Join The World's Best Iconic & Vintage Car Community >>

Against All Odds

John Watson, in the Penske PC4, during the 1976 British GP, at Brands Hatch. Watson was eventually classified 3rd after Hunt’s winning McLaren was disqualified for a technical infringement.
John WatsonPhoto: Mike Jiggle
John Watson
Photo: Mike Jiggle

To many, although it may have seemed so, my first Grand Prix win at the Österreichring, was not “against all odds.” The Penske PC4 had been developed from previous chassis and by the time we came to the Austrian GP, in 1976, we were in good shape. I was 2nd on the grid to James Hunt, who went on to win the championship that year. From the 1976 French GP forward, we had a succession of reasonable results that lifted the expectations of the team. The race developed into a battle with three other cars, after about 10 or 12 laps I was able to break free and secured the victory. I felt it was a race run and won from the front, in a powerful way, on a truly power circuit. Yes, we were a relatively new team and only in our first full season of Formula One. One has to remember that most of the cars on the grid had the same engine and gearbox combination: the Cosworth DFV engine with a Hewland gearbox. Of course, there was another factor, we all ran on Goodyear rubber. So the only difference was in the chassis design and manufacturer. The application of wind-tunnel technology was absolutely minute, so you weren’t getting the kind of evolution as seen in contemporary times, where the wind tunnel is almost everything. Our cars were merely changes in front and rear wing settings, as opposed to the overall car setup. The circuit played its part in being totally appropriate to the cars of the time. I think some of the difficulties we have seen over the past 30 or so years relate to the progress that has been made in tire development, car development, and aerodynamic development, which has made so many, of what I would call, great circuits, redundant. You wouldn’t be able to race a contemporary Formula One car on the circuit at Austria that I raced in 1976, simply because the cars would outperform the circuit. We also have to bear in mind that we live in an age of health and safety. Safety issues and considerations have to be given to circuit spectators, circuit workers, and not forgetting the drivers which previously were as high on the agenda in 1976 as today. Corners like that at the Austrian circuit, the one that was flat-out past the pits in our cars would be about 160 mph, a truly massive corner, would be taken by a modern Formula One car at about 190 mph, maybe more, and the car would be stuck to the ground as though the corner just didn’t exist. Development and evolution of the Grand Prix racing car over the last 30 years has completely outstripped most, if not all, of the former Grand Prix circuits. There is, of course, an exception that is Monte Carlo, which has remained fundamentally the same.

Much has been made of the “so-called” bet I had with Roger Penske, “the Captain,” and the removal of my beard. It was not so much of a bet but an undertaking I made with him. Roger’s team was very much an “Ivy League” team; he was a stickler for neatness, tidiness, slickness, and a sharp image, very similar to that of Ron Dennis in the modern era. I knew Roger was not a fan of facial hair and beards. I made a glib statement, when my contract was negotiated, that as a gesture of goodwill, I would remove the beard as soon as we won a Grand Prix. After the Austrian race, we flew back to London, that would be Sunday night, and true to my word, I shaved the beard as soon as I could. At the breakfast meeting at our hotel on the Monday morning, I was sitting eating, Roger and Heinz (the team manager) came into the room. Immediately, Roger was asking, “Where’s Watson? Where’s Watson?” I called over to them, as they didn’t recognize me. It was a shock for me too; I had had a beard for some eight years.

Become a Member & Get Ad-Free Access To This Article (& About 6,000+ More)

Access to the full article is limited to paid subscribers only. Our membership removes most ads, lets you enjoy unlimited access to all our premium content, and offers you awesome discounts on partner products. Enjoy our premium content.

Become a member today!

Already a Member?