Watches and motorsport: A relationship dating back over a century

Photograph Courtesy REC Watches

The first Indy 500 took place in 1911, with Ray Harroun coming out of retirement to win the race—pioneering the use of a rearview mirror in the process. He called it quits for good right there in victory lane.

A year later, Gallet, the watch company that traces its roots as well as its namesake back to 1466, released the first wristwatch for mass distribution sporting a full-size, constant second hand originating from the center of the dial. Motorsports, a fledgling activity at the time, now had an appropriate, easy-to-use timepiece. 

The two forms of machinery have been inseparable since. Captain Malcolm Campbell famously wore a Rolex Oyster while topping 300 mph in his Blue Bird in the 1930s. “I have now been using my Rolex Watch for some little while,” he wrote the company in 1930, “and it is keeping perfect time under somewhat strenuous conditions.”

Rolex published that letter, while touting Campbell’s motorsports achievements, as part of its ad campaign. The watch is both water- and sandproof, Rolex also boasted.

Tissot, the Swiss watch company dating back to 1853, received some similar fan mail from Swiss driver Harry Zweifel in 1958: “My Tissot is by my side at every race.” (Actually, he wrote, “Meine Tissot ist an jedem Rennen dabei.”)

Tissot, like others, have returned the favor by designing watches specifically for motorsports use. That company released its PR 516 in 1965, with the PR standing for “particularly resistant”: Its movements were suspended against shocks, while the holes in the bracelet recalled the steering wheel spokes of the day. 

Relationships between watchmakers and drivers became even more visible toward the end of the ’60s. To promote Heuer’s new line of Carrera watches—named after the famed, grueling race—the company signed a personal sponsorship deal with Jo Siffert. It would become the first such non-automotive relationship in Formula 1. 

Soon after, every top driver or team had a watch sponsor. Check out “Le Mans,” filmed in 1970, and you’ll find a Heuer logo right on Steve McQueen’s driver suit. 

Photograph Courtesy Tag Heuer

It wouldn’t be a passing fad. Through the decades that followed, all of the greats could be seen carrying the name of a watch company on their cars’ flanks: Stewart, Lauda, Ickx, Prost and more. 

 “Both are built with precision and attention to detail and they cannot afford to be off one tenth of a second,” racing legend and longtime Rolex ambassador Hurley Haywood says about the connection between watches and motorsports. “It is nice to be associated with a company that shares in the same qualities and goals as I do.”

Motorsports and watches have been inseparable for generations, from Steve McQueen and Jo Siffert back in the day to Hurley Haywood and Aurora Straus today. “No smartwatch in the world can recreate the feeling I get wearing a Richard Mille,” Straus adds, “even if it does count my calories for me.” Photography Credits (Top to Bottom): Courtesy Porsche, Dirk De Jager, David S. Wallens

Today is no different. Lewis Hamilton, perhaps the biggest motorsports star in the world, has ties to IWC, while most other watch companies have some kind of formal relationship to the sport through a driver, event or series. 

For Chopard, for example, that involvement came from the top. “It was Chopard Co-President Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s love of classic cars which led to the Maison’s first foray into the world of motorsports—becoming the Official Partner and Timekeeper of the Mille Miglia in Italy in 1988,” explains Jean-Baptiste Maillard, CEO of Chopard Americas. “Since then, Chopard has annually unveiled new timepieces as part of the Mille Miglia Collection in honor of the legendary rally featuring many design elements inspired by classic race cars.”

The company has supported several automotive events in the U.S. as well, including the Amelia Island Concours, Porsche Rennsport Reunion and Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival. An added benefit of involving a watchmaker in an automotive gathering, explains Lindsey Harrell, president of the Hilton Head event, is attracting new fans. “We want to get people there who are not into cars,” she explains. “And then they get there and realize that these cars are pieces of art.”

Despite today’s proliferation of smartwatches, there’s still something special about representing a watchmaker in racing. “My partnership with Richard Mille isn’t just an homage to the illustrious history of watch partnerships in racing, but also a testament to how much the racing world is changing, both technologically and culturally,” explains IMSA driver Aurora Straus. “I’m younger and less experienced than many of my competitors in the pro racing world, and up until recently—thanks in no small part to the female drivers that came before me—my mere existence in the sport as a woman would have been revolutionary. I also like to think that I am as unbreakable as my watch—the many athletes that wear Richard Milles prove that the watch can withstand almost anything.” 

But owning a watch with a tie-in to motorsports doesn’t have to take a big budget, as several smaller brands offer cool designs at very fair prices. “With more and more watch brands focusing solely on online sales by removing the brick-and-mortar sales channels,” explains REC’s Gürcan Bozdogan, “they can compete more on prices.”

Two things likely to be found at most any top-shelf automotive event today: great cars and watch company involvement. Photography Credit: Kristina Cilia

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msterbeau New Reader
10/22/22 11:51 a.m.

I don't think anyone would (Or could) argue that high-end mechanical timepieces are works of art and extraordinary craftsmanship.  But to title this piece "Watches and Motorsport..." and ignore/belittle the nicer smart watches on the market (Primarily Apple) does a disservice to what the title promises.  They too are full of clever engineering and equisite use of technology and materials to create a device (Is it really just a watch? No.) that just 10 years or 15 ago would have seemed like magic. Like many things, the fact that it's digital makes it contempatble in many people's eyes.  Look what digital technologies have done in motorsport.  A revolution in both performance and accessibilty. Seems like you could have dedicated a paragraph to them, even if the companies that make them don't directly sponsor or support motorsports.  Or, perhaps, a more accurate headline?

PS - I have a house full of antiques and a huge appreciation for simple, beautiful, mechanical things. But I have the same appreciation for technology where it's truly useful or necessary.

haringmp New Reader
3/26/23 2:24 p.m.


You need more watches!!  lol!

haringmp New Reader
3/26/23 2:24 p.m.


You need more watches!!  lol!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/28/23 4:55 p.m.

In reply to haringmp :

I need more wrists. :) 

j_tso Dork
3/29/23 2:02 p.m.

Didn't watch companies have a more direct connection to racing in the field of timing and scoring?


Even into the digital world, Halda is still at it and makes this fancy watch and lap time transponder set.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/4/23 10:40 a.m.

In reply to j_tso :

Yes, and we need to do a follow-up piece on historic timing and scoring equipment. 

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