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Watches and motorsport

Your correspondent who cannot tell the time

Lafitte, the ultimate Frenchman driving the state-sponsored ‘Teapot’ Ligier Matra V12

Lewis with his drawn-on wrist watch.

A topless Scotsman with a Rolex Submariner and a filmstar

The fastest racing driver heart surgeon in Dubai, Steve Griffin, explains the link between watches and motorsport, using some classic designs to illustrate his points.

Once upon a time motorsport was almost entirely supported and paid for by tobacco companies. During the 1970s if one stood still for too long at a race track somebody would paint a red and white chevron across your feet. The recent and stunning realization that ciggies might not do people any good has brought about the banning of all those brands that were so synonymous with Formula One. I have always found it strange that governments allow smoking, tax it and in the case of the French State even own the tobacco companies but don’t allow advertising.

For a while the big banks stood in for Marlboro and Rothmans in motorsport but once they had frittered all our hard earned money they left the grid. Now it appears that watch manufacturers have filled the void. Rolex is prominent on so many hoardings, the drivers are all made to put on a watch alongside their Pirelli caps for the podium ceremonies. Nico and Lewis even have false watches adorning their driving gloves.

Many teams have watch companies as official ‘partners’. I think that is 2015-speak for sponsor. Rolex appears to be the major player in Formula One, possibly because of the influence of a certain little Scotsman who even has his suit sleeves shortened to show off his Rolexes. Jackie Stewart

All in the best possible taste

has been a brand ambassador for the Swiss company for decades. I like that concept, I have offered my services as brand ambassador for Marlboro as I have taken out so many peoples’ lungs for cancer but they never called back. I suggested a discrete red chevron on my scrubs….

Then we read the motoring press, particularly the historic rags, wrist watch advertisements adorn every third page. Motoring enthusiasts are tempted with every possible limited edition watch these are commemorating everything from the Mille Miglia to the Battle of Britain. It’s almost as widespread as those mugs and dishes so amusingly advertised in back of the colour supplements to the memory of Elvis Presley or Princess Diana.

One either sees a watch as an object that tells the time or one sees them as something more than that. In the new Bond epic Spectre, Q shows James Bond his new Omega watch and is asked if it does anything special. To which Q responds that it “Tells the time”. Q is not a watch guy, I am.

When in my late thirties when I thought I had made something of myself and got a consultant job (how daft could I have been?) the first things I did were to buy myself a Ferrari and a Rolex. Wrongly I thought that I deserved them. The Italian car has long gone but the Submariner is still ticking away and seems to get more accurate as it gets past its twentieth birthday. I have given it a hard time, dropped it repeatedly, taken it to the bottom othe sea and knocked it against innumerable hard objects. It seems almost indestructible. Over the years I have collected a handful of other watches that mean something to me and the things I am interested in. It is a totally preposterous and expensive hobby but I like good engineering and clocks, watches and the like can be delightful examples of complex mechanics.

Nice engineering

If you wish to collect watches, and many do, it is worth thinking about what it is that you want. If like Q you just want to tell the time then go and buy a Casio or a Swatch. Interestingly original digital Casios are now very fashionable and highly collectable If you want a car that gets you from A to B then buy a Toyota Corolla. But surely life is more than that?. If you want more than just a time-tool then consider the options. Machines that tell the time on your wrist can be divided in ‘watches’, these are essentially plain clocks or ‘chronographs’ which have other actions, usually stopwatch functions. These timepieces can be roughly divided into Quartz, manual winding or automatics. There are others but these three form the basis of most mainline watches. The Quartz watches rely on passing an electrical current through a Quartz crystal and using the resultant pulsation as the time regulator. These watches are accurate but require batteries which often do not last very long. A good quality Quartz watch needs to go back to the factory for battery replacement if you want the case to remain watertight. Wind ups, so common when I was a child, are rare nowadays but still available. For me the nicest winding watch is the Omega Speedmaster Professional, sometimes known as the Moonwatch. It was chosen because automatics don’t work in space as they need gravity to move the counterweight and of course because it is an accurate timepiece. This Omega was famously worn by Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969. Armstrong left his watch in the Lunar Module in case Aldrin damaged his as they didn’t have a clock. The watch itself is not very hardy, it has an acetate glass and isn’t water proof but it remains NASA certified for space travel. I love mine as I am a space nerd. Sadly I am unlikely ever to use it in space. When Aldrin wore his Speedmaster the strap was made with Velcro which in the sixties was the height of modernity.

