Before the Ambassadors: Heuer & Formula 1

Posted by: Mark Moss   |   4 June 2012   |   14 Comments  

David’s recent article on Ayrton Senna’s watches made me look again at some of the drivers who wore Heuer watches during what many vintage collectors consider Heuer’s “Golden Era” of the 60s and 70s. It was perhaps a more innocent time, before ambassador programmes, and many of the drivers wore the watches simply because they liked them (or because one of their fellow racers sold it to them, but more on that later). It’s a distinguished roll call by any measure, with a number of world champions amongst them, and includes my personal all-time favourite F1 driver.

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For this article I’ve focused entirely on F1 drivers, even though there were plenty of sports car racers, rally drivers etc who wore Heuers too. That leaves some scope for future articles, but it’s also important to remember that racers at the time weren’t defined by Formula 1 as much as they are now. Double F1 world champion Jim Clark was killed in an F2 race, John Surtees was world champion on two wheels as well as four (in a probably unrepeatable feat) so being an F1 driver didn’t mean you couldn’t drive anything else. Robert Kubica’s rallying accident shows that it might be better only to be an F1 driver but at the time in question it was pretty much the norm to race in other formulae.

Rather than make it a simple listing of the drivers and what they wore, I’ve given an idea of their racing career and why you might be proud to wear the same watch.

Jo Siffert

Let’s start with “Smokin’ Jo”. There were Heuer-wearing racers before him, of course, but possibly none before were as much of a Heuer advocate as Siffert. So much so that he was buying watches from Heuer at wholesale and selling them on to his fellow racers!

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From an interview that David conducted with Jack Heuer about Siffert’s role as a Heuer “dealer”:

“Jo as you may know from his background, he was a very poor guy and he was a born “wheeler and dealer” and he would always have a collection of watches, and he would place them with all of his friends on the circuit, between wholesale and retail, and we didn’t mind of course because it was in public and so actually the Formula 1 circuit, if you looked around, they all wore a Heuer Chronograph….”

So strong is Siffert’s connection with Heuer that the model he is most associated with, the Autavia 1163 T Chronomatic, is commonly called the “Siffert” by collectors, along with similar models in the same (more or less) colour scheme.

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With just 2 wins and 2 poles in his Formula 1 career, cut short by his death in a non-championship race in 1971, Jo might not have been the most successful of the Heuer-wearing F1 drivers but certainly one of the ones who had the most impact in terms of spreading the Heuer word amongst the drivers (below is Jo on a tour of the Heuer factory with Jack Heuer). And for that he is rightly remembered and renowned amongst the Heuer community.

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Niki Lauda

So let’s move onto a world champion next. A 3-time one, no less, and quite probably would have been 4 times after his near-miraculous recovery from a crash at the Nürburgring in 1976, if Lauda hadn’t bravely decided to end his race in Japan in dangerously flooded track conditions, handing the championship to James Hunt by a scant single point.

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As a Ferrari driver, Lauda received one of the Carrera 1158s that were presented to all their drivers of the period. It became almost as much of a permanent fixture as the trademark cap he wears to cover the burns incurred in the Nürburgring crash, even when his career moved on to Brabham following Lauda’s unhappiness with how he had been treated by Ferrari following his Nürburgring accident .

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After two years at Brabham, Lauda became disillusioned with F1 and “driving round in circles” and retired to look after his aviation business. Unusually, however, he made a successful return to the sport with McLaren in 1982, winning at Long Beach and Brand’s Hatch. The following year was less successful, although team-mate John Watson was able to claim a win. The tail end of the season would see Lauda racing an engine branded with a name that was soon to become very important for the Heuer story – TAG.

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1984 though would see Alain Prost, sacked by Renault, return to McLaren and the driver pairing would go on to dominate the season with 12 wins between them in a 16 race calendar. Prost had 7 wins to Lauda’s 5, but thanks to Prost’s Monaco win (when being closed down by Senna, with the Heuer-wearing Stefan Bellof faster than both) only receiving half-points as the race was stopped after just 31 laps, Lauda was able to win the championship by a scant 0.5 point. 1985 was more disappointing, with 11 retirements and 2 races missed through injury, so Lauda retired from F1 for good at the end of the year, having seen team-mate Prost win the first of his four championships.

Unfortunately, his original Carrera was later stolen, though the story has a happy ending, with Lauda being reunited with Jack Heuer and another 1158 at an event at von Köck’s jewellers in Vienna, held as part of the promotion for the Bonhams’s Auction of vintage Heuer watches.

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Lauda has clearly continued to wear the watch after the event, as shown in this meeting with Stewart and Fittipaldi at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year.

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