Last fraction hero

From its beginning 150 years ago, TAG Heuer’s designs have been influenced by sport, but its association with Scuderia Ferrari and the inspired employment of a down-on-his-luck motorcycle racer gave Tag Heuer the edge in timekeeping

By Lee Gale

GQ promo, 2011

Since Formula One’s inception in 1950, there has never been a dead heat in a Grand Prix, and with TAG Heuer’s trackside timekeeping accurate to 1/10,000th of a second it’s unlikely there ever will be. That’s not to say dead heats don’t happen in sport. In January 2011, the patrons of Romford Greyhound Stadium in Essex witnessed an almost unique event. The 8.50pm Coralcasino Stakes finished in a triple dead-heat, as the glossy snouts of Ayamzagirl, Killishan Masai and Droopys Djokovic passed the winning line at exactly the same moment, understood to be a 30,000,000-1 event – “Like winning the National Lottery and then getting struck by lightning,” Coral bookmakers commented.

This historic, 59.53sec-long Romford firecracker was run over a distance of 925 metres (3,030 feet), the longest race permitted by the Greyhound Board Of Great Britain. A Grand Prix is typically 190 miles (305km), but despite the distance there have been some spectacular Romford-like finishes. The 1971 Italian Grand Prix at the pre-chicane Monza is regarded as the tightest ever, as English driver Peter Gethin, in his first and only podium finish, edged his Yardley-liveried British Racing Motors P160 to victory 0.01sec in front of the March 711 “Tea Tray” of Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson (0.6secs separated the first five cars).

With such whopping levels of interest in Formula One (527 million television viewers per race in 2010) and the colossal heaps of money required to race (Toyota’s budget in 2008 was £268m), there must be a winner, however small the margin. Reliable timing is an F1 prerequisite, a task tailored by TAG Heuer since its initial involvement holding the stopwatch for Scuderia Ferrari in 1973. TAG Heuer built such a resounding reputation for accuracy that, inevitably, it was appointed Formula One’s official timekeeper in 1992.

TAG Heuer’s sports timekeeping has its roots in, of all things, the gee-gees: British horse racing. Swiss inventor Edouard Heuer, who founded his watchmaking company in St-Imier, Switzerland in 1860 (TAG wasn’t added to the name until 1985, when the manufacturer of motor-racing turbochargers, Techniques d’Avant Garde, acquired Heuer), was a frequent spectator of thoroughbred meets when visiting Britain in the 1870s and ’80s (he opened a London subsidiary in 1876).

His interest in horse racing concerned velocity – Edouard methodically timed races. The excitement of thundering equines convinced the young inventor that he’d need to craft accurate timepieces to keep pace with a modern world that, to him, was becoming dizzyingly fast (a fact enhanced when Edouard’s neighbour in Switzerland attempted to build his own motor car). It was a sparkling time of mechanical possibility, and Edouard was captivated.

As Karl Benz, Rudolf Diesel and John Boyd Dunlop tinkered in their oily sheds, Edouard Heuer Fabrique d’Horlogerie concentrated on precision stopwatches, and in 1911 introduced a dashboard-mounted Time Of Trip chronograph for use in cars and biplanes. But it was the 1916 Mikrograph that brought Heuer to the world’s attention, the first stopwatch enabling users to measure down to 1/100sec (other instruments of this era only measured to 1/5sec). It was a defining moment: Heuer was soon named as the official supplier of timekeeping equipment at the upcoming Antwerp Olympics. Incredibly, the Mikrograph was still being used as an accurate timing device into the Sixties.

By the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Heuer had become synonymous with timekeeping, closely associated with athletics, motor racing and skiing. Such was the clamour for Heuer’s expertise that the company created a position for a dedicated timekeeping specialist whose job was to travel to sporting events that required accurate timing. “We used to loan him, with his timing devices, to ski, bobsleigh and horse-riding competitions which were a means of promoting the brand,” Jack Heuer, a board member in the family business until 1982, recalled.

A fascination with fast cars passed down the Heuer gene pool. The brand’s support of motor racing meant that by the Sixties, racing drivers would flaunt their Autavia and Carrera watches as a winner’s statement of intent. Heuer’s first “ambassador” was motor-racing maverick Jo Siffert, a dashing Swiss daredevil whose style seemed to be copied to the letter by English football’s Halifax-born lothario Frank Worthington.

Not surprisingly, Siffert’s appeal was somewhat wider than First Division football. Steve McQueen, that ball-bouncing, Nazi fence-jumper and motor-racing freak had such admiration for Siffert that it manifested in the track-racing movie Le Mans (1971). Big of gritted teeth, short of dialogue (a sentence isn’t uttered for the first 35 minutes), Le Mans was 2001: A Space Odyssey for the Vauxhall Firenza owner. Siffert’s wristwatch was a 1969 blue-faced Heuer Monaco, so when it came to filming, McQueen naturally demanded the same piece for his depiction of a haunted, enigmatic racing hero. Le Mans ensured the Monaco’s legendary status.

