Reflecting Back on Team Penske's Historic F1 Win

August 10, 2021


"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

On August 15, Team Penske will celebrate 45 years since the team’s lone Formula One (F1) victory – a convincing and satisfying triumph at the Austrian Grand Prix. The win by British driver John Watson and Team Penske marks the last time a United States-based race team has produced a victory in the international F1 series.

The strong performance and result that weekend at the Osterreichring circuit (now known as the Red Bull Ring) in Spielberg, Austria was significant for the team, not only because it served as its lone victory in 34 Formula One races over the course of four seasons. The first F1 win by Watson and the team came one year after perhaps the biggest loss ever experienced by Team Penske – the death of legendary driver and founding team member Mark Donohue. In 1975, Donohue was injured during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix at the same Osterreichring track and he tragically passed away two days later from his injuries.

When the small, tight-knit Penske team arrived in Austria the following year, Watson said he could sense the emotion and the anticipation of returning to the track felt throughout the team.

“I think it was a poignant weekend for the entire team,” recalled Watson, a five-time winner in F1 who is now 75 and still involved with racing as a television commentator in Europe. “Returning to Austria had to be a very difficult situation for all of the team members and especially for Roger (Penske). They were all very close to Mark and it was such a tragic loss.”

Adding to the drama of race weekend was the accident that occurred in the previous race on the F1 calendar – the German Grand Prix. Series leader Niki Lauda was involved in bad accident at Germany’s Nurburgring and he remained in the hospital with injuries suffered in the crash while the series moved on to Austria.

        

Team Penske was beginning to find its on-track groove as the team returned to Austria. After some changes made to the technical setup of the No. 28 Penske PC-4 Ford Cosworth by engineer/designer Geoff Ferris, Watson and the team posted podium finishes in both the French and British Grand Prix events. In the race prior to Austria, Watson recorded a seventh-place result in Germany.

As the team looked to build on its momentum at Osterreichring, it was actually a strong set of tires that Watson felt set them on the path to victory in Austria. The racer recalls that on Saturday of race weekend the No. 28 was equipped with a set of Goodyear tires that allowed Watson to bring out the best in himself and the car.

“I don’t know why to this day it was those particular tires, but they instantly gave me the kind of car I liked to drive,” said Watson. “After that, I really had the confidence that we had a very competitive car the rest of the weekend.”

Rain was a threat to the on-track action throughout the weekend and the starting grid was determined by times from Friday’s practice. This put Watson in the second-place starting position alongside polesitter James Hunt, who was battling the injured Lauda for the F1 championship. On race day, the first sunshine of the weekend gave way to intermittent rain in the afternoon as the start of the race approached.

On a partially wet track, the green flag waved and Watson and Hunt went screaming into the first turn with a fierce field behind them trying to seize the lead on a slick surface.

“I’m not sure any of us knew if we would get through that first corner,” recalled Watson.

The Team Penske pilot guided the No. 28 Penske/Ford to the front and he led the first two laps of the race. Jody Sheckter and Ronnie Peterson both claimed the lead over the next few laps before Watson worked his way back to the front for good on lap 12. Once he was back in the lead, Watson said his job became fairly easy.

“A credit to the team as the car worked seamlessly,” said Watson. “The car really did most of the work the rest of the race.”

Once he crossed the finish line for his first career Formula One victory, Watson had a bet he had to make good on. When the bearded Watson joined the Penske team, he made his boss a deal.

“I knew the image of the Penske team was clean cut and ‘ivy league,’ – the vision of professionalism,” said Watson. “Contrary to what most people think, Roger never asked me to get rid of my beard. I am the one that came to him and said ‘when we win a Grand Prix I’ll shave off my beard!’ The truth is I wanted to get rid of it anyway!”

After the victory in Austria, Watson, Penske and team general manager Heinz Hofer flew back to England. When he arrived home, Watson then celebrated by shaving off the beard he’d worn for almost seven years before he went to sleep.

The next morning, Watson, Penske and Hofer agreed to meet in a local restaurant for breakfast. Watson arrived a few minutes early only to witness Penske and Hofer walk in and search the restaurant for their driver, looking past the clean-shaven man smiling at them across the room.

“Roger just kept asking Heinz, ‘Where’s Watson? Where’s Watson?’ They couldn’t believe I actually shaved off the beard!” said Watson.

Another bonus of the victory for Watson came a few days after his return from Austria. He and Hofer were at the team’s race shop in Poole, England when they decided to call Lauda in the hospital to see how he was doing.

“Niki was pretty happy,” said Watson. “He said, ‘Someone finally beat that #&@%! Hunt!’ He was absolutely delighted that another team had won a race.”

Looking back on the result now 45 years later, Watson can put the accomplishment of the Team Penske victory in Austria in proper perspective.

“Formula One was such a different world back then. We were just beginning the growth of the sport into what it has become now,” said Watson. “It is a great accolade to win a Formula One race. To do it in just your second full season as a team is a tremendous achievement.”