The Ayrton Senna TAG Heuer Series

Posted by: David Chalmers   |   21 October 2009   |   74 Comments  

For better or for worse, watch ambassadors have become an indispensable part of the marketing landscape these days. Some of them have a genuine affinity with the brand they’re representing, some see their watch deal as just another in their portfolio of celebrity endorsements.

While the ambassador concept doesn’t do a lot for me, I have to confess that a big part of the reason that I started getting interested in TAG Heuer was because it was the watch worn by my favourite sportsman: Ayrton Senna.Senna was the perfect ambassador for TAG Heuer- yes, he won lots (which helps), but he also had global appeal and there was something about him that made him more than just a fast driver. TAG Heuer used Senna in its “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” campaign, and anyone who saw Senna’s qualifying laps knows that it was when the pressure was on that Senna was at his best.

TAG Heuer had a relationship with Senna from 1988 through to 1994, and then after his death, a relationship with the Senna Foundation through to 2004. This partnership produced five Ayrton Senna Limited Edition TAG Heuer watches, most of which are Link Chronographs.
So let’s take a look at the relationship between Senna and TAG Heuer and the watches that the union produced.

TAG Heuer and McLaren

By the time that Techniques d’Avant Garde (“TAG”) purchased Heuer in 1984/ 5 it was already the 50% owner of McLaren International. The McLaren team, founded by Bruce McLaren had lost its way by the late 1970s.

TAG- the investment arm of the Saudi Ojjeh family- had been a sponsor of the Williams team for several years, but decided that they were looking for much more than a simple sponsorship arrangement.

In conjunction with Marlboro, Ron Dennis was able to force a merger between his Project 4 team and the McLaren team run by Teddy Mayer. Ever wondered why all McLaren race cars- and the new road car- since 1981 have had the MP4 prefix? That stands for “Marlboro Project 4″- the name of Ron’s original team. And joining Ron Dennis in this new enterprise was TAG, which took a 50% ownership stake in the newly named McLaren International.

As a sidenote, what is not widely known is that just as TAG were an investor in McLaren, Ron Dennis was also an investor in TAG Heuer. Documents from the time of the 1999 sale of TAG Heuer to LVMH show that LVMH had secured the agreement of the four largest shareholders of TAG Heuer to sell- included in those four was Ron Dennis.

TAG famously paid for the development of the 1.5 litre Porsche turbo engine, ensuring that the championship winning McLarens of 1984, 1985 and 1986 were known as “McLaren-TAG”. The “TAG” engine continued through to 1988 when a new era began.

Ayrton Senna and McLaren

Ayrton Senna had been a successful driver for Lotus since 1985, and while he had won the occasional race (six over three years) and taken many pole positions, the Lotus team was unable to produce the reliability and speed that Senna demanded. The Lotus team was on an unfortunate decline since the death of Colin Chapman, although the team had some success with Honda engines in 1987, winning twice. However it was no surprise when it was announced that Senna and Honda would be moving to McLaren for the 1988 season. Lotus kept their Honda engines and “gained” the 1987 world champion Piquet, but it was pretty clear that McLaren had the better deal.

The relationship between Senna and McLaren produced three Drivers World Championships and 35 wins and was once of the most talked about era’s in Grand Prix racing, with his legendary battles with Alain Prost on the track, and the FIA off the track.

At the end of 1993 Senna left the McLaren team to move to Williams-Renault, a partnership that lasted only three races before that terrible crash at Imola that took his life on 1 May 2004.

Ayrton Senna and TAG Heuer

Senna’s move to McLaren marked the beginning of the relationship between Senna and TAG Heuer, with Senna appointed as the brand ambassador for the then-new S/el line of watches (“Sports and Elegance”). In fact, Senna’s daily watch was the Analogue/ Digital TAG Heuer S/el (below), which he wore on a leather strap.

There is a great story of a former McLaren mechanic who as a joke offered to swap watches with Senna if he won the 1993 World Championship. Senna didn’t win the Championship, but did give the watch to the mechanic at the end of the season. That actual watch- certified by McLaren’s Jo Ramirez, is below. You can read more about this great- if somewhat sad- story here.

Senna appeared in a range of advertising for TAG Heuer, as well as carrying sponsorship on his racing suit and on his McLaren. But despite these links, TAG Heuer did not produce the first Senna Limited Edition watch until after he left McLaren in 1994.

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