by Russell Atkins

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

John Watson is one of the most respected names in motor racing, as a five-time grand prix winner, team-mate to some of the sport's legends and expert commentator in the field.

Appearing at the inaugural GPlive nostalgic celebration at Donington Park last weekend, the Ulsterman took time out to chat about the event, A1GP and his views on Formula 1 in 2007 - including that man, Lewis Hamilton...

Q:
John, first of all how did you enjoy the GPlive event at Donington Park?

John Watson:
I think it went very well. There was a lot of racing going on, and it was exciting being able to watch it on the big giant screens around the circuit. I went out for a run in the A1GP car as well, which was interesting. I think that was the first time an A1GP car had run at Donington, and the first time that car had run in anger for a while. It was painted in Team Ireland's colours too so it looked absolutely fantastic.

Q:
You say it was 'interesting'. How did you adapt to the car?

JW:
I already knew the car. I had driven one at every round of A1GP this year outside of Beijing, so I was familiar with it, but of course no two cars are ever the same. Every one of them is individual, and we had a software problem on the Saturday morning that prevented us from being able to run then.

Q:
How different is the A1GP machine in terms of technology and so forth from what you used to race in Formula 1?

JW:
In reality not a great deal. The biggest, most obvious difference is the paddle-shift which means you can do more things in corners; for example coming out of Coppice in the A1GP car, if you want to short-shift from third gear to fourth you don't have to take your hand off the steering wheel. That's a big advantage in a corner like that, and the same thing applies going down through the Craner Curves. I suspect the current cars are more rigid and the development of carbon fibre has moved forward considerably, but in out-and-out performance and grip levels there's probably not a million miles difference between the two cars.

Q:
You're heavily involved in A1GP, as you said. At the end of the series' debut campaign from 2005-06 there were doubts as to how long it would actually carry on for, but the second season seems to have dispelled some of those now doesn't it?

JW:
I was always very optimistic; I didn't have any doubts at all. I believe A1GP is a very good product - it provides lots of entertaining motorsport, particularly in the northern hemisphere where there's nothing in the winter months. Normally in the winter time there you can barely get out, never mind go to a motor race! We have seen some extremely good racing throughout the second season, and that's what people want - they want to be entertained. They are not necessarily wanting to see a race of who has the most sophisticated technology; they want to see drivers out there racing against other drivers in pretty much the same equipment. It's down to the driver and nation or team that have done the best job on the day, rather than some boffin locked up in his research laboratory with rottweilers outside the door to keep him in. Technology certainly has its place, but to me there's a balance to be struck between that and entertainment. I think A1GP does a pretty good job of providing high-technology sport and at the same time giving the audience entertainment.

Q:
The calibre of the drivers is pretty high too isn't it, with such as Robbie Kerr, Nico Hulkenberg and Nicolas Lapierre in the formula...

JW:
I think A1GP has given an opportunity to many drivers who for a variety of reasons - perhaps financial, perhaps simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time - would not normally be able to take part at this level. It's a chance for them to race in a competitive series in identical cars, and talent will show through. Robbie obviously has been around - he has won the British F3 Championship. We know he is a very talented driver, but without A1GP I don't know if Robbie would even have a racing programme, and that's the problem a lot of youngsters coming into motorsport face. It's very much a capital-driven sport, and if you haven't got the support behind you financially, no matter how good you are it can sometimes stall out your career.

A1GP has given Robbie a real lifeline to show his ability and talent, but it's also given an opportunity to people like Hulkenberg in particular, who I think is outstanding. There's the young American driver Jonathan Summerton and Sebastien Buemi from Switzerland too. There's a lot of good talent out there, but they're not going to stay in A1GP forever - they're going to move on from there. Some of them are racing in F3 this year, some are doing other forms of motorsport, but it's A1GP that has given them the opportunity to show how good they actually are up against other drivers in identical equipment. I think if that alone is what A1GP is achieving, then it's doing a great service to motorsport.

Q:
Speaking of talent, the pinnacle obviously is Formula 1. What's your take on the 2007 season so far?

JW:
I think there's only one subject that's being discussed at the moment, and that's Lewis Hamilton. He is the most significant driver to make an impact on Formula 1 of all time, and that's including people like Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. He is a breath of fresh air across every aspect of motorsport. I know the pain Fernando Alonso is feeling, but I think it's just fantastic that a young kid, through the support of his family and McLaren International - and it's important to make sure McLaren get the credit they deserve too because they've done a great deal for Lewis - has got this far.

Of course, he is now repaying McLaren's investment in bucket loads. People who are not really motorsport fans are suddenly talking about Lewis Hamilton, and that's what we need. We need more drivers who capture the public's imagination and draw audiences back to motorsport, and what Formula 1 generates will gravitate down through all the levels of motorsport in this country, be they national or international.

Q:
Since Michael Schumacher's departure from the fray at the end of last year, Fernando Alonso has widely been regarded as the best driver in Formula 1. Do you think Lewis has him rattled now?

JW:
I think Alonso fundamentally is still the best driver in Formula 1, but for sure Lewis has rattled his cage so badly that Fernando is wondering if he is punch board or counter-sunk. It's a wake-up call like he has never had in his whole life, and that's hard for a young man. Alonso is only 25 remember, and no one has ever done this to him before, certainly not in his years at Renault and Minardi.

It's not easy for him because he is having to make the adjustment not only to a new team, but also to different tyres. The Michelin tyres and Renault chassis were like a marriage; they were made for each other. Now suddenly he has not got the car-tyre balance quite working to his satisfaction. When he does there's no doubt the benefits Lewis is enjoying right now may not be quite so demonstrative, but it's still a wake-up call nonetheless, and I would not want to be in Fernando Alonso's shoes heading to Monte Carlo this weekend.

Q:
Talking of Monte Carlo, Lewis has never lost in three outings around the narrow streets of the famous Principality. Can he maintain that winning record on his Formula 1 debut there do you think?

JW:
If he can qualify on the front row of the grid and doesn't clip the wall or make an error then he can win the race, there's no doubt about that. It's all about getting the right grid position. He has shown extremely high levels of ability - both mentally and physically - inside the car, and he is an out-and-out racer which is something I also appreciate. Not many racing drivers today are actual racers. Lewis has a quality and confidence right now that could see him just walk into Monte Carlo and walk out again undefeated.

Q:
Finally, something not many people would have predicted before the start of the year - can Lewis win the world championship in his maiden season?

JW:
Again, people are saying it's possible and I think yes it is possible, but it's an enormous ask for a young man in his first year of grand prix racing to go out and win the world championship. What he has done so far, though, indicates he has the capacity to do so, and what a story that would be! Forget about the Football World Cup or the Olympic Games - the only name on the lips of people who follow sport over the next ten years is going to be Lewis Hamilton.

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

 

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