Contained in the poisonous season that just about destroyed McLaren

Many once-great Method 1 groups have teetered on a precipice. Only a few made it again from there – both by no means regaining competitiveness or disappearing from F1 altogether.

The closest McLaren got here to that time of no return was 1980.

That season being the transition stage from its previous order to the Ron Dennis and John Barnard led period is a well known story.

However simply how tumultuous and tetchy that 1980 marketing campaign was on the within is well missed, and stands in sharp distinction to the legendary achievements McLaren would go on to build up underneath its new management.

An skilled John Watson ought to have been in his prime that season, and with European Method 3 champion Alain Prost as his team-mate, McLaren had a driver line-up with big potential had the automotive been aggressive.

However the truth that the duo scraped collectively simply 11 factors (the identical tally as Fittipaldi and Arrows), is proof of considered one of McLaren’s worst ever campaigns.

It was so wretched Prost ended up in hospital twice after two of the most important accidents of his profession. The second of those led to him fleeing the group for Renault, though that is solely a small a part of the broader story of 1980.

The chaos and frustration on the observe was doubled off it.

McLaren was in a parlous state within the late Nineteen Seventies and that was exacerbated by the disastrous M28 design for 1979.

That uncompetitive automotive made lead sponsor Marlboro and mother or father firm Philip Morris twitchy they usually misplaced perception within the Teddy Mayer-led troops. Heading into 1980, Marlboro was significantly serious about the longer term and whether or not it ought to contain McLaren in its current guise. Crew members, drivers… everybody was up for debate.

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Watson (above) had joined the group from Brabham on the again finish of 1978, figuring out that he was taking a seat that will have been stuffed by Ronnie Peterson had he lived.

The tragic occasions of Monza in September of that yr meant Watson was made a suggestion, one he believed would shortly transfer his profession on and provides him probability so as to add to what was then his sole F1 victory, which had include Penske within the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix.

Prost changed Patrick Tambay alongside Watson for 1980 and made an prompt impression with a degree at Buenos Aires on his debut after which a spectacular drive to fifth a couple of weeks later on the previous and fearsome authentic Interlagos.

In his first two races Prost had outqualified and outscored Watson with obvious ease. But when the rookie star thought F1 was straightforward, he bought a painful actuality examine within the subsequent race at Kyalami.


“That Friday night time Marie-Claude Beaumont, probably the greatest feminine racers of her day after which working for Marlboro, got here to me and mentioned: ‘John, Alain’s had a shunt and is in actual ache, can you’re taking him to hospital please?’” Watson remembers.

“I mentioned ‘Marie it’s virtually 10 o’clock and I’m about to go to mattress. Can’t somebody from the group take care of him?’

“They seemingly couldn’t pay money for anyone within the group, so I then needed to drive in direction of Johannesburg to discover a hospital to get him examined.

“They x-rayed him and found he had damaged the scaphoid bone in his wrist.

“By the point we bought again to the resort it was previous midnight.

“I ultimately bumped into Teddy. I wasn’t joyful as a result of the group had been nowhere, most likely on the bar or no matter, so I simply mentioned: ‘he isn’t going to be racing, as a result of he’s bought a damaged scaphoid’. They didn’t have a clue actually.”


McLaren reacted by operating simply Watson at Kyalami and getting then Method 2 hotshoe Stephen South (pictured) in for Lengthy Seashore. However South didn’t qualify the wretched M29, whereas Watson himself solely managed to qualify twenty first – though he capitalised on a race of attrition to return via for his first factors of the season in fourth, albeit lapped by Nelson Piquet’s victorious Brabham BT49.

By then, Watson was sensing a shift within the group, a way from the management that Prost “was truly going to be the salvation of McLaren” fairly than him.

“It was at this stage that I bought the sense there was this strain coming from Philip Morris and that the group wanted to show its performances to retain the sponsorship,” says Watson.

“For me it was clear {that a} greater focus was being positioned on Alain by the administration than there was on me and I used to be being type of shuffled again, and Alain wasn’t even at that race!

“There simply appeared to be a permeation within the air that the explanation why McLaren was not being as aggressive appropriately was due to me.”

That falsehood lingered throughout the summer season and it riled Watson. It nonetheless does to an extent.

