Formula One is a race against time. A split second can stand between triumph and defeat—being remembered in the history books and being forgotten in the annals of the past. In this day and age, we take the millisecond for granted, but this was not always the case. Men such as Jack Heuer and Jean Campiche of the Heuer company (today TAG Heuer, part of the LVMH family) have been instrumental in defining and perfecting the precision timing methods that are essential in the world of F1.
Jack Heuer took over the family business as a young, ambitious executive. His vision would bring about sponsorship agreements with Jo Siffert, Scuderia Ferrari. Heuer’s avant garde Centigraph timing system was praised by Formula One management as Heuer became the official timekeeper of the sport.
The rise of the Quartz movement in the 70s was catastrophic for the Swiss watch industry. Mr. Heuer, once a hero of the watch world- was villainized and ousted from the company that bared his family name. His marketing techniques were scrutinized and treated as a failure.
Strangely enough, time has a way of mending the past. During the rebirth of the now TAG Heuer brand under luxury giants LVMH, Mr. Heuer returned to the company as Honorary Chairman, acting as a global ambassador for the company that his great Grandfather Edouard Heuer founded in 1860.
Many of Mr. Heuer’s sponsorship strategies are currently used today. TAG Heuer is a major sponsor for one of F1’s top teams and continues to be a leader in the luxury watch sector.
We had the extreme privilege of picking Mr. Heuer’s brain—touching on F1, sponsorships, and the strange world of business.
GPT: Motor racing seemed to be a natural fit for the brand in the early 60s. The synergy between watch brands and motorsports is one we take for granted today, but it was not the case 50 years ago. How did other industry protagonists react to your foray into racing?
JH: There really are only three companies who have been heavily involved in Sports timing: Omega, Longines and Heuer. They started about 20 years after us, but timed already the Olympic in Berlin of 1936.
We can present a case that Heuer was a pioneer in product placement with Steve McQueen with the Le Mans Movie. It was also accidental from what I read in your memoirs. Can you tell us a little about that?
During the two to three years where I spent half of my time in the US, I learnt a great deal in marketing, literally all the tricks and finesses that this matter allows. At that time the word Marketing did not yet exist in Europe and since we had very limited resources for trying to build up a brand in the US , Marketing was an excellent tool. I realised quickly that it could be a key to the success of our brand.
I learnt from the President of Rolex US, to whom I made a courtesy visit at his office, that he had his own guy inside Hollywood for his product placement. The name of these people was “Property Master”. So I called our best client in L.A., called Feldmar Watch Company and asked him to find such a guy for us. This retailer worked a lot with the Hollywood people and sold many of our stopwatches to the producers. A few days later he told me he had found a guy called Don Nunley, so I flew out to LA to meet with Don. He at once understood what I wanted and within a few weeks he placed one of our Chronographs on the wrist of a big star, like Burt Reynolds, Charles Heston or Jack Lemmon. All I then requested was a dedicated signed photograph for my office.
The needs of Don for the film “Le Mans”, where the shooting took place in France, was much larger, he needed a lot of Stopwatches and Chronographs within one week in Le Mans, which forced me to send a watchmaker with all the watches by car to Le Mans. Don was delighted and as I wrote in my memoirs, it was quite a story.
I am often asked why Steve chose the Monaco Chronograph, and I only realised why, three or four years ago. In the sampling case we sent to Le Mans, we included three Monaco’s because they were not selling well and we had stock. Of the Autavia’s or Carrera’s we only sent one or two model of each. However Don Nunley needed three identical watches, one for the still shots, one for wearing during action shooting and one reserve for the action. Today Don still owns one of the watches used for the action shots, our Museum owns the other one for the action, and the reserve model was sold some in the US at an auction for 850,000 US$!
Jo Siffert was instrumental in increasing the global brand awareness of Heuer, perhaps he is one of Heuer’s greatest ambassadors. Can you tell us about your relationship with Jo?
