Belfast Telegraph

Monaco GP still holds special place in Irish racing great Watson's heart

 

By Martin McCarthy

John Watson, Ireland's most successful racing driver, has reflected on what it's like to start at the front of the grid at the world famous Monaco Grand Prix.

The five-time Grand Prix winner spoke exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of the 2017 edition of the race, which is being held tomorrow, revealing what it was like to lead off at the 1977 Grand Prix.

The now 71-year-old raced for Brabham Alfa during the '77 season where he was on the front row of the grid in Monte Carlo alongside Jody Schekter of Wolf Ford.

Harking back to his own experience, Watson claims that the best strategy for tackling the renowned street circuit is to get ahead at the start and do everything you can to stay there.

"It is incredibly difficult to pass at Monaco, so getting in front and staying there is a good race plan," Watson stated.

"However, in my day the poleman started at a pedestrian crossing with low-grip paint while the second place car was on solid tarmac. So at the start I had lots of wheelspin whereas Jody had total grip and was gone.

"The funny thing was the following year I qualified second and got past Carlos Reutemann before St Devote (the first corner) for the same reason."

Ironically, starting the 1977 race on pole ended up in disaster for Belfast man Watson, who eventually had to retire from the race altogether.

"I chased Jody then for a good few laps, maybe a bit too hard in retrospect," he explained. "I was trying to pass everywhere and eventually the gearbox gave up."

Watson won five Grands Prix and was runner-up in the 1982 World Championship, however he only started from pole once more, again in the Brabham Alfa, in 1978 at the French Grand Prix.

He reflected on the technology then as against now.

"The Brabham Alfa was an excellent car, but like all other F1 cars at the time it generated very little downforce compared to Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton's cars," Watson surmised.

"Tyre technology was basic, using cross ply tyres. It was a challenge to get matching pairs of tyres, for example - and of course the track then was different.

"Tabac was the real challenge. There was no chicane like today. When you nailed it, you knew it!"

John now goes occasionally to Grands Prix - but only when he has a role - either as commentator, subject matter expert or to give interviews.

As was the case with most racers, and former racers, Monaco holds a special place in Watson's heart even after all these years.

"It was intertwined with the Cannes Film festival, so it was incredibly glamorous," he revealed.

"As a race track it was completely different to all the others, with the barriers very close and zero margin for error."

And, in his role as an expert in the sport, Watson reflected on how different Formula One is today compared to when he raced.

"It's safe now - and that's a good thing," he said. "In my era, so many drivers died - Mark Donohue, Ronnie Peterson, Peter Revson and others."

Meanwhile, Jenson Button has described his return to a Formula One car as a "struggle" ahead of tomorrow's Grand Prix.

British racer Button, who has been out of the sport since retiring at the end of last season, is filling in this week for McLaren in place of Fernando Alonso, who is racing in the Indianapolis 500.

"It is very different to last year in terms of how late you can brake," said Button, who won the Formula One World Championship in 2009.

"It's strange initially but I'm getting to grips with it. There are braking areas where I have a lot of work still to do, to get confidence, to brake hard.

"It is the old beginner's thing in F1 - where you brake early, lift off early, turn in too early, accelerate too early and understeer off.

"There is a lot to come and hopefully I can sort myself out after I have been through all the data."

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