John Watson

Moto Cross star David E. Langford continues his tribute to local heroes in motorsport

John Watson

Mention the name John Watson to anyone remotely interested in motor racing and there is a 90 per cent chance they will know who he is. However, like yours truly, they probably won't realise that he is now an Oxford resident.

John was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on May 4, 1946. His motor racing career began with sports cars in his homeland, before progressing to Formula Two in 1969.

The Bicester-based March company provided his first Formula One experience, making his debut at the 1973 British Grand Prix.

In 1974 he teamed up with Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team for his first full season as Formula One driver, and drove consistently enough to earn points from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards. He drove with John Surtees's team in 1975, gaining a second place in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.

When Surtees developed his own Formula One team in the early 1970s, he became the only man in the world to have won world championships in motorcycle racing and Formula One - an achievement yet to be equalled to this day.

When his team was in full swing in 1975, he recruited John Watson as one of the best drivers around at the time. Unfortunately, the Surtees cars proved uncompetitive, and Watson only remained with the team for half the season before joining Roger Penske's team.

Driving the Penske car he gave the team their only victory in the Austrian Grand Prix during the 1976 season. My painting on this page illustrates that historic moment on a wet track. Roger Penske was one of the founders of the American organisation 'Championship Auto Racing Teams', or CART as it became known.

Although Penske was a US-based team, by 1982 the cars were made in Britain and around 80 per cent of competitors were using either the chassis made by Penske, or the March team at their Oxfordshire base near Bicester.

Joe Johnson
Championship Contender John Watson drives his Penske car to victory
at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1976

Penske withdrew from racing at the end of 1976, and John Watson returned to the V12 Alfa-powered Brabham team. He led at the French GP and the British GP at Silverstone, but suffered mechanical failures on too many occasions to enable him to take any victories. Proving more reliable in 1978 the cars provided him with points in seven different races alongside team mate Nicki Lauda.

After too many disappointing results he joined the McLaren team for 1979 and 1980. 1981 brought victory at the British Grand Prix, a result which we could quite safely say was one of the high points of his career.

He won the Dutch GP and the US GP in Detroit during the 1982 season, and took the world title to a gripping finale between him and Keke Rosberg. Watson took second place in Las Vegas, leaving Rosberg to win the world championship by the narrowest of margins.

To get so close to winning the world championship was a bitter disappointment for John Watson as well as his many followers. He was replaced at McLaren by Alain Prost in 1984 and retired from Formula One to concentrate on endurance racing, where he drove for Porsche and Jaguar when the 'big cats' made their long-awaited return to the Le Mans 24-hour race.

This was Jaguars first Le Mans race for 20 years. Their normally aspirated six-litre V12 engine cars hit 222mph on the Mulsanne straight. The Jaguars proved enormously popular with the crowds, which persuaded the new generation of Jaguar executives of the value of racing at Le Mans.

Watson's car qualified 19th out of 53 cars and worked up to eighth place - but gearbox problems ended all aspirations of a Le Mans victory -- for that year anyway.

John Watson continued with sports car racing, having further success with Jaguar and Porsche, before starting the now world famous racing school at Silverstone - the circuit on which he won the British Grand Prix in 1981.

John continues to be associated with motorsport as a successful journalist, and also commentates on the A1GP series for satellite TV. He remains one of Britain's great drivers and a real ambassador for motor racing.


• If you have any memories of your own experiences in motor sport on wish to view or commission any original paintings, please telephone David Lang ford on 07865 434359.
November 2007 Oxfordshire Limited Edition