Personal relationships between Formula 1 drivers tend to be fractious at the best of times, one well known competitor in motorsport’s senior category once confiding in me that he would rather chew on a lightbulb than voluntarily offer a helping hand to a team-mate, let alone a driver from an opposing team. And, in my 40-year experience of reporting on Formula 1, I am sorry to have to report that I have found that view to be the norm.
Despite the cut-throat rivalry that in 1988 famously inspired Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost to drive their super-quick McLaren-Hondas even faster than the team’s engineers thought possible – often using those rakishly beautiful MP4/4s as offensive weapons – there has been the occasional exception to the ‘my team-mate is my worst enemy’ rule of thumb in McLaren’s long and wondrous history.
In that respect, one of the most unusual McLaren drivers was in my view John Watson, the popular Ulsterman who drove for the team from 1979 to ’83, winning four grands prix during that period, making a career total of five, the first being the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix, which remains Penske’s only victory in motorsport’s premier league.
Believe you me, Wattie was quick. Granted, in a metaphorical McLaren hall of fame he would have to cede the spotlight not only to Senna and Prost, but also to Denny Hulme, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, on weight of achievement alone. But his record pales by comparison to very few other McLaren men, Bruce included.
My top ten GPs powered by Mercedes
Was Wattie an all-time great? Probably not, no.
Was he capable of turning a quick quali-lap when his car was up for it? Oh yes, we saw that at Monaco in 1978, when he and Lauda were Brabham team-mates. Carlos Reutemann had put pole position out of reach with a scintillatingly rapid lap of 1m28.34s, a full half-second faster than anyone else had managed, his Michelin-tyred Ferrari significantly grippier than his Goodyear-tyred opposition that weekend. Second as the qualifying hour drew to a close was Niki, comfortably quicker than Mario Andretti’s Lotus (P3) and Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell (P4).
Suddenly, though, at the very end of the session, John went out again, hoping to leapfrog the Frenchman and the American and thereby bag P3. In fact he did better than that, scything around the Principality’s daunting streets in a series of lurid but beautifully controlled power-slides, eventually stopping the clocks 0.01s faster than his famous Austrian team-mate had done: P2.
About only the fastest men is it possible to relate such anecdotes.
Was he a combative racer? Oh yes, we saw that at Long Beach in 1983, when he and Lauda were McLaren team-mates. John had had an utterly disastrous qualifying session, through no fault of his own, ending up only 22nd-quickest. The next day he threw caution to the wind, attacking that bumpy switchback with brutal abandon. The performance he produced that day will always be remembered as one of the most extraordinary drives in Formula 1 history, for it was rewarded with a quite astonishing victory.
No man, before or since, has won a grand prix from so far back, and in my opinion no man ever will.
About only the grittiest men is it possible to relate such anecdotes.
Why am I telling you about Wattie, now, so many years later? Because, first at Brabham and then at McLaren, decent and unassuming chap that he was, he was dominated by the gale force of his team-mate Lauda’s determination to vanquish all before him – yes, including his hapless team-mate – and as a result the two men will always occupy very different places in the Formula 1 record books. John’s five grand prix wins are small beer compared with Niki’s 25, never mind the Rat’s three world championships.
But the difference between them in terms of raw ability was always very small. Indeed sometimes John was the quicker of the two. But there is more to being a champion driver than driving quickly, a lot more, and the Lauda-Watson story is a compelling illustration of that eternal racing truth.
Such has always been the case, and such remains the case now. Few Formula 1 pundits would opine that Jenson Button is a faster driver than Lewis Hamilton, and the three seasons they spent as McLaren team-mates – 2010, 2011 and 2012 – produced a body of evidence to support that majority view. But who scored more world championship points over the three years? Jenson, that’s who.
Despite the very sad and sudden death of his father John – or perhaps because of it – I believe Jenson will do well in 2014. Young Kevin Magnussen will impress too, mind you, for I judge him to be as naturally talented as his father Jan, and then some, but already a deal more disciplined besides.
If Kevin’s Twitter followers have tired of reading "Just spent a couple hours in the @McLarenF1 #MTC gym" on an almost daily basis, so also have they been impressed by his dogged determination to optimise his preparation for his rookie season, and rightly so.
Michael Andretti: a seat beside Senna
The other day Trevor Carlin, whose Carlin Motorsport team has won the British Formula 3 Championship seven times, and who probably knows more about young drivers than anyone I have ever met, was heard to say that he regarded McLaren’s decision to replace Checo Perez with Magnussen as "very impressive and very right".
"In fact," Trevor went on, "I think Kev may give Jens a hard time this season. He reminds me of…"
Then his voice tailed off.
"Of whom, Trev?" his interlocutor persisted.
"Well, of Ayrton, actually," came the reply, followed by a chuckle.
Time will tell.
In the meantime, let us raise a glass of fine claret to Wattie, who drove his last grand prix 29 years ago, who then became a very good TV commentator but never managed to bag the regular BBC, ITV or SKY job that a less ethical man would have found a way to finagle from the incomparable Martin Brundle, whom (almost) no-one under the age of 40 has ever heard of, who will never be compared to Ayrton Senna, but who was fast and brave and is, above all, an extremely nice man.