Twelve months ago at the Autosport International Show, Andrew Watson was unveiled as one of the members of the McLaren GT Young Driver Programme for its inaugural season.
A whirlwind year later, which saw Watson tackle the British GT Championship as well as taste success in endurance races in both Europe and Asia, the Irishman returned to the NEC in Birmingham with an extension to his McLaren deal secured.
Speaking to TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk at the show, the former Ginetta Junior and GT4 Supercup race-winner expressed his delight at the opportunity to continue working with McLaren for another season.
“It feels longer than twelve months. It’s been brilliant,” said the Irishman. “Getting the chance to race cars all over the world has been incredible, and working with the whole team at McLaren, I can’t describe how much I’ve learnt.
“McLaren GT have been so good to me and we’re trying to build a relationship. It’s great to be in a stable place for another year, but I know that even if I perform well this season, it’s not guaranteed they’ll keep me for 2017 and beyond. My focus is short-term, on maximising the opportunity and learning everything I can.”
Under the stewardship of Andrew Kirkaldy, the programme has seen Watson work closely with McLaren factory drivers Rob Bell, Alvaro Parente and Kevin Estre, as well as McLaren’s engineering and technical teams during the debut campaign for the 650S GT3.
Watson’s main race programme last season came in the Avon Tyres British GT Championship, in which he shared a Von Ryan Racing-prepared 650S with his fellow McLaren GT Young Driver Ross Wylie.
It ultimately proved to be a tough campaign for the young pairing as they battled with their allocated weight penalty for being a silver graded pair. They accumulated six top ten finishes in the nine round season, including a best of sixth at Snetterton, to secure second in the Silver Cup standings.
“I haven’t hidden the fact that we got murdered in British GT with the 75kg of weight,” he reflected.
“At the start of the year on paper it could work, but we quickly found that the weight was costing us over a second a lap and it was a real uphill struggle.
“The only advantage was that as it was our first year in the series, we probably weren’t going to win the championship anyway, and having that extra weight made us try 110% all the time, made us push harder than we might have done.
“It wasn’t good results wise in British GT, but we learnt so much from it and I could take that into my other races.”
Alongside his British GT exploits, McLaren GT also gave Watson the opportunity to link up with customer teams for additional races, with a pair of outings in the International GT Open for Teo Martin Motorsport and an endurance debut in the Sepang 12 Hours.
The Irishman made an immediate impact on his GT Open debut at Spa, setting pole position for race two which he and Rob Bell converted into a top five finish, before starring in the season finale at Catalunya with overall victory in the weekend’s opening race alongside Fernando Monje.
Watson went on to end his season in Malaysia, showing strong pace in tricky conditions throughout the Sepang 12 Hours as he Alvaro Parente, Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Andrea Caldarelli took the FFF Racing 650S to fourth overall and victory in the Pro-Am category.
“GT Open in Spa was first race outside British GT and I was worried that I wouldn’t be on the pace, but as soon as the weight came out I was right on the money,” said the 21 year old.
“That boosted my confidence and after getting a podium there, we went to Barcelona and won the first race which was brilliant. Getting my first win with McLaren GT was fantastic and I was delighted to be able to pay them back for giving me a chance this season.
“They’ve opened doors for me and Sepang was an example of that. I didn’t know what to expect, I’d never driven the track and didn’t know the team. They were brilliant though and we finished fourth overall behind the works Audi’s which we were really happy with. It was great experience for me.”
Watson’s next challenge comes next weekend (5-7 February) as he tackles the formidable Mount Panorama circuit in the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours, sharing a Tekno Autosports 650S with Rob Bell and V8 Supercar ace Will Davison.
“The performance in Sepang opened the door for Bathurst I think. I’m really excited about going there. It’s a race I watched last year and thought to myself, if I can race in this during my career I’ll be happy. I can’t believe I’m doing it a year later!” he enthused.
“I’m nervous. It’s going to be a difficult race and I’m going out there to do a job. I’ve got to go and deliver for McLaren. It’s a big step-up, it’s sink or swim time, but you’ve got to make the step up at some point and what I learned last year is hopefully going to stand me in good stead.”
For 2016, Watson is the experienced hand in the McLaren GT programme alongside new recruits Struan Moore and Alex Fontana. While their plans haven’t been confirmed as yet, Watson says his only goal for the year is to maximise the opportunities he receives.
“The priority is to learn everything I need to as quickly as possible to one day be a factory GT driver,” he concluded.
“Fair play to McLaren GT, they’re putting me in the right places, telling me what to do and giving me everything I need to develop as a driver. It’s a fast-track learning process and it’s a fantastic opportunity.
“Bathurst is really going to be an eye-opener for me, it will be a whole new experience against some of the best drivers in the world, so if I can soak it all in, gain the experience and put in a good performance, who knows what that will do for me for the future.
“As a driver, the biggest thing I’ve learnt this year is the whole package that’s required to be a top driver. It’s not just about the headline grabbing lap time, it’s everything, away from the track, the consistency on track, working with the team and mechanics, setting the quick laps when its needed. My only focus this season is to continue working on that and become the full package one day.”