We owe Jo a lot, because he introduced us to the F 1 world and we were able to measure the value of the press returns we got. Also it is one of the drivers I had a strong personal relation with, I learnt from him how this Auto Racing world functioned, but we also had a personal friendship, I was at his wedding and unfortunately also a few years later at his funeral. I also learnt, that the press returns of a relatively unknown driver was limited and that Ferrari got the press coverage, whether they were first or last. This is also why I then approached and successfully cooperated with Ferrari for over 8 years.
In your book you describe the sponsorship agreement with Siffert as one of the best marketing moves you made. Can you elaborate on the importance of this agreement?
Jo was the perfect ambassador for a Company like ours. We immediately got good press coverage in Switzerland. I had allowed Jo to peddle our watches at a wholesale price within the F1 world and within one season many of the team leaders and mechanics proudly wore one of our Chronographs.
The Ferrari Partnership can be seen as a brilliant initiative as well. Toward the end of your tenure at Heuer, you were criticized for having wasted too much money and resources on the Ferrari partnership. How would you respond to those critics now?
This Ferrari matter dates 45 years back and is still an excellent example of a successful Marketing Coup. Most bankers frankly have little or no Marketing experience and basically they have difficulty in evaluating innovative marketing ideas, while the marketing world calls this today a brilliant move.
We now take the split second for granted in today’s world of motorsports. How important was the introduction of Heuer’s Centigraph – and how did the system contribute to the technological growth of Formula 1 as a sport?
I honestly believe that Heuer is responsible with the printed proof of the timing to a 1/100th of a second, for creating a fair and valid grid followed later on by TAG Heuer with the complete timing system as it is used today. In other word’s TAG Heuer has greatly contributed to the “Money Machine” that F1 is today.
Il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari was a tough business man, he did not want to pay for the Le Mans Centigraph in 1970. Was this just because of his rigid business ways or did he fail to see the value of the system?
I believe it was a bit of both. The Ferrari factory was probably not really very profitable at that time, if at all, so his budget was tight. But he did see the advantage of having a printout of the performance, especially if it did not cost him too much, because he also was convinced that the traditional manual timers of the organizers cheated. This allowed us to ask for especially large stickers below the windshield of at least 30 cm. It had an immediate influence on the press shots who could hardly make a shot without our Logo. The Logo also appeared on the millions of toy size Ferraris and by the thousands of Aficionados who would put a sticker on their cars. It was a fair deal for both sides.
Do you remember what you ate at the Il Cavallino restaurant during you lunch with Mr. Ferrari.
Not in detail, but there always was an excellent Antipasto, then Italian pasta with and a lot of the local Lambrusco wine, followed by a dessert and coffee.
During the coffee il Commendatore would start telling some of the juiciest jokes I have ever heard.
Can you tell us about the system used and set up at the Fiorano test track?
We had some experience, because we had just installed a complete Timing System at the BMW factory in Munich with 64 photocells to time every segment of the circuit individually. So for the small circuit at Fiorano we used the knowhow we already had, however on a smaller scale. It included nevertheless 50 segment measurements and in a central Timing House all the individual segments could be read on a display board. Alain Prost once told me that the Fiorano test-track was considered amongst the pilots as the best test track for improving the setup of the Formula One cars.
Tell us about your relationship with some past F1 drivers; Regazzoni, Ickx, Peterson… any interesting stories or anecdotes?
Jacky Ickx was the very first F1 driver we sponsored after Joe Siffert. He was a real gentleman, I was at his home in Belgium and we worked out new ideas together to have a better tool for attracting other drivers. Together we invented together and launched the Helmet clocks. The first one was a small replica of Jackie’s helmet. He would get 1. – Sfr. per helmet sold. This worked beautifully with many drivers, who allowed us to make a miniature helmet in their helmet colors.
Regazzoni helped me with my Ferrari relations and his helmet also did well in the market. He was a very nice guy and I kept in touch even after he was partly paralysed. Even today his daughter who runs a Regazzoni Museum is regularly in touch with the company.
Peterson was a real gentleman driver, very gifted, natural talent and a fine person. I liked him and his future wife Babro a lot and we got on very well. Unfortunately he died a few years after his entry in F1.
I also got along well with Mario Andretti, who was driving for Ferrari a short time in 1975. I met him again nearly 30 years later again in an oldtimer race in Austria.
