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John Watson on the end of his McLaren days: “I don’t feel any pain”

Submitted by on September 12, 2011

Watson_1981_SpainJohn Watson, five-time Grand Prix winner. What do you remember most about him? He is the only driver to take a Penske to a Formula 1 GP Victory Lane (and shaved off his beard to celebrate as promised).

As well as being Penske’s only F1 winner, the Northern Irishman was the first driver to win a Grand Prix in a carbon fibre car, at Silverstone in 1981. In 152 races, he won five times in a career that besides Penske, was mostly with Brabham and mainly McLaren.Watson_1982_ItalyHis greatest moments?  He was ‘Mr Overtaker’ on the streets… The Detroit Grand Prix in 1982, starting 17th to win, and if that wasn’t enough, the following year at the Long Beach Grand Prix he came from 22nd to win on the confines of street course – which to date is still the biggest comeback to victory.

However, despite those stunning drives, at the end of 1983 he was replaced at McLaren by Alain Prost. It was a surprising story, as Prost was already contracted to Renault for 1984. In a very candid interview with Keith Botsford  for Grand Prix International at the time, Watson explained the situation, and the position he was in.

Watson_1976_Germany“I don’t feel any pain,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned I’ll be in F1 in 1984. Maybe it’s blind faith. Only when all the opportunities have failed will I have to realise I’m not going to be in F1 and decide what I’m going to do.”

Watson_1982_BelgiumHaving been in F1 for 10 years, Watson felt he still had a lot to give at the highest level. As team-mate to Niki Lauda at McLaren, Watson had proved his worth. Questions were asked if he’d asked for too much money in contract negotiations. What really happened was that the Renault F1 team imploded after Prost was beaten to the 1983 world championship by Nelson Piquet. The day after the final race, Prost’s Renault contract was terminated, and the Frenchman was suddenly on the market.Watson_1982_Italy_2“Prost went to Marlboro and asked them to place him at Ferrari instead of Arnoux or Alboreto,” Watson explained, “but Marlboro didn’t have that much power over Ferrari. So he came to the next team, McLaren.” Watson’s bargaining power suddenly dropped. “Marlboro made a purely commercial decision. My contract was yearly, and was expiring. Niki had a two-year contract. They had a decision to make: Was it better to keep me or take Prost? They decided on Prost because it gave them a young world-class driver cheaply.”

Waston found out that Prost had signed two days after South Africa race. There had been no messing around, and it was the start of a highly successful Prost/McLaren relationship.

Realistically, Watson understood the decision. Lauda was less than pleased also to have Prost on the team, and it was time for John to look for a new ride for 1984. “Lotus made a formal offer, but the package wasn’t right. I turned it down for many reasons. Finance was a part of it, but money isn’t all that important, the package is,” he said.

Watson_1976_BrazilBrabham, Toleman and Ligier expressed interest too. “In the case of Ligier I may well have priced myself out of the market. The fact is, whenever I called I couldn’t get any sense out of anybody.

“Toleman… we never got down to a serious conversation. Spirit, RAM? There’d be no point.”

Which left Brabham as his best option. In the end the Brabham drive became shared by Teo and Corrado Fabi to please the team’s Italian sponsors, and Watson’s F1 career was effectively over.Watson_1980_CanadaHowever, there was a final swansong. An injured Niki Lauda was forced to miss the 1985 Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch, so ironically Watson stepped into the reigning world champion’s McLaren – as team-mate to Alain Prost. Watson’s final Grand Prix fittingly came behind the wheel of car #1 with Prost in the #2…

by Andy Hallbery

Images: TheCahierArchive©

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