Graham Watson: 'Max single-handedly saved Formula 1'
Published on 16 January 2024 by FORMULE 1 Magazine
They both made a crushing impact on him. According to Graham Watson, Jos and Max Verstappen belong to a unique breed. There are tons of similarities between father and son, talent is what makes the difference. “Jos has imprinted Max: the first thing you have to do is destroy your teammate.”
Upon request, Graham Watson is happy to talk about Jos and Max Verstappen. The New Zealander has been active in Formula 1 for over 25 years, and since 2022 he has been the right-hand man of Franz Tost, the former team principal of AlphaTauri. Watson is a great admirer of the Dutch Drivers. He knows them both ‘a little bit’, he says modestly.
Misplaced modesty? Probably. Because just think: Watson worked at Benetton’s test team as a mechanic for Jos Verstappen in the 1990s, and the two met again in 1998 at Honda. In 2015, he got to work closely with Max Verstappen for a year and a half when he was team manager at Toro Rosso. And during that period, father Jos was always present. “I still see him in the paddock every now and then”, Watson says. “In 2015 we saw each other frequently, when Max drove for us.”
The real deal
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Jos Verstappen is a race in the Formula Atlantic Series. It must have been around 1993, the New Zealander thinks. Verstappen had flown to the other side of the world to participate in that series. “I was at that race in New Zealand and remember that it was raining. Jos spun in the back of the field, but still managed to win the race. We were all watching with our mouths open, thinking ‘what is happening here?’ This is the real deal, we thought. It was the first time that I saw Jos.”
Watson couldn’t have imagined that he soon would get to know the Dutchman a lot better. Verstappen signed a contract with Benetton, a top team in the making with Flavio Briatore as team manager, and Michael Schumacher as leader. The two regularly met each other in the test team, where Watson was a mechanic. In 1998 and 1999 at Honda the roles were the same. “I got to know Jos quite well at Honda”, Watson says. What struck him about the Dutch driver? His speed, fighting spirit and humor.
An example? Watson starts: “After a test in Jerez, we had to convert the car for the Monaco Grand Prix. Jos was asked if he could stay a little longer to do the shakedown on Monday. ‘No problem’, he said. At one point, he came to me. ‘Graham, you are without a doubt the best mechanic I have ever worked with.’ ‘Gee Jos,’ I replied, ‘that’s nice of you to say.’ ‘I mean it’, he replied and patted me on the back. He walked away, and so did I. Later Jos came back, got in his car and wanted to fasten the seat belts. And what happened? His seat belts were too short. ‘How on earth is this possible’, I thought. ‘Sorry Jos,’ I said, ‘you have to get out. The belts are too short.’ He looked at me in surprise and said: ‘Do you remember what I said earlier? Well, I hereby retract those words.’ He got out of the car, and I fixed the seat belts. Then I noticed that Jos had deliberately tied a knot in them to make them shorter. Everyone in the garage is of course dying of laughter, haha! That kind of stuff happened a lot, such a person is Jos. Honestly, I can’t remember a bad moment, he was a pleasure to work with. Jos was a real fighter, afraid of nothing. Actually just like Max.”
Do you see many similarities between Jos and Max Verstappen?
“It’s hard to say, to be honest. Personality-wise, they are quite similar, although Max is slightly different. We know he is aggressive. As a driver, that is. Not as a human being. Max knows very well what he wants: not to be second. When he started with us as a teenager, he was still a kid. But what he already showed at that age… Pfff, very impressive. In 2015, Max had his first test with the car, in Jerez. I was sitting on the pit wall talking to him, and there were photographers everywhere. Then I realized what it must feel like to have cameras pointed at you all the time. I asked Max: ‘You’re 17 and photographers follow you all the time. This awaits you for the rest of your life in F1. How is that?’ He looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘That only happens if I’m good enough.’ That was his answer. Incredible, I thought, a 17-year old who gives such answers. I don’t know what you were thinking about when you were that age, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking of driving a Formula 1 car. But I immediately noticed Max, he was one hundred percent committed.”
“What I think Max definitely got from his father is that you know, as a driver, that you get whatever you need. Because you usually only get one chance.” Watson believes that that mainly has to do with Jos Verstappen’s past at Benetton. “I think that Jos felt that Michael Schumacher had better material and was favoured. I had the impression that Jos had difficulties accepting that, because he also was a very gifted driver. Flavio [Briatore] had a strong bond with Michael, both sporting-wise and personal. That’s why I think Jos imprinted on Max very early on, that the first thing that you have to do is destroy his teammates. And we have seen that in recent years. It has to be your team, you have to be the man around whom it revolves. I’m convinced that you now also see this with Max: first beat your teammate, then win the title. To this day, I don’t think that Jos got a fair treatment at Benetton. And that has partly ensured that Max understands that aspect of the sport very well: he does not need better equipment, he wants the same equipment, Talent will do the rest.”
