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Bob Watson: 80 years young, and still going strong – Part 1

Bob Watson chats to Captain Peter Janson at the Rally Retro Day earlier this year. Photo: John Doutch

At 80-years of age, Bob Watson has packed more into his life than most of us could dream of, but it’s what ahead, not behind, that still drives him.

A former Australian Rally Champion, Watson has a new wife, hundreds of great stories, an undiminished love for driving cars, and his sights set on a possible 22nd Alpine Rally start later this year.

Peter Whitten caught up with the spritely Watson.

RSM: You won the 1970 Australian Rally Championship in a Renault R8 Gordini. Was winning a national title as big a deal back then as it is now?

BW: I would say bigger. The factories involved – Ford, Holden, Renault and to a lesser degree BLMC, were actively using rally wins as advertising material.

An ARC win would generally rate a full page advertisement in the major daily papers, not so today when makers are not doing full on rally programs.

For Renault it was big because motor sport is part of the company’s DNA. They had posters in every dealership with spaces for stickers for rally wins, so they were quite committed.

What you don’t see these days is full page newspaper ads for rally wins (photos) indicating that rallying has lost its importance to manufacturers. These days when rallies are won by cars that no one can buy, what would be the point?

Going back a little, the ARC was in its infancy, I was the third national champion. Prior to the ARC the highest level was a state championship or one off events like the BP Rally and the Southern Cross, so the ARC had much higher status, being a national competition.

Unfortunately the focus went off rallying when the Bathurst race became a major television item.

RSM: They were different times. Can you compare rallying in the early 1970s to what we see today?

BW: Rallying was much easier to understand back then compared to today’s hotch-potch of classes and categories, which I honestly do not understand. That, plus the annual changing of the eligibility rules by CAMS in their efforts to bolster thin fields, means only the true enthusiast can follow what is happening.

Back in the late 1960s and 1970s a Ford was a Ford and a Holden was Holden, and people knew what they were.

Also, the competing cars were models sold locally so people could identify with them. Now they are all like one-off specials with no relevance to the local market.

The other major difference is the roads used. Back then stages were much longer, and very rarely used on multiple occasions and pace notes did not exist. The roads were rougher – I have driven stages in today’s rallies and the roads are smooth and very fast, like the ones we used as transport sections.

There was no multiple choice of tyres, and electronics did not control the performance of the cars, so the car/driver contribution back then was around 30% / 70%, whereas today it would be more like 70% / 30%.

Renault R8 Gordini, Bob Watson/Jim McAuliffe. Australian Championship winners 1970. Blue Ribbon Rally.

As an example, me in a 1.3-litre Renault R8 Gordini and Colin Bond in a 350 Monaro had an event long battle in a Snowy Rally in 1970, and we were within seconds of each other’s times on every stage. You could not get two more diverse cars, yet the competition was fantastic.

I have always been of the view that true rally driving is driving an unknown road as well as you can, with no prior knowledge (except for maybe having driven the same road previously). It places a premium on getting each corner as correct as possible, because you only get one crack at it.

That in turn places a high premium on driver concentration, so that the driver who gets the most corners most correct is the fastest.

In my opinion, Greg Carr is the fastest driver Australia has produced, closely followed by Geoff Portman. The level of concentration of both these drivers was quite phenomenal. I have seen Portman at the end of a relatively short stage with t-shirt soaked and literally dripping with sweat.

RSM: High profile drives in Datsuns and Escorts followed the Renault days. What are your memories of those cars, and which was your favourite?

BW: When Renault withdrew from rallying in 1973, I was offered a drive of a factory Datsun 240Z in the Southern Cross Rally. The car had done the Monte Carlo Rally, was left hand drive and had a lot of power.

The team was Rauno Aaltonen, Shekhar Mehta, Tony Fall, Frank Kilfoyle and myself.

We had a test session in the Mount Disappointment forest one night, and I was not comfortable at all driving the car. I asked Tony Fall to take me for a ride. The first thing he said was: “You cannot afford to let these f..kers understeer”.

His technique was to swing the car from side to side, even on the straights, to keep it oversteering. It took a lot of effort, and I would never have considered driving it like that, but that is what you had to do.

The Southern Cross that year was very wet, it rained constantly for the four days. Tony Fall had said to me: “If it’s wet, I will roll it (the Z) over and get out of the event”. It was, and he did, on the first night!

Watson battles Peter Brock in a 1970 rallycross event at Calder Park.

Jeff Beaumont was co-driving for me, and we reckon we spent more time off the road than on it. The car was an absolute beast to handle. However, we persevered, and finished eighth of the nine cars that did the entire course. It was a tough event.

