Elementary, my dear Watson

A man who shares the name of Sherlock Holmes’s famous sidekick has solved a few driving mysteries of his own over the years. Especially when it comes to getting past other cars

Elementary. My dear Watson

The master of overtaking
Everyone has their speciality in life. In the case of Northern Irishman John Watson – who drove in Formula 1 between 1973 and 1985, winning five grands prix – it was overtaking: that most fundamental art in the repertoire of any racing driver.
There were some stand-out races: such as Detroit 1982, when he started from 17th on the grid in a McLaren and then fought his way up to win, or Long Beach in 1983 when he started last and also won. Sometimes he was overtaking more than one car on each lap; it was truly stirring stuff. So how did he do it?
“I don’t think I had a particular secret,” he says. “I guess I just used to position my car in such a way that its body language would say ‘I’m coming through’. You need to be a bit assertive, and let the person know that it's going to happen whether they like it or not. There are so many drivers who manage to convince themselves that there are certain places on a circuit where you can’t overtake. But if you keep an open mind you’ll see that you can and will overtake there: just look at young Max Verstappen.”
These days, Watson leads a somewhat calmer existence as commentator for the Blancpain GT Series, which is exclusively equipped by Pirelli. He was also a guest of honour at the recent Salon Privé in England, telling us about his adventures past and present.

A thousand miles
One of those adventures was the event that he recently came out of racing retirement for: the Mille Miglia in Italy, where he drove a beautiful 1953 Porsche 356 on Pirelli Cinturato tyres. The car was displayed at Salon Privé outside Pirelli’s hospitality, but the irony is that he was never actually planning to drive it.
“It was all the idea of my co-driver, Lindsay Gray,” points out John. “When she first suggested that we do the Mille Miglia together, I just said yes as I thought she’d never find a suitable car. And then she went and bought a Porsche 356! But I still wasn’t particularly concerned, as I thought that she’d never get an entry. And then she only went and got an entry! But in the end, I had a brilliant time – Italy is one of my favourite countries – and I’m already planning to go back next year.”
The immaculate Porsche, which had been restored in France, was fitted with Cinturato tyres from the Pirelli Collezione: a range of tyres for premium and prestige classic cars, combining traditional looks with modern technology.
“I hadn't done any sort of competition for about 30 years before the Mille Miglia, but I reckon it took me all of about 30 seconds to get back into it!” remembers John. The Porsche 356 hasn’t got a particularly big engine, but it can be driven very enthusiastically. And the Cinturato tyres on it were definitely part of that: I was actually amazed by the amount of grip available. We overtook a lot of cars, even ones that were a lot more powerful.”
What else would you expect from a man who has made the passing manoeuvre his piece de resistance?

The F1 championship goes down to the wire
Driving for McLaren, Watson got to the final race of the 1982 season (an epic year with 11 different winners) standing a good chance of winning the world title, having claimed two wins over the course of the year and scored a solid run of points. Although he finished second in the final grand prix – having overtaken his way up from 12th – fifth for Keke Rosberg was enough to ensure that the Finn took the title.
“The race was the Las Vegas Grand Prix outside Caesar’s Palace: one of the finest Formula 1 circuits ever to be built in a car park!” jokes John. “I missed out on the title but we had a good race and of course it will always be a pleasure to have competed against the calibre of drivers that I did; people like Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Mario Andretti.”
John still keeps a close eye on Formula 1 now, having also been an F1 commentator in the past. According to him, the balance of power in this year’s championship might just have swung.
“If Lewis Hamilton continues the momentum he seems to have developed recently, then realistically he’s going to be hard to beat,” says John. “But you never know; things can still go either way. Bigger surprises have happened and there are some races coming up that suit Ferrari too.”
John’s a Porsche fan – he still drives a 911 that he bought from new in the mid-1970s – but his choice of best supercar at Salon Privé came from neither Germany nor Italy.
“If I could take one supercar home, it would be the McLaren 720S,” concludes John. “Just for sentimental reasons really: McLaren was the team with which I enjoyed my biggest successes, so it will always have a special place in my heart.”

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