John Watson’s father Marshall was a successful Belfast motor trader and bankrolled his son’s racing right up to F2 in the early 1970s using family-owned Lotus and Brabham machinery. By 1973 John was ready for the move up into F1, making his debut in the British GP where he drove a Brabham BT37. In 1974 he drove for the private Hexagon Brabham F1 team fielded by prosperous Highgate car dealer Paul Michaels, scoring his first world championship point with a sixth place at Monaco.
In 1975 he briefly drove for Team Surtees before switching to the American Penske squad, scoring a poignant victory in the ’76 Austrian GP just 12 months after Penske’s original driver Mark Donohue was fatally injured. It was a truly great win by Watson, but he would have to wait another five years to score his second GP win. This time it would be at Silverstone and a maiden victory for the trend-setting carbon fibre McLaren MP4 designed by John Barnard and managed by the team’s new boss, Ron Dennis.
John was a quick and highly professional driver, even if he also had a frustratingly perfectionist streak when it came to the intricacies of chassis set-up. But, out of the cockpit, he sometimes seemed to lack the hard-edge displayed by some of his team-mates, most notably Niki Lauda whom he had two stints running alongside, at Brabham in 1978 and again at McLaren in 1982-83. Even so, his wins through the streets of Detroit in ’82 and Long Beach the following year were absolutely brilliant performances which were to be envied and admired in equal measure.
At the end of 1983, Alain Prost came onto the driver market at a bargain basement price tag. Ron Dennis snapped up his services and that was the end of ‘Wattie’s’ F1 career.