Bruce Wilkinson, who was running the Datsun rally program at that time, offered Jeff and I a drive in the 1974 Victorian Championship in the Datsun 180B SSS that Frank Kilfoyle had finished seventh with in the ‘Cross.

It was a good car and a great opportunity. We did one VRC event, and were easily the fastest, except that Jeff forgot to write some route information on our road card, which cost us the win.

Then I had a call from Renault Australia asking if I would drive the Renault Alpine that was in Australia for display purposes in the 1974 Don Capasco Rally.

This was the first full-on European style rally run in Australia (by 1972 Australian Champion Peter Lang), and I had the opportunity to drive a world championship winning car. No brainer!

Unfortunately, Wilko took a dim view of my lack of loyalty to Datsun, so that was the end of the Datsun works drive for Jeff and I.

Which brings us to 1975. Ford had imported a works Mark 1 Escort BDA, to be run privately by Howard Marsden as a toe in the water exercise before committing to a full rally program under Colin Bond.

The car was superb. It had a Brian Hart 240bhp engine, and the handling had, of course, been developed by Roger Clark and Timo Makinen. What a rocket ship!

Renault publicity hand out card in 1970.

Jeff Beaumont was again my co-driver and our first event was the Castrol Rally, the successor to the Don Capasco, and to our great disappointment every time the car went through a water splash the ignition drowned out, costing us minutes at a time.

The car was quick while there was no water around, but Greg Carr built up a nice lead in the meantime. Trying very hard to make up the gap on the last day, I went wide and hit a stump, so that was that.

In the next event, a Victorian championship round, we were caught behind a slower car in very heavy dust, and the air filter did not cope. Dust entered the engine and it required a rebuild.

A plate on the side of the engine stated that if any work was needed it was to be returned to the Brian Hart factory in the UK. This would have totally wrecked our season, so the engine was rebuilt locally.

BDA engines are tricky things, and unfortunately after the rebuild it was well down on power, so the car could not show its true potential in the remaining events. Eventually the engine blew up big time in the Southern Cross while we were in the top six.

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Inevitably, I am asked to compare the Renault Alpine with the Escort BDA. That is difficult, because we had a great run in the Don Capasco in the Alpine, which was astoundingly easy to drive, had great performance and amazing traction.

The Escort, on the other hand, never got to show its true potential, even though it was also an absolute delight to drive. I would call it 50/50.

Taken at Peugeot rally competition department Sochaux France. These bodies were to be used for the Repco Reliability Trial.

RSM: In 1977 you organised Peugeot’s works team for the second London to Sydney Marathon. That must have been a logistical nightmare?

BW: In 1977 Singapore Airlines announced that it was sponsoring a London to Sydney Marathon Rally. This interested the Peugeot people at Renault Australia and they decided to back a three car team.

The deal was that three cars would be offered for sale at normal retail price, and that the Peugeot factory in France would build three cars to rally spec, to be picked up in London before the start of the event by the owners.

The three cars were purchased by Channel 7 in Perth, Brian Hilton (the Peugeot dealer in Gosford NSW) and Ian Monk, who was partnered by veteran rally and race driver Bob Holden.

The Channel 7 car, co-sponsored by Channel 10 in Adelaide, was to be crewed by Ross Dunkerton, myself as co-driver, and Roger Bonhomme as navigator. Brian Hilton had the late Barry Lake, a motoring journalist, as co-driver.

Bob Holden went to the Peugeot factory early to check on the progress of the rally cars, which were 504 fuel injected models. On arrival he discovered the factory was about to go on strike and be picketed by unions, which meant the cars could not be removed from the plant.

He took quick action to have the cars shipped to London, together with all of the special rally parts.

Bob Watson/Geoff Thomas Peugeot 504 Experts Trial 1972 (winners). The car also won the BP Rally 1972.

So instead of three nicely prepared rally cars we had three standard cars and a pile of parts at the main Peugeot dealers in London. Ross Dunkerton, me, Roger Bonhomme, Gil Davis and Dave Bradford, a mechanic friend of Bob Holden’s, flew a month early to London and set out to build the cars. We had five weeks to the start of the marathon. (Photo)

It was frantic. We had to source rally seats, roo bars and a hundred other things. We had to fabricate body reinforcements to Peugeot drawings. We had to install incredibly complex long range fuel tanks. We worked six days a week until 10pm every night.

Our problems became worse when we decided to add another car to the team, a Peugeot 504 wagon which was to be driven by Gil Davis and Dave Bradford, and carry spare parts for the other cars.

Meanwhile, Roger was rushing around London obtaining visas for the countries the rally passed through, and local currency for them as well.

I attempted to organise service along the marathon route in Europe and Asia, but help was very thin on the ground. The only help we could rely on was Peugeot dealers, with no other mobile service.

