The McLarens were awful in qualifying but John Watson and Niki Lauda went from 22nd and 23rd to 1st and 2nd at Long Beach
For the most part, it’s the drivers who qualify high up the grid who usually end up winning Formula 1 races.
But there are a few rare occasions where drivers have done the unthinkable and came from woeful grid positions, through bad laps or reliability issues, to take victory.
It’s these races that people often remember the most and the record for the lowest grid position a race winner has started at in F1 is 22nd.
The driver who lined up in that grid slot is Watson, driving for McLaren at the 1983 United States Grand Prix West. The previous year he’d won from 17th but of course he went on to better that record.
His record has remained unbeaten ever since, the last driver to come anywhere close was Rubens Barrichello’s epic 2000 German GP win from 18th.
McLaren simply struggled with the balance of their cars and couldn’t get the set-up right in Long Beach qualifying, leading to Watson and Lauda finishing 22nd and 23rd.
Watson’s DFV-powered MP4/1C was light on its tyres and that wasn’t suited to the slippery Long Beach track, which had concrete surfaces in places.
So, that’s where they started on Sunday, but amazingly, the team’s fortunes did a U-turn and both Watson and Lauda were helped by a tyre advantage in the race.
Both drivers quickly made progress in the early laps, while polesitter Patrick Tambay led the field with Keke Rosberg in second and Jacques Laffite in third.
This was also the same race where Rosberg completed that badass spin where he did a full 360 and managed to continue without any damage or contact. Lauda got ahead of Watson at the start and they ran in tandem for quite a while.
Alain Prost was a potential contender for Renault before his car developed a misfire, while Eddie Cheever was delayed by Prost’s car being in the pit box when he required a stop. Oops…
Rosberg’s opening part of the race was scruffy but he caught back up to Tambay, who quickly started to lead a train of cars – the leaders all very bunched together. Meanwhile Lauda and Watson continued to pick off cars, helped by a few early retirements.
On lap 26, the race took a major turn when Rosberg tried to pass Tambay for the lead at the hairpin and they clashed. Tambay was out immediately and Rosberg quickly retired after further contact with his team-mate Laffite and Jean-Pierre Jarier while trying to recover.
Laffite emerged unscathed to take the lead while Jarier retired too. The McLarens were on a charge and found themselves third and fourth shortly after the Rosberg/Tambay incident, Watson admitting his car had transformed with heavier fuel – he could get heat into the tyres again.
Not content with shadowing Lauda, he dived up the inside with a late move at the end of the back straight to pass his team-mate and make inroads into the leading two, Laffite and Riccardo Patrese.
With a pace advantage and the others on more worn tyres, both McLarens soon passed Patrese and then disposed of Laffite to take the leading two places. From there, they managed to open up a large gap over the chasing pack.
Watson crossed the line to take the victory, his last in F1, from a staggeringly low grid slot. Lauda suffered from leg cramp late on and couldn’t challenge him, finishing 28 seconds further back.
Rene Arnoux started on the front row but finished over a minute behind Watson in third, with Laffite fading to fourth and Marc Surer fifth. Johnny Cecotto (no, not the guy F2 can’t get rid of, but his father) was sixth.
It was a remarkable victory for Watson, who admitted it was a shock despite feeling good in the car all race. The 1983 US GP West has retained the record for the lowest race winner’s grid slot for some time and that doesn’t look set to change anytime soon.