Buzz Aldrin in LEM with his Omega on a double velcro strap. Velcro was new and high-tech in the '60s

Racer/actor and generally smooth guy Paul Newman and his trademark Rolex Daytona with black inserts

The other major watch type is the automatic. These generate the power for the movement by using the energy from the wearer’s movements. They normally have a reserve of about two days although some more expensive makes do manage longer. The choice of automatic watches is huge. Movements (at least decent ones) are usually made in Switzerland or Japan. The Swiss have the main market but Japanese giants Seiko and Citizen both make excellent watch movements and have been doing so for nearly one hundred years. Some watch manufacturers buy in their movements from specialist producers and others make their own, known as in-house. Occasionally even the famous manufacturers use rivals’ components. For example some Rolexes used to use Omega movements. Many of the high-end watch makers love to produce ever more complicated mechanisms and even call them “complications”. Some will have dozens of complications that do everything from tell the date to showing the stars over your house in The Hamptons on any particular night.

The general way to differentiate these is to see if the movement is ‘In House’ or ‘Swiss Made’. The Swiss mass produce very high quality movements that often find their way into good quality watches such as Chopard or Dior. These brands buy in good movements and then produce a fancy or interesting case. Brands such as Patek or Rolex have ‘in house’ movements. Patek is the ultimate brand for most watch collectors, their price reflects the quality of the movements and cases. The Swiss Made logo is usually a sign of guaranteed quality although the word ‘made’ sometimes means ‘assembled’. This applies to some cars also, I believe that Bentleys are ‘assembled’ from parts ‘made’ in Germany but still sell as British built.

The other factor to take into account when looking at watches is the case metal. In the past gold was considered the best and for many it still is. Steel was considered a workmanlike substance and less attractive. This probably all changed with the Rolex Daytona. It was Rolex’s worse selling watch until Paul Newman started wearing a stainless steel version. Now these with steel cases are the most collectable. I have a stainless steel Daytona, it is nothing like as tough as the old Submariner but it’s still a nice watch.

The much under-rated Swiss driver Jo Siffert and his early Heuer.

The watch manufacturer with the longest association with motorsport is Heuer, pronounced “Hoyer”. The company was bought by the TAG Group some years ago and now goes under the TAG Heuer name. The overalls of many drivers from the past were adorned by Heuer, the Swiss driver Jo Siffert being a prominent user.

The square Heuer Monaco watch as worn by Steve McQueen in that wonderful film with no dialogue “Le Mans” is as popular today as it was in the seventies. The blue face and square case is just too Abba/T Rex/Barry White for me. I do have one TAG Heuer, a fifties-style Carrera which I have convinced myself Fangio would have worn , I don’t think he ever did though.

The market for watches at the top end is seemingly insatiable. A relative newcomer is Hublot, French for porthole. At last year’s Abu Dhabi Ferrari Clienti bash that I attended (sadly not as a member) it was on the wrists of every one of the UHNW (ultra high net worth) individuals in attendance. Personally I think they all look like cheap rip-offs even though they cost so much. When a certain B. Ecclestone was assaulted and his Hublot was stolen he used his damaged mug shot to advertise the brand. He is never one to miss a chance to make a few quid.

None of us Monoposti will ever look as cool as Steve McQueen but we could buy the watch and the overalls
Only Bernie could get away with this form of advertising (and with such crude Photoshopping.....(asst ed))
This photo has no function other than to show the great Gilles Villeneuve and his Longine sponsored Ferrari. (As if Villeneuve / 126c needs a reason...)

Like all things mechanical, watches are primarily functional. We could probably manage perfectly well if all cars were four cylinder Diesels but wouldn’t life be dull? Even if I cannot see under the bonnet or see inside the case I like to know that I own something complex and special. The joy of ownership of a precision made object whether it is a microscope or a microlight is palpable. Watches fall into this category. One can spend a few hundred and get a wonderful piece of wearable machinery or one can spend a few million and get something
that is rare and beautiful. The pleasure is the same the price is different.

Steven Griffin

Disclaimer: The above represents only the unofficial view of the writer and not of the Monoposto Racing Club in any way whatsover. Subheadlines and captions are not originated from the named author. We are unable to reproduce results due to copyright reasons. If any pictures are copyright and the owner wishes them removed please email us.

  Asst ed adds (for the Philistines amongst the members):

Left is a photo I took on holiday as I passed a jeweller. "Big Bang" and "Ferrari" seemed an interesting name, evoking early Turbo F1 efforts. At around £17,000, you used to be able to buy a 308GT4 or Mondial for much less.
Right is a photo to demonstrate the difference between "collection of watches" and "old tat not thrown away".