We started the event with six tyres, and they had to last us until India. We had to take fuel of widely variable quality from roadside service stations, unlike the Mercedes Benz team cars which always refuelled from a truck carrying their own fuel.

Fortunately the cars gave no problems in Europe and Asia, and when we reached Australia with service crews covering us, we could afford to attack more confidently.

A full account of our marathon experiences is contained in my book Dunko, the biography of Ross Dunkerton.

Bob Watson at the main Paugeot dealer in London, figuring out how to build five cars for the 1977 Singapore Airlines London to Sydney marathon in five weeks.

RSM: You’re on record as saying the 1979 Round Australia Trial was the toughest event you’ve ever done. What are some of your recollection of it? Was the event unrealistically hard, or was that just what was expected in the day?

BW: The 1979 Repco Reliability Trial was organised by South Australian Stewart McLeod. He was a tough competitor in the South Australian and Australian championships, and at the event drivers’ briefing he promised a tough Repco. He lived up to his word.

The course, mainly set out by Frank Kilfoyle, was quite merciless. The several crossings of the Nullarbor from north to south and north again were horrifically rocky and took a heavy toll on tyres.

The road over Chocolate Ruffle Pass in the Kimberley, in West Australia, was horrendous – large rocks had to be rolled out of the way to get through.

Then across the Top End there were wide sandy creek crossings that cut up so badly after the first few cars went through that it took groups of crews working together to manhandle their cars through.

The severity of the event diminished once we reached the east coast, but by then the results were already settled.

Bob Watson (left) at Gary Harrowfield in a pre-event publicity shot for King Gee before the the 1979 Repco Trial.

The other testing element was the lack of rest breaks. The faster crews fared reasonably well because they could almost keep up with the schedules, but for slower cars it was incredibly hard.

The Peugeot 504 diesel car driven by me and Garry Harrowfield was very slow, and on the leg from Adelaide to Perth, which included the horrors of the Nullarbor, we drove for 67 hours non-stop, except for brief refuel breaks.

That is the same as driving from Monday morning to late Wednesday night without sleep!

We were allowed 10 hours of late running time on the leg and used all except three minutes of it, just managing to stay in the event with others who had not missed a control. In Perth we only had a couple of hours sleep before we were due to head off non-stop to Darwin.

The schedules were so tough that many service crews could not keep up with the cars they were supposed to be servicing, and hardly saw them for the entire event. It was ridiculous.

Most crews could not cope with the event schedule and had to cut and run to be classed as a finisher. Only 13 of the 180 cars that started completed the entire course.

Garry and I finished 11th, but we were human wrecks at the finish, made worse because we were only a two man crew to save weight in the slow diesel.

Calder Rallycross 1970. Peter Brock supercharged Torana XU1, Bob Watson Renault R8 Gordini.

When I organised the next Round Australia event, the Mobil 1 Trial in 1995, CAMS was determined that the severity of the Repco would not be repeated, so I was required to schedule six hour rest breaks for crews at regular intervals.

There is a little known reason as to why we ended up running a diesel car in the Repco.

When the event was announced the Peugeot agents in Australia, Renault Australia, were very enthusiastic. They approached the parent company in France to run three factory entered cars, to be driven by Timo Makinen. Ross Dunkerton and myself. A fourth car, a 504 diesel, was to be entered locally.

This was agreed, and I travelled to France with our chief mechanic, Enzo Dozzi, to make arrangements, discuss spare parts and servicing etcetera.

We were called to a high level meeting in Paris where Timo Makinen and his then co-driver, Jean Todt (now President of the FIA), were present. I produced my maps of the course of the Repco and explained the schedule.

Another meeting was scheduled the next day, so in the meantime Enzo and I flew to the competition department in Sochaux in eastern France to see the cars and discuss spare parts.

We saw the bodies for the rally cars (photo) and had a good discussion with the competition department head, then flew back for the next meeting, where we were told that Mr Makinen had advised Peugeot not to enter the event because of the short servicing times and the distances involved.

He did not think a Peugeot could win the event.

I was horrified, and so was Renault Australia. If ever Peugeot had a chance to win a Round Australia event (again!) this was it.

I pleaded our case, but Makinen was adamant. At that point Timo was nearing the end of his career, and I think he thought the event was all too much trouble and effort for him.

If the cars had run as planned with full East African Safari preparation and 140bhp engines, the Commodores would have had a lot to contend with. As it turned out, our lone diesel was the best we could do.

In part two of our Bob Watson interview, Bob chats about what keeps him involved in rallying, his competition in tarmac events, and whether organising or competing in rallies gives him more of a thrill.
We also chat about a potential Alpine Rally entry in November this year, and why he no longer buys green bananas ….
  • Photos: via Bob Watson / RallySport Magazine collection

Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media.

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