1982 Grand Prix of Detroit Winner John Watson: Today's F1 Is Like Disappointment at Christmas

john watson f1
1982 F1 Detroit GP Winner Watson Pulls No PunchesMike Pryson

John Watson won five Formula 1 races during his F1 career that ran from 1973 to 1985.

One of those wins came in the inaugural Grand Prix of Detroit on the streets of downtown Motor City in 1982. That win came from the 17th starting position in what was one of history's great Formula 1 drives—just ask him. It's a race that Watson can still recall, nearly lap by lap, four decades later.

The next year, in '83, he returned to Detroit one final time as a racer and finished third.

This past weekend, the 77-year-old F1 veteran made a return trip to Detroit on an invitation to be grand marshal for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear IndyCar race. This trip marked his first trip back to the Motor City in 40 years.


For Watson, the trek was also a chance to catch up with dear friend Roger Penske. In 1976, Watson drove for team owner Penske's Formula 1 team.

Watson said the two Detroit downtown race weekends, four decades apart, had at least a few similarities.

"My colleagues turned up to the first one (in '82) and they said, 'You can't do overtake. Where are we going to pass?'" Watson said. "So everybody was a little bit circumspect about it.

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John Watson, Eddie Cheever and Didier Pironi on the 1982 Grand Prix of Detroit podium.Bernard Cahier - Getty Images

"I came here that year maybe with a slightly different view, partly because I've always loved cars and grew up around cars. And we were coming to the Motor City. Maybe that didn't mean an awful lot to all the other competitors.

"The other thing of course is about music and Motown. I was coming to Motown. Motown was such a powerful influence on a global platform, and the music was just fantastic. So I felt there's two very strong positives for me."

These days, Watson is a pundit and one of the best racing storytellers on the planet. He appreciates all forms of racing, serves as a TV voice for GT3 races, and was thoroughly blown away by this year's Indianapolis 500.

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John Watson drives his McLaren-Ford MP4-1B on the streets of Detroit in 1982.Bernard Cahier - Getty Images

"I watched (the Indy 500) last weekend," Watson said. "That race is a national treasure. I 'm getting goosebumps even now. What a fantastic show. And I couldn't believe the finish. Some people felt it was controversial, there were concerns about cold tires (on the final restart) going flat out into turn one and turn three. I thought it was a fantastic show. Honestly. It was one of the greatest spectacles that I've seen.

"I can't imagine what it's like going into Turn 1 at 240 miles an hour. The last lap at Indy—shivers still watching what Josef Newgarden was able to do. Marcus Ericsson thought he was going to make it two in a row."

When Watson was told that Ericsson was racing for a $420,000 bonus if he were to win back-to-back 500s, Watson smiled.

"No wonder he was pissed."

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John Watson, circa 1974.getty images - Getty Images

Watson says he still watches Formula 1, and he's still entertained—to a point—by what has become a rather predictable show. After all, Red Bull racers Max Verstappen (5 wins) and Sergio Perez (2 wins) have combined to win all seven F1 races so far in 2023.

"I watch them, yes," Watson said. "Entertained is another matter. Every time you come up to the start of the race, it's a bit like when you're a child and the excitement of coming to Christmas.

"And then you get to Christmas Eve and you're gonna go to bed and Santa is gonna come and deliver all the things that you wrote a list that you wanted. And then you wake up on Christmas Day and think, 'Well, I didn't want that, and I didn't want that.' There's a disappointment, and I think that how the delivery (of Formula 1 today) disappoints."

That's not to say that every Christmas is, well, a disappointment.

"Now there's some good Formula 1 races," Watson said. "And hopefully we'll see some more this year. But in places like Monte Carlo—where the cars are just too big for the circuit—it's just very, very difficult to find a way around a competitive car. I didn't see Spain but I followed as best I could. And that was a Max walkover.

"It's very difficult. It's a complex formula. And there are some exceptionally clever people who are able to interpret regulations and rules in a way that the rules makers never even would have conceived of."

Watson made 152 starts in F1 and finished a career-best third in the championship behind just Keke Rosberg and Didier Pironi. His best years were with McLaren.

"I love Formula 1, it's been my life," Watson said. "But over the last few decades, we've seen one-make domination—McLaren had it in the 80s, then Williams had the 90s, and then Ferrari, Benetton.

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John Watson with team owner Roger Penske at the Nurburgring in 1976.Paul-Henri Cahier - Getty Images

"Domination is never in my opinion good for any sport. I mean, I work in a broadcast for GT3 racing, which is, I think, great racing. And they have a mechanism called a balance of performance. And that actually works really well. So it means that the racing is unpredictable.

"And it's this predictability (in Formula 1), which I think is bad. Max has done a brilliant job, Red Bull are doing a brilliant job. Everybody else needs to get off their you-know-what and get the job done.

"Because simply, whatever (advantage) Red Bull has gotten is principally aerodynamics. Honda's likewise done a very good job with the power unit with the hybrid and whatever else is involved in it. And Red Bull has got right now that guy who can walk on water. And all those sort of rough edges that he displayed early in his career, those are getting rounded off and he's now becoming the more complete driver.

"And Max only now understands that maybe doesn't have to illustrate it at every single moment or every corner or every racetrack why he's the quickest or what he's all about. He is beginning to come into what I call that purple patch in his career, and he can retain that for five or six years, maybe longer depends whether he gets bored or not."

How about a next act for Verstappen?

"I mean, there has been suggestions that he might want to go on to try different challenges," Watson said. "And I did read somebody said—it might have been Mario—say I want to bring Verstappen over to Indy.

"I'd come and watch that."