He might dwell with Prost’s apparent brilliance however the inside politics, some disrespect from his personal group and a rising notion throughout the media that he was by some means in charge for McLaren’s poor kind all performed on his thoughts.

On Prost, Watson is trustworthy in his appreciation of him each then and now, saying that “other than his pure capability, he was excellent at going via what I’d name the trivialities of auto dynamics like dampers, roll springs.

“Actually, I felt it was considerably irrelevant and that the basic drawback for the group was that they nonetheless hadn’t totally understood or embraced aerodynamics.

“Alain in Brazil was wonderful; he did an impressive job. South Africa he harm his wrist and the momentum tailed off a bit.

“And it most likely took his absence for me to start to garner that there was this strain coming from Philip Morris.”

Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980

Watson discovered the strain of Prost’s tempo and the broader Marlboro state of affairs manageable.

What wasn’t was what was occurring off observe. Each technical misadventure and an inside disrespect, which to today Watson nonetheless calls out, had been rife.

“A few of the members of my very own group, and I’m speaking about people who had been engaged on my automotive, thought it was very humorous to alter my title [on the side of the car] from John Watson to John ‘Whatswrong’ at one race,” remembers Watson.

“It was disgusting, disingenuous and disrespectful.

“The administration allowed that to remain on the automotive. That was a flaw of theirs to be trustworthy.

“In actual fact, there have been two flaws at the moment: there was the know-how they didn’t have, so different folks moved ahead a lot faster, after which there was an excessive amount of energy divested on the manufacturing facility flooring.

“That sort of disrespect, properly right now you’d get fired for that on the spot. At the moment, all of it appeared to be enjoyable and a part of the scene. I needed to carry all that s**t, although!”

Whereas Watson largely swallowed what would now be classed as psychological bullying by his personal group, the dearth of technical enhancements might clearly not go on.

He didn’t qualify in Monaco and was devastated by that. He’d all the time excelled on any road circuit and there he was with an Osella, an Ensign and a pair of hopeless Shadows in an early tub.

That triggered an eventual turnaround for Watson, spurred by McLaren partaking former March design genius Robin Herd as a advisor.

“Robin produced a carbon fibre underbody with what I’d name radiused turns fairly than 90 diploma ones,” says Watson.

“Aerodynamics don’t like 90 diploma corners. They like good radius corners so the air that flows can adhere to that, at 90 levels then air separates.

“Naturally the primary one went to Alain as a result of he’s the salvation of the group, and so forth.”

Herd’s work was additionally supposed as a counter towards the rising strain from Marlboro to thrust Dennis, who had been ready within the wings for his F1 promotion for some months by the summer season of 1980, into the group.

Marlboro was pushing the prevailing McLaren administrators laborious to combine Mission 4 – the F2 group Dennis had created – into the group to create a brand new daybreak led by Dennis and Barnard, who was on the time working in IndyCar.

However the ultimate line of resistance, led by Mayer, proved formidable.

That manifested itself within the group producing a successor to the M29 to attempt to show it didn’t want the exterior assist. The McLaren M30 debuted at Zandvoort within the arms of Prost, whereas Watson took the Herd-tweaked M29.

It was a weekend that modified Watson’s season and started to forged a shadow upon Prost’s.

Watson starred, getting back from a hefty shunt at Tarzan to outqualify his team-mate by 0.6s and 9 locations. From ninth on the grid he then raced comfortably within the prime 10 earlier than retiring with an engine drawback, whereas Prost ultimately nicked a degree in sixth – albeit behind Jean-Pierre Jarier’s aged Tyrrell.

Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980

At Imola a couple of weeks later it was a lot the identical. Prost was nowhere and actually solely simply scraped on to the grid itself.

Watson was once more undone by reliability however had been a lot faster all weekend. Why?

“I simply now had a automotive that I felt was doing what I wished my automotive to do, that easy,” he explains.

“Alain was no additional down the highway together with his M30 than he had been with the previous automotive.

“I’m performing higher and Alain is of course dropping religion within the group at this level. So, hastily, Alain’s trying and pondering, ‘this group has produced a model new automotive and truly it’s no higher, whereas Renault is on the entrance and successful races’.”

That kind upturn was the cue for Watson to let off some steam to the press, which he felt had been on his again all season.

