The TAG Heuer Formula 1 has a special place in the brand’s history, being the first watch released following the acquisition of Heuer by Techniques d’Avant Garde (“TAG”) in 1986. While Heuer had spent the late 1970s and early 1980s desperately trying to make money from mechanical watches that were designed for a very different competitive environment, the Formula 1 was a watch of its time. It was the first analogue Heuer/ TAG Heuer series to be quartz-only and to this day there has never been an automatic model.
The inspiration for the Formula 1 was the success of the Swatch watch, which had been launched at Basel in 1983. The quartz crisis of the 1970s had forced the Swiss to re-think how to engineer a watch to make money at a much lower selling price- the F1 was priced around 30-50% of the price of an Autavia.
While the F1 was not as cheap as the Swatch, it used the same ideological template: a synthetic case, bright colours, low-cost movements and simple sales packaging to try to tempt buyers back to Swiss watches. And like the Swatch, it was a huge sales success.
The choice of name was also symbolic of the new TAG Heuer, as perhaps the only thing that TAG and Heuer had it common was their link to Formula 1 racing. Heuer had of course been a sponsor of Ferrari during the 1970s, while TAG was the principal sponsor of the Williams team from 1979-1981, before buying 50% of McLaren International at the end of the 1981 season. TAG then funded the development of the Porsche 1.5 litre turbo engine that would power the McLaren- TAG cars to consecutive World Championships in 1984 and 1985.
Despite the immense success of the Formula 1 series, the watch was discontinued in 2000, having sold more than 3 million units. Brought back a few years later, the Formula 1 remains a key part of the TAG Heuer range focused on the value-end of the market.
Series 1: 1986- 1990
The first generation F1 watches (The watch above is Ref. 380.513) were designed by Eddy Burgener and used an innovative case construction- a mixture of a stainless steel inner case coated with Fibreglass.
The first range was limited to two sizes (28mm and 34mm) of brightly coloured cases matched to plastic straps that you could cut to size.
In 1987 the range expanded to include a stainless steel case and bracelet as well as a range of new colours. The Fibreglass models continued to be sold until 1993/4 and stand out today as the real signature watch of the Formula 1 series.
The first series F1 use a variety of quartz movements. Early watches use either a Harley Ronda SA 705 movement or an ESA 965.312 module, while the majority of the later watches use the ETA 955.412/ 955.414 movement.
First Generation Chronograph
The Chronograph was powered by a complex mechanical-quartz movement, which appears to be made by Ronda. The module had an unusual date function on the 6 o’clock register, elapsed minutes at 3 o’clock and Chrono. seconds at 9 o’clock.
These movements were quite fragile and are very difficult/ impossible to service today, which probably explains why they were on sale for less than two years before a second generation Chronograph was launched.
Second Generation Chronograph
The 1991 Formula 1 Chronograph is my favourite model in the F1 range, with an attractive, more classical dial than the First Generation Chronograph and a much-improved ETA 251.262 1/10th Chronograph movement.
Series 2: 1997-2000
Having gone more than twelve years unchanged, TAG Heuer launched a new Formula 1 series in 1998, dropping the basic watch and upgrading the Chronograph model. The Series 2 Chronograph uses the same case design as the original, but with a distinctly different dial.
The dial has a minute scale on its outer-edge, numeral hour-markets and then a patterned inner circle. It certainly looks more modern than the original model, but seems needlessly complicated. Another change-for-the-sake-of-change was the switch to triangular hands for both the time and Chronograph hands.
Discontinuing the Formula 1
Despite the success of the Formula 1 series, one of the first decisions taken by the new LVMH management team in 2000 was to drop the series. The issue was not a lack of sales, but more that the low-cost F1 didn’t fit with the plans of LVMH to take the brand up-market.
The problem was that while the low-cost ethos of the Formula 1 made sense in 1985, the market had changed to the extent that a watch using mineral glass and a plastic bezel was simply seen as cheap in 2000. Just as the Heuer watches of the 1970s made no sense in the market of the 1980s, the Formula 1 seemed to no longer be relevant at the turn of the century.
The Formula 1 was not the only TAG Heuer series impacted by the desire of LVMH to focus on mechanical movements and push the brand up-market- regular readers will recall that this is the same reason that TAG Heuer chose not to release the Edge series that was developed in the late 1990s.
Series 3: 2004-2007
The Series 3 Formula One featured a titanium-carbide coated steel bezel, 316L steel case and a sapphire crystal. The dial introduced a totally new look for the F1 series, with metal-look hour-markers and numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. Also new were the triangular hands.
What did not change was the basic shape of the case and bezel, which both echo the original. The Series 3 Formula 1 has a 40mm case, bringing the watch into line with contemporary tastes- the original 34mm size feeling very small by today’s standards.
