Motorsport: Kiwi has the right formula in F1

By Eric Thompson

Graham Watson of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Great Britain during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya. Photo / File
Graham Watson of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Great Britain during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya. Photo / File

If a New Zealander were to become the manager of an English Premier League club it would make quite a bit of news even back here despite it being a round ball and not an oval one.

While football is the most watched sport in the world, Formula 1 comes in at number six, behind baseball and ahead of American football, and we have two team managers in a field of 11 constructors. Dave Ryan has returned to the sport with Manor Racing, after a hiatus away with sports cars, after many years with McLaren.

The other is Pukekohe born and bred Graham Watson, who's the team manager for Scuderia Toro Rosso. Ryan has a small profile, as he was caught up in all the brouhaha during the McLaren-gate episode back in 2009 where Lewis Hamilton "deliberately misled" the stewards on team orders.

Ryan spent 35 years with McLaren, but it's Watson though, who has had the more interesting climb to the top of his chosen sport. In the typical Kiwi way of "action speaks louder than words", Watson had his eye on the prize from a very early stage when he was working as an apprentice mechanic for Kevin Stone.

That's right, Kevin Stone is the brother of Ross and Jimmy who formed the highly successful V8 Supercars outfit Stone Brothers Racing, which was the launch pad for Shane van Gisbergen's career.

"I left Pukekohe High School at 16 and needed a job. An uncle of mine told me there were two brothers called Ross and Kevin Stone over in Tuakau who have a garage called Town and Country Motors and they wanted a guy to do oil changes and fix tyres," said Watson on returning to Italy after the opening F1 race.

"There were pictures on the wall of Ross racing in the Formula Atlantic series and Kevin had worked for McLaren F1 in Europe for a while. So that's where it all started."

Watson didn't get his start in international motorsport with single seaters, but in rallying. It was his first love affair in motorsport and he travelled the length and breadth of New Zealand both as a driver and co-driver.

"Rallying was my biggest passion and I wanted to work in the World Rally Championship. After the Coromandel Midnight Rally [circa 1989] I got a phone call from Peter Holt asking me if I was interested in going to England and being a rally mechanic [with the Ford Rally Team].

"Straight after I sold everything I had, jumped on a plane and took a big gamble and never really looked back. I didn't expect to end up where I am now, that's just been a bonus.

"New Zealanders have always been popular in motorsport and have a great work ethic. For us [Kiwis] it's always meant a lot to get to be a race mechanic in Europe," he said.

Watson stuck with rallying until 1994 when he jumped categories and started working in Formula 3000 with the Paul Stewart Racing team.

It was from this point onwards Watson came into his own as a sought-after mechanic and was soon playing with the big boys in Formula One, starting with Benetton F1 in 1996. By 2001 he was with BAR Honda and in 2004 when the team morphed into Honda F1 and then Brawn F1, he was appointed Engineering Liaison Manager.

"My career highlight, so far, came in 2009 with Brawn when we won the Formula 1 World Championship," he said.

When Honda jumped the F1 ship in 2009 Watson took a year out to work in the World Touring Car Championship with the Chevrolet team before finding himself back in F1 as team manager with Lotus nee Caterham. When that team came to a grinding holt the talented Kiwi was snapped up by Toro Rosso as their team manager in 2014 and he has guided the team since then.

"Ultimately my role is to make sure 75-odd people get around the world and the cars end up on the grid for each Grand Prix. I'm also responsible for all the regulations. The three of us - team principle Franz Tost, Technical director James Key and myself - run the company.

"The engineers have the car from the start of a session to the end of it and then I have the car before the start of the next session," said Watson.

Running an F1 team today is nothing like it was in the 1980s when Watson first tasted what it was like to be at the pointy end of the sport.

"It's a huge monster now [an F1 team]. When I joined Benetton back in the 90s there were three mechanics on a car and a couple of engineers, a couple of support people and a truckie. It's all about planning now, looking at the bigger picture and making sure all the right pieces are in the right place at the right time.

"The sport has changed dramatically and these new power units are incredibly complex and expensive. I'm actually pretty pleased I'm not a mechanic now, but I do still understand how it works.

"Now you have four mechanics, a bespoke gearbox mechanic, a bespoke hydraulics technician, a body work technician, two truckies, and on top of that there are time penalties when working on the car," he said.

Having a couple of young drivers in Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz is both a blessing and a curse. Verstappen won the world karting championship in 2013 and at 17 years old was the youngest driver to start an F1 race and also the youngest to win a championship point. The Dutchman is known for his raw pace, but also for allowing the red mist to descend on occasion.

On the other hand, Sainz has a more measured approach, which he may have got from his father, also Carlos, a former WRC champion. The 21-year-old Spaniard was part of the Red Bull Junior Team when he won the Formula Renault 3.5 World series.

"As you know we've got a couple of very young drivers in the team and at times there is a show of immaturity [Verstappen clipped teammate Sainz and spun in Australia].

"On the other hand these kids can only get better and Toro Rosso has been set up for the development of young drivers. Hopefully as the year goes on they can get better and better and carry on scoring points, which is the whole crutch of it really.

"Sometimes I think there are so many rules that the natural instinct, especially in young drivers, to be a racer is restricted. Max last year was probably the most spectacular at passing, but at the end of the year he had the most penalty points. It's been a fun journey with these two, that's for sure.

"It's a double-edged sword really. To get the most out of the car you have to drive the car on the edge, but we need the manufacturer points as they are so vital to get money at the end of the year," said Watson.

Heading into the third race of the season at the Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, April 15-17, Watson's team is eighth in the driver's championship (Verstappen) and sixth in the constructor's championship.

"It's a little annoying that we are behind Haas at the moment but there's a long way to go yet - 19 races in fact," he said after the Bahrain Grand Prix. "We have a very good car this year and have to really capitalise on points early in the season as other teams will have newer engines later in the season and we'll still be with our 2015 Ferrari engine.

"We're okay at the moment but we really needed to make more of our chances so far. If you miss out on points you can't get them back.

"You've got to remember we're based in a small village in Italy called Faenza and it's hard to get staff to come and work here. Franz [Tost] has a desire to see us in the top five [constructors] in the championship this year and we're trying to deliver that.

"In all honesty it's a big ask and it's really competitive, but we are a big team with 500 people and an annual budget of NZ$251 million. If things carry on as they are now and the drivers cool down a bit it is a possibility to finish top five.

"The problem will be mid season when the other engine manufacturers introduce more power into their 2016 engines and we're stuck with ours [2015]. However, last year we did pretty well with the old Renault engine.

"For me to end up fifth would be a great result. We'll see how it goes and in Max and Carlos we have two drivers more than capable of being in the points regularly and on the tighter, smaller tracks our cars go better," said Watson.

If Watson were to win another Formula One world championship with Toro Rosso, it would be interesting to see if he gained much attention in this part of the world, let alone be nominated for the Halbergs.

- NZ Herald

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