to BBC as a BTCC commentator.
His first job on Sky Sports was commenting the 2002 F1 season races, but that lasted just one season. After some time, he rejoined BBC again, Sky Sports and other broadcasters.