When talking watches and Formula 1, one name comes up again and again- Heuer, or in more recent times TAG Heuer, and this series would be remiss without at least touching on the contributions TAG has made to both fields. TAG, short for Techniques d’Avant-Garde, made its F1 debut in 1980 as a sponsor for Williams GP, but their involvement in the sport grew soon afterward in 1983 when they co-developed the TAG-Porsche V6 power plant for the McLaren team.
A deep professional partnership soon grew between the TAG and McLaren, and when TAG purchased Heuer in 1985, the newly created TAG Heuer brand quickly became McLaren’s secondary sponsor behind Marlboro. To market this partnership, the first new release for the TAG Heuer brand in 1985 was the Formula 1- a budget-minded quartz that looked to extend the TAG Heuer name to a younger, sportier market. All of this is relatively common knowledge, however, and I never really paid any mind or took a liking to the Formula 1 until I did a little more digging, both about the watch itself and the McLaren partnership.
The Marlboro McLaren-TAG years cover some truly great history for McLaren, marking the beginning of their dominant run through the 80s and into the early 90s. After a slow first season in 1983, McLaren-TAG had developed the perfect storm for ’84. In one corner of the garage, two-time Austrian world champion Niki Lauda brought years of expertise and a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails approach to driving and team management (for more information on this incredible personality, please, go check out Ron Howard’s critically-acclaimed film “Rush”, it’s well worth a watch).
On the other side, young French driver Alain Prost was already showing the calculating, methodical intelligence that would eventually earn him the nickname “the Professor”. Between the two of them lay a shockingly great car- the all new MP4/2. The car was immediately and incredibly dominant, winning 12 of the 16 rounds that season, and the McLaren duo often finished Grand Prix that year as the only two cars on the lead lap, having caught up to and lapped everything else.
The battle between Lauda and Prost was titanic, ending in the closest championship finish in Formula 1 history- Lauda took his third title by half a point. In 1985, the team stormed the championship yet again, this time with Prost taking the first of his four world championships. 1986 and 1987 saw a slight dip in form from the team, dropping to second in the standings, before losing TAG power in favor of a Honda partnership for ’88.
However, TAG Heuer was still a prominent team sponsor, and McLaren gained a few more benefits for the 1988 season. One of which was the car, the low slung, gorgeously simple MP4/4. The other was a man destined to become a legend under the McLaren banner, a man many still consider to be the greatest racing driver of all time- the sublime Brazilian, Ayrton Senna. As dominant as the MP4/2 was, the MP4/4 smashed every record, winning 15 of the 16 rounds that year, a record that still stands in F1 to this day. The rivalry between Senna and Prost became beyond legendary, not just in the racing community, but in the sports world at large as one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time, and immortalized in the excellent 2010 documentary film “Senna” (now available on Netflix streaming).
It’s “Senna”, oddly enough, that really changed my opinion on the Tag Heuer Formula ref. 385.513
. It’s completely cut together from period footage, and much of that is race coverage. Taking a closer look during McLaren pit stops, I noticed something I hadn’t before: on the wrist of every pit crew member was a bright red TAG Formula 1, matching the colors of the Marlboro livery perfectly. Suddenly, this watch made sense to me. It wasn’t a cynical cash-grab tie-in product made to leverage the brand’s racing connections, it was a tough, functional piece of engineering.
It wasn’t plasticky and cheap, it was rugged, with scratch proof fiberglass covering the case to protect against the hazards of pit lane. It didn’t seem gaudy anymore, it was bold, certainly, but in a fun, youthful way. Even the quartz movement began to make sense, providing more protection against the shocks of an wheel nut gun or speed jack. It may not be my absolute favorite TAG, but it’s definitely grown on me. That said, it’s a bit on the small side, even for today’s trend towards smaller watches at either 28 or 34mm, but the bold color gives it a presence to offset this somewhat. In a t-shirt and jeans style casual atmosphere, or perhaps in a more streetwear oriented wardrobe, it works perfectly. It’s loud, fun, and a historic little splash of color for the right look. It’s also quite affordable, generally ranging from about $250-600, and very abundant, so don’t be afraid to wait for just the right one to turn up.
by Sean Lorentzen