It’s true that today’s drivers don’t use their own watches to record their lap times or their performance, but in times past, the drivers relied heavily upon them for this purpose, particularly chronograph watches , to record everything ranging from time elapsed for each lap, to pit stops.
Early days of racing and the need for timekeeping.
One of the main reasons racing and watches are so intrinsically entwined is that this particular sport depends on highly accurate timekeeping and measuring. If you eliminate that factor, there ́s no way to record the lap times, race times and other relevant data for each race.
This is especially true when you consider the fact that this sort of problems heavily plagued the first motor races, starting with the 1894 Paris – Rouen Le Petit Journal (a Parisian daily newspaper that had a reputation for staging contests to help boost sales) “Competition for Horseless Carriages”, considered by many the very first motor race. This race in particular finished with widely different sets of race times due to bad timekeeping. Can you imagine that sort of thing happening at any Formula 1 circuit today? Certainly not.
Wristwatches and proper timekeeping would have to wait more than three decades to be included in racing, and it all started circa 1930. Rolex was one of the first companies to capitalize this, after Sir Malcolm Campbell set a new land speed record attempt at Bonneville, Utah, in 1935 while wearing a Rolex Oyster. This would lead to the creation of the Rolex Daytona, one of the most iconic racing watches ever made.
Since a racecar and a racing watch both work with incredible precise mechanical engines that heavily rely on accuracy, is no wonder that thinking about one inevitably leads to thinking about the other.
The rise of the big watchmakers and diversification of watches.
While Rolex, as previously stated, was one of the first companies to capitalize the relation between timekeeping and races, it was Heuer (now TAG Heuer) that was most closely associated with racing through the second half of the 20th century.
It all started with dashboard timers, and Heuer’s, particularly the Master Time and Monte Carlo, were common sights on rally and race car dashboards. Pilots would use the clocks to track progress through a rally course or endurance racing event. The Heuer Autavia, one of the brand’s most popular watches, began its life as a dashboard timer. Originally, Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati, Lancia and other big Formula 1 teams depended on manually-wound chronographs to record their performance.
1969 saw the rise of the self-winding watches, and it was once more Heuer who pioneered on the field, creating the first automatic chronograph.
But it wasn’t just Heuer or Rolex that was involved in motor racing through the 20th century, since the iconic Omega Speedmaster, which is best known for its use by NASA during the Apollo program, was originally designed as a racing watch.
Even considering the fact that we’re in the digital age, Swiss manufacturers and watchmakers still create timepieces to provide for reliable timekeeping for the most iconic races around the world. I guess you could say that some things will never change, and this is particularly true in the tradition-bound world of timekeeping.