John Watson was Irish, but it seemed ‘the luck of the Irish’ alluded him for much of his early Grand Prix career. Watson was born in Belfast on 4 May 1946. His father was a motor trader, himself a racing driver and winner of Ireland's first saloon car race. John often watched his father race and by the time he left school, to join the family garage business, racing was in his blood.
John's father retired from racing but remained ready to encourage his son; with his father's financial support, John's road-going Mini made way for an Austin Healey Sprite, fitted with a BMC Formula Junior engine and used extensively during 1963. After this successful debut season John progressed with a Ford powered Crossle sports racing car. In 1967 Ireland's racing showcase was a domestic formula using cars similar to the then current Formula 2 but with engine regulations aimed at controlling cost.
Watson became the youngest of the regular runners, with a twin-cam engined Brabham BT16, and soon began to dominate the formula, also making occasional forays to England where he hoped to attract the attention that no amount of success in Ireland would bring. For 1969, Watson attracted a patron in Gerry Kinnane, one time driver turned sponsor. Kinnane bought two ex-works Lotus 48s and entered both for the European Formula 2 Championship round at Thruxton on Easter Monday.
At this unfamiliar circuit, against top class opposition he qualified comfortably for the final and climbed from eighteenth to fifth place before destroying the car in a huge accident. Thereafter, John was forced to revert to a family finance Lola T100, with little success, until his father financed a Brabham BT30 for the 1970 season.
Bernie Ecclestone signs Watson for Brabham
On a shoestring, he contested the European Formula 2 series, however, his season ended dramatically at Rouen when a puncture precipitated another huge accident from which he emerged with a broken arm and leg. In 1972 John drove Alan McCall's Tui in Formula 2, until the money ran out. He then drove the ex-Eiffeland Formula 1 March for Tony Brown in an Irish Libre race. After he drove a Chevron to an impressive fifth place in the Rothmans 50,000 at Brands Hatch, after which Bernie Ecclestone signed John to a three-year contract with Brabham for Formula 2 and occasional Formula 1.
He began 1973 sharing the Gulf Mirage sports car with Mike Hailwood at Daytona but then at the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, in the prototype Brabham BT 42 he had a very large accident after the throttle stuck open. He was released from the wreckage with a broken right leg. He returned with Gulf at Le Mans and drove an elderly BT37 for Hexagon at the British Grand Prix, where he retired. He drove a works BT 42 at Watkins Glen but retired with engine failure.
Hexagon financed his 1974 season, with a Brabham BT 42 and later, helped by John's Brabham connections, with a new BT 44. He was sixth at Monaco in the BT 42 and a stirring fourth, despite a pit stop, with the BT 44 in Austria. After crashing the Hexagon car (through mechanical failure) in practice at Monza he drove the spare works car and finished seventh. With six points Watson finished fourteenth in the Championship.
He surprised many by signing for the struggling Surtees team in 1975. Second place in the Race of Champions and fourth in the International Trophy flattered only to deceive; the Grand Prix season was dogged by mechanical misfortune and his best result was eighth in Spain - earned through sheer hard driving. Surtees did not contest the last two races and, after Mark Donohue was killed in Austria, Penske put Watson into their car at Watkins Glen. Ninth place earned him a contract for 1976.
With the March-based Penske PC3 and then the team's own P4 Watson was almost always competitive, placing fourth in South Africa and third in both France and Great Britain before taking his, and Penske'sfirst Grand Prix win in a hard fought Austrian Grand Prix. As a result of that win and a wager with Roger Penske Watson lost his famous beard. After Austria the Penske was less competitive and at the end of the season the team retired from Grand Prix Racing. Watson was quickly re-signed by Brabham to partner Carlos Pace in the Alfa Romeo powered BT 45, a car which had proved unreliable and, often, uncompetitive through 1976 but following development by Pace promised great things for 1977.
When Carlos was killed in a flying accident in March John became team leader. He had already led the Argentine Grand Prix until drive shaft failure intervened, the first stroke in an appalling run of bad luck. He scored a point for sixth place in South Africa but, although he always qualified near the front and ran in the first six places he did not finish another race until he claimed fifth place in Sweden, mechanical failures, one accident and disqualification for receiving outside assistance at Long Beach keeping him out of the points.
In France he led from lap four onwards, holding off Mario Andretti until the very last lap when fuel starvation slowed him just enough to let Andretti through. It was cruel bad luck. Thereafter the pattern was much the same and he scored no further points, ending the season thirteenth in the Championship. He stayed with Brabham for 1978, alongside World Champion Niki Lauda and, although he proved quite capable of giving Lauda a run for his money his luck remained the same. Nevertheless he gained sixth place in the Championship, scoring second place in Italy, thirds in South Africa and Germany, fourth places in Monaco, France and Holland and fifth in Spain.
Watson's Luck Finally Changes
For 1979, following the death of Ronnie Peterson, Watson was hastily snapped up by the revamped McLaren team - where he gave them their first victory in over three years by winning the 1981 British Grand Prix and also securing the first victory for a carbon fibre composite monocoque F1 car, the McLaren MP4/1. His most successful year was 1982, when he finished third in the drivers' championship, winning two Grands Prix. He was perhaps best known for his astounding drives from the back of the grid. At Detroit in 1982, he overtook three cars in one lap deep into the race on a tight, twisty track that was supposedly impossible to pass on; working his way from 17th starting position on the grid, he charged through the field and scored a victory in the process. A year later in 1983, he repeated the feat at the Long Beach Grand Prix; starting from 22nd on the grid, the farthest back from which a modern Grand Prix driver had ever come to win a race.
At the end of the 1983 season however, he was dropped by McLaren and subsequently retired from Formula One. He did return for one further race two years later, driving for McLaren in place of an injured Niki Lauda at the 1985 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, in which he placed 7th. Watson raced with Lauda's usual race number of "1". This was the only occasion since 1975 (when the current system related to the use of car number 1 began) that a driver other than the reigning World Champion has raced car number 1 in a World Championship race.
In 1984 Watson turned to sports cars racing, notably partnering Stefan Bellof to victory at the Fuji 1000 km during Bellof's 1984 Championship year. Watson also finished 2nd in the 1987 season alongside Jan Lammers in the Silk Cut Jaguar when they won a total of three championship races (Jarama, Monza and Fuji). Watson also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans seven times over the course of his career, finishing 11th, a career best, in 1990.