One trademarks of this series was the use of Polyurethane “bumpers” on either side of the case, something that was apparently the idea of Kimi Raikkonen, who was the “face” of the new series.
The overall look of the watch was a chunky, trendy design, which fitted with its positioning as the youthful, less formal watch in the TAG Heuer range. Sure, you might wear your Carrera Chronograph to the office, but when it’s time to either pull on the beanie and shred mountains on a Snowboard, or simply chill out- like Kimi- the Formula 1 is the watch to use. As a side-note, this is the only catalogue in Heuer/ TAG Heuer history to feature the phrase “Chill Out“.
Also new for the series were the movements, with the F1 watch using the ETA 955.112, while the Chronograph version below (with the distinctive tri-colour 6 o’clock register) was powered by the ETA G10.711.
Note that all the Formula 1 watches from 2004 to today have the words “TAG Heuer Formula 1” on the dial, rather than just the model name “Formula 1“as on other TAG Heuer watches. This is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone’s obsession with limiting/ protecting/ exploiting the “Formula 1” brand.
Series 4: 2007-2011
The new series was 1mm larger (41mm for both the Chronograph and the watch) and once again used improved materials, most notably the finishing on the bezel which now used raised fine-brushed numbers (vs. engraved and painted numbers).
The distinguishing design detail of the new Chronograph was the over-sized 6 o’clock register, framed by a silver ring.
2008: Series 4 Extensions
Several extensions of the Series 4 model were introduced to keep the Formula 1 current and in fashion- as you’d expect, watches that were purposely trendy have to change more often as tastes evolve.
Grande Date Chronograph- 2008
The Grande Date series (so-called because of the two-digit date window at 12 o’clock) was launched in 2008 with an over-sized 44mm case. While I like the size of these larger watches, the dial design is far too complicated- different sized sub-dials, plenty of colours and patterns and lots of text make it a very busy dial.
The Grande Date Chronograph uses the Ronda 5040B movement.
Grande Date Watch- 2009
More attractive is the Grande Date watch which was launched the following year using the same 44mm case. This model brings back printed numerals to the dial and for the first time used a register at 6 o’clock to show elapsed seconds.
The Grande Date Formula 1 watch uses a Ronda 6004B Quartz movement.
Revised Watch- 2010
This model comes in Khaki and Orange, meaning that just like the original, there are plenty of colour options.
Series 5: 2012-2015
In 2012 TAG Heuer launched a revamped Formula 1 series- it was time for the Formula 1 to grow up. While the case shape stayed the same, the range settled on a 42mm case for both watch and chronograph models and the more elaborate designs were dropped. In their place were polished edges, improved quality and a “grown-up” feel. No doubt some of the edge of the original F1 was diluted in these changes, but it did ensure that the range was no longer seen as a cheap, entry level watch.
For the first time, the fifth series also introduced a series of automatic movements, using the Calibre 16 movement. While still based in the traditional Formula 1 case, the use of mechanical movements took the Formula 1 series into a different sector of the market.
Series 6: 2015- Present
The 2015 model represents perhaps the most significant change in the model’s almost 30 year history, with the watches abandoning the case design used since 1986. In its place is a case based on the 1970s Heuer Autavia, giving the watch an entirely new look, but still a watch with Formula 1 heritage.
While there remain some quartz models in the range, TAG Heuer expanded the number of mechanical movements to include Calibre 5, 6 and 7 variants.
Looking back on the TAG Heuer Formula 1
The Formula 1 has been able to establish itself as the sporting, unpretentious model in the TAG Heuer range. The watch that it’s OK to buy in bright Orange and the watch that I’d always choose in quartz, even if TAG Heuer did offer a mechanical version. For many people it was more than this: it was their first “proper” watch.
My memory of the watch is seeing the McLaren team wearing the red version as part of their team uniform for the Grand Prix. Combined with the fact that TAG engines were winning races seemingly every weekend, the watch had real credibility as the Formula 1 watch from the minute it was launched.
As with many low-cost, innovative designs, the TAG Heuer Formula 1 has become more expensive and conservative over time. But the spirit of the original is still there in today’s Formula 1 and there is still a place for the watch is today’s TAG Heuer range, even as the focus of the company switches to complex mechanical movements.
– Series 1 Watches: Watchestobuy.com
– Series 1 catalog: Chuck Maddox
– Series 1/ Gen 1 Chrono: MarkTH
– Series 1/ Gen 1 Chrono Red: Tyler Thielmann
– Series 1/ Gen 1 Movement: bmwfreak
– Series 3 Watch: sixtysix
– Series 4 Chronograph: Wisconsin Proud