“I feel at Zandvoort there was a problem with the press and I may need advised them they had been a bunch of w**kers or no matter,” he says.

“I can’t do not forget that specific state of affairs intimately. However I had been getting unfavorable press all through 1980 and my view was that the press didn’t have a clue as to what was occurring throughout the group.”

Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980

What truly transpired was that in an interview with Motoring Information, and in addition in his personal column for Autocar, Watson questioned the data of some components of the press who he felt ‘spend an excessive amount of time having fun with sponsors’ free meals and booze fairly than doing what they’re paid for’.

“I hate to say it,” says Watson now, “however a few of these previous eminent members of the press had a certain quantity of data, however they didn’t have wherever close to the understanding of my points, or the problems inside McLaren.

“All they noticed was that Alain was doing a unbelievable job, which I used to be the primary to face up and acknowledge.

“And bear in mind, I used to be the one who took Alain to hospital in South Africa. I acted like an enormous brother to him. I had no issues in any respect with him in 1980 and we’re nonetheless good pals to today.”

Prost was quickly gone, although. Disillusioned by McLaren and totally seduced by Renault.

His determination to depart got here even earlier than a monster shunt on the finale at Watkins Glen which meant he failed to start out one other race due to an harm inflicted by his automotive. It was a suitably dreadful and coruscating finish to a rookie season that had began so properly.

It was the third huge wreck of his season (after Kyalami and a qualifying shunt at Jarama when his suspension collapsed) and once more brought on by a breakage on his automotive. By no means once more did Prost have that quantity or magnitude of accidents in any of his 12 subsequent seasons in F1.

For McLaren, dropping Prost was a hammer blow however within the context of what he went on to realize most likely not one totally recognised on the time.

“I went on to the medical centre at The Glen to see him,” remembers Watson.

“Right here’s this child mendacity on a gurney, who’s been overwhelmed up and he’s bloody depressing. It was an enormous shunt.

“He circled and mentioned, ‘John, I can inform you now that you’ll be the primary driver of McLaren in 1981 as a result of I’m not going to be driving for them, I’m going to Renault’.”

And it turned a full altering of the guard within the group, as lastly Marlboro bought its means and inserted Dennis and Barnard (pictured collectively beneath on the 1980 Canadian GP, behind Mayer within the crimson hat) into the corporate.

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As a part of that deal Marlboro Italy managed to roll Andrea de Cesaris into the brand new package deal to switch Prost and associate Watson for 1981.

Watson completed the 1980 season off with a flourish, scoring a fourth in Montreal after which qualifying ninth at Watkins Glen. The mojo, which in truth had solely been briefly misplaced fairly than misplaced, was again with a vengeance.

Forty-two years on Watson has no qualms when rationalising these instances. He nonetheless believes that Prost was “getting used to try to block Ron and John coming into the group”.

“He was a political pawn to cease the introduction of recent administration coming in as a partnership to avoid wasting their very own bacon mainly,” asserts Watson.

As McLaren handed from its previous to its new period, not an enormous quantity appeared to alter at first. Mayer initially remained, as did Watson in fact, however whereas on the face of it there was stability, Dennis and Barnard had been truly orchestrating a revolution few might comprehend on the time.

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Simply 4 years past 1980, McLaren took a dominant championship double after tempting Niki Lauda from retirement, getting TAG to bankroll a Porsche turbo engine and welcoming Prost again after his Renault dream was a fractious and political nightmare.

Watson, who gained three grands prix for the group between 1981 and 1983, is doubtless one of many unheralded foundations of what was the primary iteration of recent day McLaren.

When Lauda was injured simply previous to the 1985 European Grand Prix at Manufacturers Hatch, Dennis solely thought-about calling one driver: John Marshall Watson.

What number of drivers in that interval garnered the respect that Watson did? Not many, definitely to not the extent of getting a invitation again after two years off the F1 grid.

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By means of the tumult of 1980 Watson was a steady drive who wasn’t afraid to battle his nook from misunderstanding and sporting prejudice.

He and others at McLaren noticed it out and went on to style the fruits of their labour, rising efficiently from the time when the group teetered on the form of precipice that the likes of Brabham, March, Tyrrell and Lotus would ultimately fall off.

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