Born in Northern Ireland in 1946, John Watson entered Formula One in 1973 and enjoyed a twelve year career, spending six years with the McLaren team. Watson won four of his five races with the Woking-based team and importantly for this series of posts, this included the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. John’s British win was his second victory but from the first lap, many thought he wouldn’t have a chance of standing on the top step of the podium.
Watson qualified in fifth for the ’81 British Grand Prix, driving a McLaren MP4-1 around the Northamptonshire circuit. Rene Arnoux was on pole position and favourite for the race victory. After a poor start John fell to seventh and then to tenth after he stumbled his way through an accident ahead of him. However, not prone to giving up Watson set about using his car and his skill to make up the lost places, and by lap twelve the Belfast-born driver was back in sixth.
Amazingly by just lap fourteen Watson was in third and on for a podium finish on home soil, but he wasn’t finished yet and moved into second place when Alain Prost’s engine blew, forcing the French driver to retire from the event. The gap to Anoux who was still leading was 25 seconds, but this didn’t phase Watson and he set about reeling the Renault driver in. However, every time John improved his lap time so did Rene, and the pair were simply yo-yoing the gap on each tour.
In the middle laps of the race my pits had stopped giving me the distance to Arnoux. It seemed that however quickly I went, he would immediately counter it. John Watson.
But on lap 50 the gap suddenly started to close. Watson was making up a lot of time and it soon became clear that Arnoux was in some kind of trouble. With a new sense of the task ahead, John started to pile in the quick laps and with only 15 to go before the chequered flag, Watson was gaining at a possible-winning pace of 2-3 seconds each lap.
On the 61st tour, the McLaren passed the Renault and the crowd cheered all the way around the track. Watson completed the remaining seven laps while Arnoux trailed back in ninth; the French car had a problem with the distributor which was also the cause for team mate Prost’s retirement earlier in the race.
When I took the flag I was totally embarrassed. Doing my lap of honour I simply didn’t understand the feeling of emotion coming from the crowd. I didn’t feel I had done anything over and above what I had done in previous races. John Watson.
John is still involved in motor sport and has taken many commentating jobs since retiring from competitive racing. Aside from working with Ben Edwards on BernieVision, which lasted for all of one season, he also moved to Sky Sports with Edwards to commentate on A1GP. The one-time British Grand Prix winner has also been linked to the BBC for coverage of the 2009 Formula One season.
To read more in this series of articles, click the tag ‘British Winners’.