The chaotic Monaco GP where 'underrated' John Watson made his point


John Watson was among the best F1 racers of his time, but remains underrated, says Matt Bishop. His potential was clear at the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix, where Wattie scored his first world championship point with a rare dose of luck

John Watson chases Emerson Fittipaldi at the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix

Watson pursues fifth-placed Fittipaldi in Monaco '74

Grand Prix Photo

If you are a regular reader of this column, and/or if you follow me on Twitter/X, you will know that I like anniversaries. More than that, I enjoy commemorating arcane milestones. So it is that you may or perhaps may not be aware of the fact that Sunday May 26, in other words the day before yesterday, or Monaco race day if you prefer, marked the precise semi-centenary of the date on which, also at Monte-Carlo, John Watson scored a Formula 1 world championship point for the first time.

In 1974 two tyre companies were involved in F1, Goodyear and Firestone, and Watson’s Goldie Hexagon Racing Brabham BT42, a one-year-old ex-works car that team owner and boss Paul Michaels had bought from Brabham owner and boss Bernie Ecclestone, was on Firestones. Tyre wars tend to make rubber companies focus on their more fancied runners, to optimise their chances of beating the teams running tyres made by their commercial rivals, and so it was that Firestone did not provide soft qualifying tyres for Watson at Monaco in 1974. As a result, he qualified only 23rd, his best effort 3.7sec slower than Niki Lauda’s pole lap for Ferrari on quali-spec sticky Goodyears. But on race day Watson would be on the same rubber as all the other Firestone runners.

Even so, we all know that scoring points from a P23 grid slot is usually well-nigh impossible at Monaco, where overtaking is more or less out of the question now and was already extremely difficult 50 years ago, all the more so when you consider that in 1974 points were awarded only to the first six finishers. However, in 1974 luck was on Watson’s side, which situation would be a rarity as his F1 career progressed. Jochen Mass (Surtees) and Chris Amon (Amon) were withdrawn before the start, their mechanics lacking sufficient spares to build and prep their cars for the race. Five drivers were eliminated in a big lap-one accident – Denny Hulme (McLaren), Arturo Merzario (Iso), Brian Redman (Shadow), Carlos Pace (Surtees), and Tim Schenken (Trojan). Six more shunted their way out of the race over the next four laps – Carlos Reutemann (Brabham), Vern Schuppan (Ensign), Francois Migault (BRM), Jean-Pierre Beltoise (BRM also), Hans-Joachim Stuck (March), and Vittorio Brambilla (March also). And six laps later Mike Hailwood crashed his McLaren, leaving only 13 of the 27 qualifiers still going by lap 12, with 66 laps yet to run. Watson was now running ninth.

From the archive

On lap 19 he passed Jacky Ickx’s Lotus for eighth, and on lap 28 James Hunt’s sixth-placed Hesketh suffered a driveshaft failure, which promoted Watson to seventh. Four laps later Lauda’s Ferrari, which had been leading the race, was stopped by ignition failure. Watson was up to sixth: a points-paying position.

Better still, he now found that his old Brabham was handling beautifully, and that, now on tyres no less grippy than anyone else’s, he was able to close on and begin to look for a way past Emerson Fittipaldi’s fifth-placed McLaren. He harried Fittipaldi doggedly, drawing close often but never quite close enough to pass the wily Brazilian, who was defending his position cannily, until a couple of laps before the end, at which point Watson’s old BT42 began to run low on fuel. As a result he was not able to have a crack at the banzai bid for fifth place that he had been planning, but fortunately he was able to coast around to the flag and finish a fine sixth: both his and the team’s first ever F1 point. Only the two Ferraris of Lauda and Regazzoni, and the Lotus of Ronnie Peterson, who had won the race, had been circulating more rapidly that day, for the fourth-fastest lap of the race had been driven by Watson while he had been hunting down Fittipaldi. And let us not forget that he had been driving a one-year-old car.

He soldiered on with that ageing Brabham BT42 for four more grands prix – Anderstorp, Zandvoort, Dijon, and Brands Hatch – until Michaels bought him a new BT44 for Nürburgring. He qualified it 14th and retired it with suspension failure after a single lap. At Österreichring two weeks later he qualified 11th and finished an excellent fourth. At Monza the following month he qualified a superb fourth and finished seventh. At Mosport he qualified 15th and retired again, also with suspension failure, albeit this time after 60 laps. And at Watkins Glen he qualified seventh and finished a fighting fifth. But, even so, sadly, Michaels called time on Goldie Hexagon Racing after that.

Clay Regazzoni pases wrecked McLaren of Denny Hulme in 1974 Monaco Grand Prix

Clay Regazzoni passes Denny Hulme's McLaren, wrecked in the first lap crash at the 1974 Monaco GP

Grand Prix Photo

Surtees of John Watson in the Swiss Grand Prix at Dijon-Prenois in 1975

Surtees was a letdown in 1975. Watson finished fifth in non-championship Swiss GP at Dijon-Prenois

Getty Images

The following year, 1975, Watson found himself a drive for perennially uncompetitive Surtees (11 F1 grands prix) and newly uncompetitive Lotus (just one F1 grand prix), scoring no points at all. But for the final F1 grand prix of the year, Watkins Glen, he was invited to drive a works Penske, in which he qualified 12th and finished ninth.

