Former Grand Prix winner and motor sports commentator John Watson shares his views with Noor Amylia Hilda on how racing should be adapted to suit a new generation of audiences.
Fans of a certain age may recall John Watson’s famous back-to-front victory in Long Beach back in 1983 where he started 22nd on the grid in his McLaren — a feat that’s extremely rare in Formula One today, but times have changed, especially in the world of motor racing which makes for most of the topic of my conversation with Watson when I met him for an interview on a rainy evening in Malaysia during the recent Sepang 12 Hours.
Affectionately known by motor racing fans and those in the paddock as Wattie, Watson today enjoys his work as a commentator for the Blancpain GT series where he was working alongside fellow commentators David Addison and Formula E regular Jack Nicholls.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Watson’s father owned a motor business: “My father raced and it was essentially a family affair. As a child growing up, I was exposed to motor racing, reading the motor magazines and playing with toy cars…and then my father decided not to continue racing,” said Watson.
“When I got to 17 or 18, we converted a little Austin Healey Sprite and I begun racing. So, instead of me and my family supporting my father, now it was my family and my father supporting me.
“(My career) started off being much the same as my father had done but I had a difference—I dreamt I wanted to be a professional grand prix driver. I was very fortunate in having a family that, in the seventies, gave me the financial and moral support to be able to begin racing in European Formula 2, which was a really great series for young guys, because we could race against established grand prix stars and we could therefore be measured in a way that youngsters today couldn’t be measured until they go into Formula One.
“I think it’s a better system of streaming talent and not streaming somebody’s bank account, which is how it is today.”
Speaking of his own racing career, Watson spent over ten years at the pinnacle of motor racing. He’d driven for Brabham, Team Surtees, Penske and McLaren where he had his most illustrious years.
“I’m very fortunate because I took part in 152 World Championship Grand Prix. I won five, which is not a great deal but it’s more than a lot. Winning any of those five I was very happy to do,” he says before adding: “I should have maybe achieved more if maybe I had been a bit more selfish or whatever.
“The people that win Formula One races are very focused people, very often very selfish people, very often very clever people and very often a case of all four. So, I think I was blessed with a lot of natural ability and talent but being a success in motorsport isn’t just exclusively about that.
“There has to be other qualities and I think teams liked to see some of those other qualities.They don’t want somebody who’s just relying exclusively on their own ability, they want somebody who’s gonna get in and push the team and drive the team forward.”
Times certainly have changed in the motor racing world since the 70 year-old began his career. What does he think are some of those biggest differences?
“Well, first of all, I think in my era, drivers were judged on their talent. Where today, very few drivers get through exclusively on talent and most drivers in one form or another are having to bring a significant amount of budget to teams.
“It’s only the very top teams, at the moment such as Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull who are at a financial position to engage drivers who are without having to contribute to the budget. Everyone else is running on fumes because they can’t raise the funds and that’s one of the flaws of contemporary Formula One – that the budgets have reached such a ridiculous level and the companies employing over a thousand people, that’s nuts, frankly!
“The consequence from that is, over the past almost two decades you’ve had domination from one team for a period in time. Personally, I don’t think the public enjoy watching that kind of competition, I think the public wants to be entertained, they want to see a variety of teams, drivers and cars winning.
“My generation of Formula One was a period where there was a sort of common engine which was the Cosworth DFV, the Hewland gearbox and each team made their own chassis but there was no high level of technology as we have today,” he explains.
“On any given weekend you could have maybe a combination of eight or 12 cars or drivers or teams that could win and that I think was something which I thoroughly enjoy. In the course of a season that was unusual (when drivers dominated), there was maybe Jim Clark for example in the early days at Lotus and in 1978 when Lotus again had a great car for (Mario) Andretti and for (Ronnie) Peterson.
“On occasions, Ferrari with (Niki) Lauda but normally there was maybe eight or ten maybe more individual winners and no one driver was winning more than maybe four events per year and I think that was a very good way for Formula One.”
That said, Watson does admit there are obviously some good and bad sides to the differences from Formula One then and today.
“Well the two big differences — one is the financial scale, the other is the amount of technology that has gone into the construction of the modern Formula One car. As a consequence, I would say of the accident of (Ayrton) Senna, the whole focus on safety has gone forward at a very quick pace.
“It’s not to say that Formula One is safe because sadly, we lost Jules Bianchi two years ago but that was under slightly unusual circumstances and ones that are outside of what you might say are other predictable norms.
“So you’ve got cars that are infinitely better built and circuits that are infinitely safer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that it consequently gives you a more appealing or a more enjoyable experience other as a spectator or as a viewer.”
Speaking about the race where he had just spent the day commentating, he believes that race organisers could learn a few new tricks to draw in more crowds.
“What I enjoy about (the Blancpain GT series) is a lot of what I’ve been saying about having a variety of cars winning and there’s this thing called balance performance which is designed to create equality so that not one manufacturer or one car will ultimately be dominant.
“The cost base of GT racing is still significant but it’s nowhere near the levels of other professional forms of motorsport and it gives entertainment and that I think, ultimately that’s what the public wants.
“Audiences have short attention spans, they’ve got lots of choices to how they spend their leisure time, they don’t want to be prescribed to the time that they must sit down so, then you have streaming so you could access whatever that suits you and I think that manufacturers who are involved in this could maybe look into this to build interest in the race.
“As an example, there”s a series called Renault 3.5 and when Renault was racing in England or in other countries, they would advise their dealers and Renault would provide tickets to each dealer and each of them would get a 100 tickets and each dealer had to bring a hundred customers, so they got massive crowds because it was all available for free and it gave dealers, customers, families, kids cracking day out and I think maybe there needs to be a little more of that.
“Formula One doesn’t need that, but in this type of racing (GT series), I think it’s important to have a grandstand where there are people in it. It’s sad not to see more people here, because they can see some really exciting motor racing.”
Formula E is one of those series where he thinks is going the right direction when it comes to doing publicity.
“It’s interesting because it’s taking technology which is still in its infancy and trying to accelerate it through competition and that’s the quickest way to develop to make better products such as batteries that are cleaner, lighter, longer lasting and at the same time it’s also entertainment.
“(Formula E) is trying to appeal to a market of the younger generation that are interested in social media or music or whatever and they’re trying to look at what they’ve got because there’s a danger that traditional motorsport might sort of end up where the audience is getting older and older rather than bringing in younger people.
“Being told you must sit down at 2 o’ clock on a Sunday afternoon to watch a Grand Prix, I don’t think we’re living in a society that any longer wants to do that. They don’t want to be told what to do because they’ve got so much choice available through electronic media. So, I think that’s the direction Formula E tries to approach and I think they’ve done it, in fact, quite successfully.
“They have massive publicity and I think most people in the world understand the need to find ultimately, sources of energy that are not fossil fuel based. If you think of some of the technology that’s in some of the electric cars, they’re underwritten and subsidised by the manufacturers.
“The real cost of the cars is not what you pay for, so it’s technology that’s in it’s infancy and certainly with competition it’s gonna accelerate it’s development.”
Funnily enough, considering Lucas di Grassi’s unlikely victory at the recent Mexico ePrix when a broken rear wing forced him to pit early on in race that left him far behind on the grid, the Brazilian managed to strategise his way to claim first place on the podium.
Not only is Formula E doing well in attracting young audiences, but it also brings back real racing that’s similar to the edge-of-the-seat entertainment when John Watson claimed his back-to- front victory at Long Beach over 34 years ago.
Noor Amylia Hilda | e-racing.net