Feature F1 Unlocked
The day John Watson took America to the top step in Formula 1 by winning for Penske in Austria
Only three US-owned teams have won Grands Prix that counted towards the Formula 1 world championship.
The legendary Dan Gurney took his beautiful Eagle Weslake to a historic win in Belgium in 1967, and nine years later – and one before Shadow won there – John Watson’s victory in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix provided balm to Roger Penske’s team after the tragic event the previous year in which Watson’s close friend and fellow driver Mark Donohue had been killed.
“It was too easy, actually,” the still-bearded Watson told reporters when his victorious 132mph epic was over – the first of his five F1 wins in the bag. “I’m not going to believe it until I read about it in the comics.”
He had joined the elite, and his remarkable businessman boss Roger Penske – the man they called ‘The Captain’ – had added yet another type of success to his company’s burgeoning CV. Wattie had become the first man from Northern Ireland ever to win an F1 Grand Prix, and it would be Penske’s sole success at that level.
Penske was already a legend in US racing back then, victorious in everything his team touched – endurance racing, CanAm, IndyCars, NASCAR, Formula 5000 and TransAm.
At the end of 1974 he made the entry into F1, as Donohue was tempted out of retirement to helm the PC1 designed by Briton Geoff Ferris. But it soon transpired that the car had shortcomings. Not even Donohue, known as 'Superman in Blue' and the ultimate development driver, could make it competitive.
Midway through 1975, Penske switched to a March 751. Sadly, just as they were beginning to make progress, Donohue was killed in the morning warm-up for the Austrian race, when a puncture sent him off the road and into a marshals’ post and advertising hoarding.
After a conversation with Penske’s F1 director Heinz Hofer, whom Wattie would describe as “one of the greatest people I worked with in F1,” the March metamorphosed into the Penske PC3 and the team regrouped at the end of that season around new boy Watson, who had impressed in 1974 with drives in privately-run third works Brabhams, and in 1975 with Surtees.
The first races of 1976 were disappointing, but Ferris’s sleek, lowline PC4 was a very different car. After an accident in Sweden, it was repaired in time for the French GP at Paul Ricard, where it wore a conventional chisel nose with two wings in place of a single, Ferrari-type appendage.
“Roger would wander up and down the pit lane and talk to people, such as his longtime friend Teddy Mayer at McLaren,” Watson explained. “He looked at the M23, which was going very well, and saw the conventional nose and the spacer between the engine and gearbox. He told Geoff to try both of those things, and in France it felt massively different, like a real race car.”
Third there, and again in Britain, Wattie was ready when the planets aligned in Austria.
Yes, local hero Niki Lauda was missing, as were Ferrari, after his accident at the Nurburgring, but as James Hunt put his McLaren on pole, Wattie was alongside him, and just ahead of Ronnie Peterson’s works March. Two further factors had proved crucial.
“Back then the Goodyear tyres were so inconsistent,” Wattie explained. “To get two matched fronts, two matched rears, was a miracle. The teams that got them were the big guys, Ferrari, McLaren, Tyrrell and Brabham. I’ve no idea where we were in the pecking order, though Roger had some clout.
“On reflection, back then with those crossplies [crossply tyres], tyre management was the single most important element in getting the car to be consistent and competitive. The diameters could be so inconsistent that you might run 25 psi [pounds per square inch] one side and 31 psi the other, just to get the stagger right. You could imagine the tyre men from Ferrari, McLaren, Tyrrell and Brabham cherry-picking the best.
“In Austria we got a set of tyres that were a million miles better than anything I’d had previously. The car just worked fantastically on them. It really came down to that, and that I really liked the Osterreichring, which was my kind of circuit.
“And at this time a lot of teams, certainly McLaren, Brabham and Tyrrell – and us – were experimenting with strips of Lexan, a tough material from which helmet visors were made, to make skirts to create a crude vacuum beneath the front of the car. They made a big difference, until they began to wear away.
“The car would feel very good on full tanks at the start of a race, then the balance would change as the Lexan skirts wore down. The PC4 was slightly oversteery to begin with on full tanks, which I didn’t particularly like, but then when the skirts worsened the balance would change to what I preferred.”
Black clouds had shadowed the majestic Osterreichring prior to lunchtime, but though the track was damp for the start, everyone chose slicks. Initially it was a four-way fight between Hunt, Peterson, Watson and Jody Scheckter in the six-wheeled Tyrrell.
But after being on the inside at Hella Licht chicane at the first corner – which Wattie would reveal later was the most exciting moment of his weekend – he moved into the lead again by the 12th lap. And stayed there.
He admitted to all sorts of feelings leading a Grand Prix for the first time, but got into his rhythm and didn’t let his concentration lapse.
“The car worked beautifully; it was comfortable to drive, and I got the aero balance I enjoyed once the Lexan skirts had started to wear down,” he revealed.
And on the day he was the best man out there, and his American-owned and financed, British-designed and built, machine was 11s ahead at the end of the 54 laps.
“Dan Gurney was my hero, who won as both a driver and a constructor, and here was Roger winning as a constructor too,” said Watson. “That race holds a special place. I went to a Penske 50-year celebration in Charlotte, and of course the team was by then so much better known for its IndyCar and NASCAR successes today.
“I felt quite humbled to see that all those years later our win in Austria was still seen as a significant moment in the whole history of the Penske empire. And it was remarkable, less than two seasons into Penske’s F1 campaign, and with a team down in Poole that was the size of a modern F3 team!”
“The loss of Mark in '75 was a major tragedy for both Roger Penske and the F1 team that had been built around him,” remembered Nick Goozee, long-time managing director of Penske’s UK operation.
“John, together with Heinz Hofer and designer Geoff Ferris, took on the responsibility of galvanising the little team of 12, with its limited funding, to tackle the might of McLaren, Ferrari, Brabham and Tyrrell. With third place finishes in France and Britain as well in only its second full season, Penske started to believe in itself.”
Wattie’s Penske triumph was unquestionably one of the best of those unexpected successes which pepper the sport’s history.
And his beard, which disappeared after the win? Many assumed the need to remove it was part of his contract. It wasn’t.
“It was very straightforward,” he explained. “I’d had the beard all the time I was racing in F1, and the novelty was wearing off. When I was negotiating with Roger, he never mentioned it at all. But part of the Penske image was Ivy League, and he was the pathfinder when it came to presentation.
“I said to him as part of our conversation: ‘Here’s something we’ll both enjoy. When I win a Grand Prix for Penske, I’ll shave the beard off.’ Roger liked that. It was like stating a belief that we would succeed, a little incentive.
“We flew back from Austria on the Monday and stayed at a hotel near Heathrow. I shaved the beard off at midnight, and the following morning beat Roger and Heinz down to breakfast.
“That was a hot summer, so I was a little tanned and where I had shaved, my face was white. I heard Roger saying to Heinz, ‘Where’s Watson, where’s Watson?’ I had to put my hand up and say, ‘Over here!’
“I don’t think Roger was so keen that I removed my beard, but I was. There was nothing contractual about it, no obligation. He respected that it was a personal choice.
“Now I had fulfilled a commitment I had made to the team, just as in Austria they had fulfilled their commitment to give me a winning car.”