How did the earlier timing systems contribute to the to the ACIT system which became a ground-breaking timing system in F 1.
We had become with our Engineering Team really rather knowledgeable with the requirements for a Complete ACIT system. We tested it during the Belgium F1 Grand Prix and it worked really well, except that the little sensor boxes we taped on the front axles were often ripped off during the pit stops or during collisions. This was in 1974. Today the cars have in the drivers safety seat a special spot for this sensor set.
Longines, to whom I had sold for a relatively small sum the entire ACIT prototype system, together with our timer Jean Campiche, did not really develop further our ACIT prototype, probably because the entire Swiss Watch industry was having enormous problems and was fighting for survival in those years.
However I never imagined that in 1992 the TAG Heuer Company would invest and develop a complete Formula One Timing system based on the ACIT prototype and become Formula One’s Official Timer for 12 years.
The TAG Heuer timing system of 1992 is still very close to today’s system. It is in reality the base for the “Money Machine” F1 became. In 1992, suddenly the TV spectators, the pit crews and the watching public could finally understand exactly what was happening on the race track, the interest of the Public increased exponentially and with it the money flow for most everyone in the F1 world.
There are some interesting parallels between a watch and a race car. Precision engineering, design. Do you think you would have been a successful F1 team boss?
A team boss of the F1 in my years had to be a cold blooded SOB, because if a driver was hurt or died accidentally he had to choose a successor within hours or days. I believe I would have been too emotional for such a job.
In 2016, many of the early marketing initiatives you started a half- century ago are today the norms in the luxury watchmaking industry; from celebrity endorsements, to sports sponsorships. Knowing that your way, was the right way; do you consider yourself a victim of the times, or a visionary that paved the way to today’s landscape?
This is a difficult question! I certainly was in many ways a visionary for what the luxury industry needed to improve the sales. On the other hand I have been deeply disappointed by human behavior. My Chairman was afraid to lose his reputation as a top lawyer if we went bankrupt and accepted a takeover solution without involving me as the CEO and majority stockholder. Furthermore my top accountant had been maneuvering behind my back a solution to take over my position. Both persons have passed away.
Which watch are you wearing now?
I am wearing my Carrera Ltd. Edition, which I created for my 80th birthday. It has our family crest and my signature on the back and was a limited edition with only the old Heuer logo.
Do you believe the wristwatch as we know it will one day be obsolete, perhaps only existing as collection time instruments – most of today’s youth rely on cell-phones or a computer screen to tell the time.
This is a difficult question where I have no clear vision or answer. The collectors of famous former Watch models will certainly develop further. The big brands will no longer see continuous growth and the so-called “Connected Watches” will take over part of the market. But somehow I believe that the “Status Symbol” function of wristwatches will continue to survive, although hopefully not with a reduced volume.
What do you think of this year’s TAG Heuer branded Red Bull engine?
I am absolutely delighted by this new Team that has written on the side TAG Heuer with the logo, as well as on each glove of the racer! Great marketing job with the best F1 team after Mercedes.
Do you have any career regrets?
Now that Jean-Claude Biver has pulled me partly back into the action, I enjoy watching how very professional today a Company with Luxury Goods is run. I must admit that I quite often try to visualise how it would have been in 1982 if I had not been fired. I am 90% sure I would have developed the Company similar to Breitling’s size. However my second career with my Chinese supplier of electronic stopwatches designed by us, where we built together in nearly 20 years a Chinese Company with 10,000 workers and a brand called “Oregon Scientific”, was a very enriching experience that helped me greatly to overcome the Heuer disaster.
Are there any projects on the horizon for Jack Heuer? How are you spending your retirement?
I am going to be 84 years old later this year, so I well deserve to take it easy. In the winter I live in the mountains in Gstaad and still ski or do cross-country skiing. In the summer we like to travel and visit new and unknown areas and my wife and I both still play a little golf.
Lastly, thank you for writing your memoirs, and thank you for being honest – exposing your accomplishments as well as your failures. Do you have any words of wisdom for today’s young entrepreneurs?
My motto has been: Never give up.