“I noticed that immediately in Max’s first year with Carlos [Sainz]. Knowing them both, I knew Max would be top dog from the moment he got in the car with us. He didn’t have to play games or be political Because he’s just incredibly fast. ‘I will do everything I can to help the team move forward, and you will follow me’, he basically said with his actions. And ultimately you want to follow him, because success brings success and people want to follow that. In our team, we supported Max because we wanted him to be successful. We all saw how good he already was. In my opinion, Max is exceptional, like Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. These types of guys enter Formula 1 and immediately leave their mark on the sport. And when you have someone like that on your team, how can you not support him with everything you have?”
“Jos was very involved in Max’s career back in 2015, and even so when Max moved to Red Bull the following year. That sometimes made things a bit difficult internally, but I didn’t have many problems with it. Again: why wouldn’t you want guys like Max on your team? I think there were people in our team that did have a hard time with that. Jos is very direct, it’s black or white. He wanted to ensure that Max would not be disadvantaged in any way, and he always stood up for his son’s interests. Fine, after all it’s his 17-year old son, and not a grown-up man. On the other side, Carlos Sainz’ father, a driven and successful rally champion, did the same. Was there any rivalry between the fathers? If there was, I didn’t see it. They both wanted the best for their sons, which is more than logical. Carlos is talented as well, I see similarities between the two. But I think Max has a little more natural speed. Jos was fast and had no fear, but missed that one little thing that gives you an advantage over your teammate. Max didn’t.”
Singapore Grand Prix 2015: Max Verstappen does not want to let teammate Sainz pass despite team orders. There you already saw the fearless, determined nature of Max.
“That confirmed what I had already expected. Look, if there is an opening, he’ll go for it. Everybody knows that by now. I respected his refusal in Singapore, because Max proved that he will not just step aside. ‘I’m going to become world champion and you’re telling me that I have to step aside? Forget it.’ In the end it didn’t matter for that race, but his ‘no’ said everything about him.”
Did Max Verstappen require a special treatment at the time? You had two rookies, one of which was only 17 years old.
“Not really, no. We just talked about our line-up back then: if you think about it, you can say that they achieved exceptional results that year. We also had a good car, with one underperforming part, but still… very good results. Max finished fourth a few times, Carlos sixth. The nice thing is: it all started with us. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic that Max’s F1 career has taken off with us. But if he had started at HRT or Caterham, he would also have ended up with the best team and in the best car. Because Max has dedication, self-confidence and shows no mercy: everything you’ll need to become a world champion. Max is a nice guy, but not on the track. After Max’s first GP victory in Barcelona, an engineer of ours said that we should be proud of it, because we contributed a little to it. I said, ‘are you serious? Are you dreaming?’ Because whether Max had been with us, or somewhere else, he would have ended up winning races anyway. It just came a little earlier than expected.”
“Max,” Watson continues his praise, “is the best thing that has happened to Formula 1. When Max went from us to Red Bull, I compared it to Michael Schumacher’s move to Ferrari. He made Formula 1 immensely popular at the time. Just look at the old images of Hockenheim and Spa: the stands were full with Schumacher flags. I think Max single-handedly saved Formula 1. Because he brings the same intensity and generates interest. People come en masse to Austria, Spa, actually everywhere for him. I didn’t even see that back in Schumacher’s time. My wife is 60 years old, but a big fan of Max. Because of his style, because of the excitement he creates on track. Max brings a whole new audience to Formula 1. Lewis Hamilton is very talented, but is involved in so many things that people wonder: is he a Formula 1 driver or not? He’s associated with so many other things. Lewis Hamilton is a brand, Max Verstappen is a Formula 1 driver. And that won’t change. I’m not saying that what Hamilton is doing is wrong, but he’s not the nerd like Max. When guys like that are not in the car, they’re in the simulator or in a kart. They’re always trying to improve themselves.”
Nervous? What do you mean?
Graham Watson does not believe that Max Verstappen is nervous in a Formula 1 car. That was different for Watson himself, when he made his debut at a rally in New Zealand.
“I still remember my first race: I was 16, walking to the start and thinking that my helmet would fall off because I was wobbling so much from all the nerves,” he laughs. “All that adrenaline and excitement… I once asked Max how he deals with his nerves. He said: ‘what do you mean?’ ‘Well, you go to the grid and sit in one of the twenty cars. How do you manage your nerves and adrenaline when the lights go out?’ Max looked at me and said: ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Graham. I’ve been driving a car almost longer than you. I started in karts and have been doing this since I was six. This is my job.’ Max continued: ‘Of course, there is some excitement. But it’s not like I’m biting my nails and thinking: I hope I don’t make a mess of this.’ That to me, was very exceptional”, Graham says. “That answer has always stayed with me.”