In 1976 Penske became a force to be reckoned with in F1, and the team’s only driver was Watson, following the death of Penske stalwart Mark Donohue, who had been injured in a practice accident at Österreichring in August the previous year, sustaining head injuries to which he succumbed in hospital the following day. Wattie began the 1976 F1 season in Penske’s PC3, which was loosely based on the 1975 March 751. I never saw him race that car, because by the time the F1 season had wound its way on to the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, which race I attended, aged 13, the new PC4 had superseded it.

But I saw him test the PC3 three months earlier, in April, also at Brands Hatch, in a Goodyear tyre session, and I persuaded two drivers to give me autographs that day: Gunnar Nilsson, who signed my book as I leaned through the window of his company Lotus Elite (the Type 74, not the Type 14), and Watson, then not only fashionably long-haired but also unfashionably bearded. In July, at Paul Ricard, in the new PC4, he bagged his first podium finish, third; at Brands Hatch I saw him repeat the same race result; at Nürburgring he was seventh; and at Österreichring it all came together for him, for Roger Penske, and for the Captain’s eponymous F1 team, for Watson raced magnificently to score his maiden F1 grand prix win, shaving off his beard the very next morning as he had promised Penske he would if ever they were to win an F1 grand prix together.

John Watson on the podium after winning the 1976 Austrian GP as Stirling Moss interviews Jacques Laffite

A bearded Wattie on the podium at Österreichring in 1976

Grand Prix Photo

Roger Penske with John Watson at the 1976 Dutch GP

Clean-shaven at Zandvoort with Roger Penske

Grand Prix Photo

They could and should have won again a fortnight later, at Zandvoort, for Watson and the PC4 were the fastest driver-car combo that balmy Dutch afternoon, but his gearbox gave up 30-odd laps from the end, at which point he had been muscularly challenging James Hunt for the lead. Hunt then went on to win the race – just – but his McLaren was in trouble by the end and he would surely have been easy meat for Watson had his Penske held together.

Things were looking very good for the Penske boys at that time: they had a great car, they had good financial backing from First National City Travellers Checks, they had a driver who was hitting his stride, and they had learned how to win. However, suddenly, at season’s end, just as Paul Michaels had pulled the plug on Goldie Hexagon Racing in late 1974, so did Roger Penske bring his too-brief F1 programme to an end at the culmination of the 1976 season. Watson was understandably gutted.

Related article

He raced on in F1 for many seasons longer, for Brabham and McLaren, winning four F1 grands prix for the latter. But you are reading a column, not a biography, and I have neither the space nor the scope here to chronicle year by year what he did over the next decade. Suffice it to say that, perhaps because he came up against an unusually politically shrewd megastar team-mate, Lauda, in whose shadow he was forced to operate in 1978 at Brabham, and again in 1982 and 1983 at McLaren, he is underrated today — unfairly in my opinion. After all, he drove that neat Geoff Ferris-designed Penske PC4 beautifully in 1976. He was super-quick — and super-unlucky — in Gordon Murray’s fast but troublesome Brabham-Alfa BT45B in 1977. He more or less held his own with Lauda in their Brabham-Alfa BT46s in 1978, Lauda’s two grand prix victories that season the results of (1) the rogue one-time deployment of the infamous BT46B ‘fan car’ at Anderstorp and (2) 60-second jumped-start penalties at Monza for Mario Andretti (Lotus) and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari), who had both finished well ahead of Lauda on the road. And at Detroit in 1982, and at Long Beach in 1983, Watson scored two of the most sensational grand prix victories in F1 history, carving a path from 17th on the grid to win at Detroit, and at Long Beach forcing his way through the field to victory from even farther back, having qualified in P22.

2 John Watson McLaren 1983 Long Beach GP

McLarens are barely visible at the back as 1983 Long Beach GP gets underway

Getty Images

By that time he had become one of the very best racers – and overtakers – in the sport. Yet, even so, he lost his McLaren drive at the end of the 1983 season, despite having outscored Lauda comfortably in both 1982 and 1983. His dismissal would surely have been regarded as one of Ron Dennis’s oddest decisions had Lauda not won the drivers’ world championship in 1984, and had Dennis not replaced Watson with Alain Prost, who went on to do rather well for him.

Related article

Podcast: John Watson, Centenary Stories
Motor Sport Podcast

Podcast: John Watson, Centenary Stories

Five-time Grand Prix-winner John Watson explains the art of the overtake; matching Niki Lauda's performace; and turning down the chance to replace Nigel Mansell at Lotus, in the latest podcast marking Motor Sport's 100 years

By Motor Sport

Watson drove a few sports car races in the mid-1980s, and, sharing with Stefan Bellof then Jan Lammers, he won some of them, too. At the end of that decade he hung up his distinctive silver and red helmet to turn his energies to commentating, or co-commentating to be precise, for Eurosport, whose F1 TV coverage came to an end in 1996 and is still missed by many middle-aged race fans, for he was a very good co-commentator. Now aged 78, he is still working, delivering expert and entertaining TV race analyses on GT World Challenge Europe races. It is great racing, but by rights he should be co-commentating or at least punditing on F1. He was too good a driver, and he remains too astute a race analyst, for the pinnacle of global motorsport not to be enhanced by his input in at least one of the world’s many English-speaking countries to which F1 races are broadcast.

But do not feel too sorry for him, even though he is a lovely guy. He had a very good racing career – and 50 years ago, at almost exactly the same time as he scored a point in an F1 grand prix for the first time, he bought himself a Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7 RS Touring. He still owns it. It is totally original, and, last time I saw it, it had covered fewer than 50,000 miles. Now that is a car that any middle-aged race fan, including yours truly, would lust after.