While McQueen’s brow gathered sweat behind the wheel of a Porsche 917, battling those braggarts at Ferrari, the brains behind Heuer’s eventual Formula One timekeeping revolution, Swiss electronics engineer Jean Campiche, was reaching the end of a largely uninspired career as a Grand Prix motorcycle racer. “My dream was difficult as I never had much money,” Campiche reminisces. “Sponsorship was not like today. If you were lucky, you were given free tyres.” In 1973, Campiche replied to a newspaper ad placed by Heuer searching for a sports timekeeper to be based in Maranello, Italy. He was chosen ahead of 54 other applicants. It was a studious choice by Jack Heuer: Campiche’s foresight would cement Heuer’s position as the world’s most respected timekeeper, while re-establishing the reputation of Scuderia Ferrari in Formula One.

Ferrari would dominate Formula One in the late Seventies, but at the beginning of the decade its motor-racing division was undergoing massive restructuring, including the construction of the new, state-of-the-art Fiorano training circuit at Maranello. Enzo Ferrari invested heavily in racing and saw accurate timekeeping as the solid foundation from which his team would eventually flourish. Campiche was appointed head of Heuer’s Timing Systems unit, becoming Ferrari’s de facto timing technicians.

“In motor racing, you’d measure your own time, not the time of your competitor, but Ferrari wanted to measure both,” Campiche explains. “And Enzo wanted reliable information about Ferrari cars on the Maranello track to improve lap-time and speed. Engineers needed reliable information about where they were losing performance.”

Campiche worked with a system of 45 photocells connected to the Le Mans Centigraph, an electronic keyboard-and-printer device that, through manual button-pushing, recorded the times of 15 cars down to 1/1,000th of a second. “I was able to work three keyboards quickly,” says Campiche. “You’d push the buttons and have the times of Ferrari cars and its best competitors, but during races it was six hours’ solid work and there was no time to do a pee-pee. You couldn’t drink anything before or during competition. It was a very hard job.”

Campiche’s commitment swiftly gave Ferrari the edge. The Italians signed Austrian 25-year-old Niki Lauda in 1974 and the following year, with the ultra-reliable, flat, grimacing Ferrari 312T, won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles. By that victorious season, Campiche had already earnt the nickname “Pianist”: “I had many cars to measure!” he laughs. “My job was to press levers as cars passed by. My fingers worked quickly. With all the lap times it was good music – like Tchaikovsky.”

As Ferrari’s F1 stranglehold tightened, Campiche fitted mini-transmitters (transponders) to cars, meaning times were automatically beamed to an antenna on the finish line. “The transponders transmitted a signal that allowed us to see lap times,” enthuses Campiche. “Our technology was so advanced I could get Ferrari drivers moved up the starting grid because we could prove that Formula One’s official timings were wrong. Our reputation had grown to the point where we were the most trusted timekeepers in the sport.” In 1977 and 1979, drivers’ championships followed for Ferrari’s Lauda and Jody Scheckter.

Campiche was still at the helm of Timing Systems when TAG Heuer was appointed the official timekeeper for F1 in 1992, a relationship that lasted for eleven years. By now, a wealth of figures could be crunched for a worldwide television audience, so fans at home could follow – and understand – the action. It was a herculean task for TAG Heuer, who’d transport 18 tons of computers, wiring and transmitters using three Boeing 747s to each Grand Prix.

TAG Heuer’s toughest test arrived in the little-known Race Of Champions, the annual face-off between racing drivers from a variety of different disciplines. Held at the Stade de France, Paris in 2006, the ROC provided the closest finish to any motor sports race in history, where a semi-final heat saw Sweden’s two-time German touring car champion Mattias Ekström overcome Finnish F1 driver Heikki Kovalainen by 0.0002secs.

The technology exists to measure down to 1/100,000th of a second, but the question is, is it necessary? Campiche believes that, for the time being, we’re as accurate as we need to be, but recalls an incident from qualifying in Jerez, Spain, in 1997 that caused furore on a scale that would have had the Romford greyhounds cowering behind the lure.

“Like the racing dogs, we had a big problem at the finish line!” Campiche laughs. “Schumacher, Villeneuve and Frentzen had exactly the same lap time in qualifying down to 1/1,000sec. The reaction of the journalists was, ‘It’s not possible!’ People said the timekeeping was not working properly, that Bernie Ecclestone had fixed the times. It was maybe a billion-to-one chance. ‘You have made a big mistake, TAG!’ people shouted. There were not many congratulations for us that day. But I knew the times were correct. We don’t just have one timing system – there are three. I was able to demonstrate this freak occurrence, but few would listen.”

TAG Heuer may lead the field in sports timing, but the company is breathing new life into an old timekeeping favourite. The Carrera Mikrograph was launched at the Geneva Watch Fair in January, the first wheel-integrated chronograph with a 1/100th of a second display by a central hand, designed and manufactured in the Horte Horlogerie workshop in La Chaux-De-Fonds – which is also building the Monaco V4. The rose gold Carrera Mikrograph, a tribute to the 1916 original, is limited to 150 pieces, providing precision timing for the modern motoring enthusiast in the form of a wristwatch. Like a window into the Doctor’s soul, it features a see-through sapphire crystal back allowing its owner to observe its “two hearts” beating at different speeds.

Would Campiche like one? “That would be very nice,” he replies. “As you know, timing is everything.”