Record updated 04-May-06
'Wattie' has perhaps not been given the credit that is his due, which may sound strange when you consider he holds the MBE. But because his successes in Grand Prix racing were not concentrated into one great spell, his long and in the main very successful career, which spanned more than twenty years, tends to be overlooked.
In fact he started racing way back in 1963-64 in his native Northern Ireland with an Austin Healey Sprite, before graduating to single-seaters. Outstanding in Irish Formula Libre, he soon crossed the water to try his hand against sterner opposition. In 1970 he took his Brabham BT30 into the European F2 championship, but a heavy crash at Rouen left him with a broken arm and leg. Undaunted, he was back the following year and, competing as a privateer in his elderly car, put to shame many more vaunted names. His persistence was about to bring rewards, for in 1972 a sixth place in the John Player Trophy race at Brands Hatch in a March 721, plus some excellent drives in Alan McCall's F2 Tui, caught the eye of both Brabham and Gulf, who were to give the then bearded Ulsterman his first real breaks. The 'luck of the Irish' certainly deserted him when, in the Race of Champions early in 1973, he broke his leg once more after the throttle stuck open on the new Brabham BT42. With typical quiet determination he was back to make his Grand Prix debut at Silverstone, and by the end of the year he had set up a full F1 season with Hexagon Racing's private Brabham. A great drive to sixth place at Monaco was followed by some terrific performances once he had the use of the BT44 chassis, headed by a brilliant drive into fourth in Austria after a pit stop.
Sadly the team were unable to continue in 1975, and Watson, having previously driven in a few Formula 2 races for Surtees, joined 'Big John's outfit. A second place in the Race of Champions and fourth in the International Trophy were as good as it was going to get in a year fraught with mechanical difficulties. Just before the end of the season Surtees withdrew to regroup his efforts, leaving 'Wattie' unemployed. Fortunately he soon picked up a ride in the Penske team at Watkins Glen and, after taking ninth place with a car not set up for the track, he was offered a contract for the 1976 season. The team were to suffer something of an up-and-down year, but John's magnificent victory in Austria gave him the confidence that comes from being a winner. The only thing he lost that day was his famous beard, as a result of a wager with Roger Penske!
When Penske decided to call it a day at the end of the year, Bernie Ecclestone lost no time in signing John to join Carlos Pace in his Brabham-Alfa team for 1977. Tragically, the Brazilian was soon killed in an air crash, leaving Watson to carry the burden of development in an unproven car. He nearly won at Paul Ricard until fuel pick-up problems took away his last-lap lead. The season ended up as a major disappointment after beginning with so much promise, but things improved in 1978, when at least he was a regular points scorer, although teamed with Niki Lauda his performances seemed a trifle erratic. When James Hunt became disillusioned with McLaren, Watson was the man chosen to take his place. Initially it seemed to be a disastrous move, for the team were at a low ebb under the declining Teddy Mayer regime. The following season was frustrating, with points scraped here and there in a difficult car, and 1980 was to bring even less cheer, Watson being out-driven in the early part of the year by newcomer Alain Prost. Some observers were tempted to write him off but John fought back, and his confidence and speed began to return - particularly when he was installed in the John Barnard-designed MP4 under McLaren's new Ron Dennis regime in 1981. He scored a lucky win at Silverstone when Arnoux's Renault faltered, and generally reestablished his standing as one of the leading drivers which had seemed under threat.
Joined by Niki Lauda in 1982, Watson answered the Austrian's Long Beach challenge with a well-taken win at Zolder, but overall his season was hampered by unpredictable lapses in form which led to some lacklustre showings. In 1983 he came through the field to take an unexpected win at Long Beach, but was generally handicapped by the lack of turbo power until late in the season. He fully expected to remain paired with Lauda for a third year in 1984, but protracted negotiations worked against him when Alain Prost came onto the scene after being released by Renault. With no other options open, 'Wattie' was left to find a seat in sports car racing, driving occasionally for Rothmans Porsche over the next couple of years and taking a win at Fuji in 1984 with Bellof. A last-minute call-up by McLaren to deputise for the injured Lauda in the European GP merely emphasised how two seasons out can take away the edge, and there was to be no more Formula 1.
Instead he returned to endurance racing with the Silk Cut Jaguar team and later with Toyota, before retiring from the track to concentrate on his Silverstone-based Performance Driving School and his role as a commentator, firstly for the satellite channel Eurosport and currently for the BBC, covering the British touring car championship.
(c) 'Who is Who' by Steve Small, 2000