Author: Joseph M. Goric , July 27, 2018
Nowadays, all forms of sports are tied with some sorts of products, to include the vast world of motor racing and watches. From Formula One to international Rallies, it’s become something of a challenge to find a successful driver without a sponsorship from a major watchmaker.
While today’s drivers may not use their own wristwatches to record lap times and keep track of their performance behind the wheel, the drivers of the past depended heavily on their watches, in particular – chronographs, to record everything from lap times to pit stops. Below, we’ll look at the history of watches in racing, all the way to the world’s first recorded race in 1894, that is 124 years ago!
The early days of Racing Timekeeping
The 1894 Paris-Rouen race was the brainchild of the Le Petit Journal, a Parisian daily newspaper that had a reputation for staging contests to help boost sales. The paper had hosted a 700-plus mile bike race from Paris to Brest and back again in 1891, and in 1892, it had organized a foot race from Paris to Belfort. In late 1893, Le Petit Journal editor Pierre Giffard announced plans for the publication’s most ambitious contest yet—a 79-mile “Competition for Horseless Carriages” to be run from Paris to the city of Rouen in Normandy.
Inevitably, timekeeping problems plagued the first motor racing events. The “Competition for Horseless Carriages,” widely regarded as the world’s first motor race, finished with several different sets of race times caused by poor timekeeping.
But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that wristwatches became widely used in racing. Rolex and one of the fastest drivers in the world, Sir Malcolm Campbell, became united by the quest for speed. On 4 September 1935, at the wheel of Bluebird – and wearing a Rolex Oyster watch – this “king of speed” set a land speed record of over 300 miles per hour (approximately 485 km/h) at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
After setting the record, Campbell reportedly sent a letter to Rolex noting that he had worn their watch under “somewhat strenuous conditions.”
Sir Malcolm Campbell “King of Speed”
One of the biggest reasons motorsports and timekeeping are so inseparable is because racing depends on highly accurate timekeeping. Remove it and there’s no way to record lap times, race times, or other data.
Heuer Watches and Motorsports
While Rolex was one of the first companies to capitalize on the popularity of racing, it was Heuer that was most closely associated with racing throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Heuer’s dashboard timers, particularly the Master Time and Monte Carlo, were common sights on rally and racecar dashboards. Navigators would use the clocks to track progress throughout a rally course or endurance-racing event. Even the Heuer Autavia, one of the brand’s most popular collector watches, began its life as a dashboard timer. It wasn’t until Heuer reinvented the Autavia in 1962 that it became better known as a wristwatch.
Throughout the 1950s, many racers wore Heuer mechanical chronographs. Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati, Lancia, and other leading Formula One teams depended on manually-wound Heuer chronographs to record their drivers. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Heuer continually developed its “big three” chronographs — the Autavia, Carrera, and Monaco. The watches went from manual to automatic in 1969, earning Heuer’s Caliber 11 the title of “first automatic chronograph.”
Heuer watches became more broadly associated with racing in 1971, when legendary actor and racecar enthusiast Steve McQueen wore a Monaco 1133 in Le Mans. To this day, the Monaco is closely associated with the Le Mans race and Steve McQueen.
The legendary Steve McQueen sporting the Monaco.
Other Watchmakers and Racing
It wasn’t just Heuer that was closely involved in motor racing throughout the 20th century. The iconic Omega Speedmaster, which was originally designed as a sports and racing chronograph, and happens to be one of my personal favorites, is best known for its use by NASA during the Apollo program as it became known as the ‘Moonwatch’ after Buzz Aldrin decided to strap it to his wrist and fly it to the moon.
Retro Ad for Omega Speedmaster, 1972
Even in today’s digital age, Swiss watchmakers continue to provide timekeeping for many of the world’s most acclaimed races. TAG Heuer, Longines, Hublot, and Rolex have been Official Timekeepers of Formula One racing.
While the days of drivers dependent on their chronographs for lap times and fast pit stops may be largely over, Swiss watchmakers remain just as important a part of motor racing as ever.
Author: Joseph M. Goric (email@example.com)