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Racing legend John Watson Reveals Secrets To Overtaking



If the art of overtaking in motorsports is a science, then John Watson is the Albert Einstein of racing.

Back in 1983, McLaren F1 racer, John Watson, won the Long Beach Grand Prix. What made that victory so special was the fact that he started at the 22 position on the grid and navigated the tight, twisty Californian streets all the way to first place. Overtaking requires as much skill and finesse to perfect as the act of driving itself, both back when Watson was racing as well as in the motorsports of today.

Watson obviously knows a thing or two about overtaking opponents on the racetrack. We caught up with Watson, the McLaren master of overtaking and spoke to him about the secret to passing your rivals on the track.

John Watson Talks Overtaking in motorsports 1Photo Credit: Simon Williams /

The Adrenalist: Why has overtaking become a problem in some categories of racing today?

John Watson: I put it down to the development of cars in wind tunnels and the increase in aerodynamics and downforce; plus the increase in tire grip and carbon brakes. All of these factors have essentially mitigated overtaking compared to my generation. When I was racing, I was able to race somebody by being better on the brakes. When you come out of karting you go into the junior formula. Here, the aerodynamic factor becomes important to the overall laptime; when you start to get closer to another car, your aerodynamics are affected by the wash of the car you are following. Then, that has an effect on your ability to overtake. There are still drivers who are good overtakers, make no mistake about that, but there are others who can’t overtake to save their lives.

John Watson Talks Overtaking in motorsports 3Photo Credit: Simon Williams /

A: Would you say it’s the advent of carbon brakes, which has reduced the braking distances and the opportunity to overtake?

JW: When I raced on steel brakes I could brake at a shorter distance than another driver and that gave me an opportunity to slingshot somebody. Now, the zones are so short and the driver is on the brake pedal for such a short time, that the things I could do in the early 80s aren’t possible today.

Now, drivers are on the brakes about 50 percent less than we were. We were braking for around 2-2.5 seconds, depending on the nature of the corner, whereas it’s 50 percent less for a contemporary car. That’s quite a lot of distance in terms of the room you’ve got to plan and execute an overtaking move correctly. 

John Watson Talks Overtaking in motorsports 2Photo Credit: Simon Williams /

A: Were you aware of what type of driver you were about to pass?

JW: There have always been less-than-professional drivers out there. What you need to do is know your competitors. They’ll be some drivers who are a walk in the park and some that are awkward; there are some who are intelligent, there are some who are thick. It’s not a one catch-all description for every driver out there. The art of overtaking is as much the art of defending, knowing where to place your car and how to use your strengths against the weakness of the car you’re challenging. To me, the people who are good overtakers are people who would intimidate the driver in front of them.

If you put your car in the mirror of the car in front of you, you make that driver look in his mirrors. You start to make the driver distracted from what he should be doing, which is looking forward. Remember Carlos Retuemann at the Las Vegas Grand Prix in 1981? He had the chance to win the world championship and his eyes were glued on his mirrors looking left and right the whole race and he went backwards. He should have won the world championship, but all he did was look in his mirrors. When you’ve got a driver doing that then you have the opportunity to pass them.

John Watson Talks Overtaking in motorsports 4Photo Credit: Simon Williams /

A: How did you go about overtaking drivers? At Detroit, 1983, you went from 17 to 2 and at Long Beach 1983 you started 22 and won the race at a circuit that was notorious for being difficult to overtake at.

JW: For me the most important thing was to catch, execute and move on as quickly as you could. The longer you stayed behind a driver the longer you gave that competitor in front strength and the ability to consolidate his situation and to be less intimidated. Actually having a distinctive helmet, for example, helped. I had a fluorescent red helmet in my McLaren, people knew it was me and knew I could overtake quite well.

On occasions, people don’t really want a load of pressure above and beyond driving the car they have, which might have been a bit of a handful at that time. In a sense, they almost acquiesced and let you by because they didn’t need that extra load of hassle. You have got to make your move in a way which is strong in your own sense, make your intentions known and if the driver goes to block you then you need to get out of his mirrors as quickly as possible and make him question where you have gone.

John Watson Talks Overtaking in motorsports 5Photo Credit: Simon Williams /

A: When you out-brake someone, they could easily regain the position. Don’t you have to be careful where you position your car?

JW: I often out-braked people and compromised my position in the corner, but I didn’t mind, as I made sure I messed up the other guy big time too. The other skill is that you don’t always benefit as the overtaking maneuver itself means you have to go off the ideal line, maybe on to a slightly dirtier part of the circuit. What you want, however, is to make sure that when you get alongside the car, you keep slowing down to the speed of the car alongside you and make him run wide at the corner. You compromise him even more to stop him from getting the under cut to come back. You stay on the brake and cruise around the corner – you destroy his corner and exit. Then, you’re back on the throttle and pull clear.

A: In the other position, how do you defend from someone trying to overtake you?

JW: With subtlety. What you must do is be slow mid-corner and he’ll have to back out so you deny him exit speed and the opportunity to get past you before the next corner. You are driving in a negative fashion, but you are doing it to protect yourself and you need to know where to place your car so it will compromise the car following. The skill of defending and overtaking is like a game of chess really – you have to use your head.

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