Quick off the Marque

In an event unique to motorsport, six masters of haute horlogerie took to the track in a set of wheels associated with their respective brands. Nicholas Foulkes kept the lap chart on a day that was part Wacky Races, part Rush, and total petrolhead paradise.

It was without doubt the automotive event of summer 2017. I am not referring to the Monaco Grand Prix, nor the nail-biter that was this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, not even that annual Woodstock of the internal combustion engine, Lord March’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. No, I refer to the most exclusive petrolhead gathering of this, perhaps indeed any, year: the Vanity Fair On Time Track Day.

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From left: Davide Cerrato of  Montblanc, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Chopard, Christoph Grainger-Herr of IWC, Giles English of Bremont, Alain Zimmermann of Baume & Mercier and Jean-Claude Biver of LVMH

Gender stereotyping can be a risky business, but I think it is fairly safe to say that men who like watches tend to like cars. It would take a sophisticated psychologist to plumb the depths of the male psyche and come up with a reason, but my superficial analysis of the situation (as someone who has been collecting watches for about 40 years and who has crashed a good many cars) is that they share the same mixture of functionality, design, mechanical ingenuity and escapism. At their most functional, they tell us the time and they transport us; at their most evocative, they touch our feelings (yes, men do have them) and act as vessels of emotion.

These synergies have not escaped the notice of the watch industry and a partnership between an automotive marque and a maison de haute horlogerie has become an almost mandatory aspect of watch marketing over the past 25 years or so.

The prototypical modern car-watch tie-up was between Ferrari and Girard-Perregaux in the 1990s, but, as in all the best watchmaking partnerships, there was more to it than co-branding: the late Gino Macaluso, owner of Girard-Perregaux and architect of its renaissance, was an old friend of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who was running Ferrari at the time. That lasted a decade; since then Ferrari has worked with Panerai and Ruchonnet, before settling on Hublot—a partnership based on the friendship of Jean-Claude Biver and Lapo Elkann.

Meanwhile, I like to think that I had a hand in bringing Bentley and Breitling together back at the turn of the century, when Bentley returned to Le Mans as part of its relaunch under Volkswagen, and I introduced the Breitling delegation to the pleasures of the endurance race.

Since then, the partnerships have piled up almost as fast as a collision on a tricky chicane. To name a few: Aston Martin has worked with Jaeger-LeCoultre and made a watch that combined horological functions with remote locking; Maserati has been involved with Audemars Piguet and now Bulgari, Bugatti and Parmigiani have forged a long-term partnership; Lamborghini was teamed with Blancpain and now works with Roger Dubuis; while the soidisant maker of racing machines for the wrist, Richard Mille, has hit the road with McLaren.

It was to celebrate these last two unions (Dubuis/Lambo and Mille/McLaren) that the idea of the Vanity Fair On Time Track Day came about, and, as soon as word got out, the starting grid began to fill up. Alas, Mille and Dubuis eventually sent their regrets, but by then it was too late to stop.

So it was, that on one of the hottest days in England since 1976, the circuit at Thruxton became, for a couple of hours, the centre of the horological and automotive worlds as an event unique in motorsport (part Wacky Races, part Rush) took place.

Some of the industry’s leading bosses brought their watches and their cars to what we were told during the safety briefing was the fastest circuit in the kingdom. On the grid were Jean-Claude Biver (Zenith) in a Range Rover, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele (Chopard) in a canary-yellow Porsche 911 RS, Alain Zimmermann (Baume & Mercier) at the wheel of a Cobra, David Cerrato (Montblanc) in a BMW M1 from 1978, Chris Grainger-Herr (IWC) in a midnight-blue Mercedes-AMG GT S and Giles English (Bremont) in an E-Type.

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Karl-Friedrich Scheufele (Chopard/Porsche)

Our drivers prepared in the manner that one would expect. As the custodian of a watch brand based in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, partnered with a performance-engineering motor firm in Affalterbach, Chris Grainger-Herr demonstrated a strictly Teutonic singleness of purpose. He appeared at the circuit shortly after daybreak, settled into the pale leather bucket seats of the AMG and began to take practice lap after practice lap, dedicating himself so thoroughly to the task in hand that there was concern for the tyre treads.

“What fascinates me so much about performance cars like the Mercedes AMG GT S is not just the power of its hand-built, twin-turbo V8 or the incredible handling performance, but, as a designer, I am equally fascinated by the beauty of its body shape,” he says. “Cars like this one tell a story of engineering challenges in aerodynamics, weight distribution and driving position, resulting in pure sculptural beauty—a perfect symbiosis of form and function. At IWC, that is how we approach watchmaking: technical excellence and craftsmanship in our movements, advanced materials engineering twinned with pure and timeless design. Both car and watch are performance machines full of emotion.”

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Christoph Grainger-Herr (IWC/Mercedes)

Davide Cerrato conformed admirably to the stereotype of stylish Italian; he brought a change of clothes, including some covetable driving bootees, a Steve McQueen T-shirt and bespoke driving goggles in vintage alligator by Barrufaldi. He rhapsodized about the classic 1970s design of the M1, explaining that Giugiaro, of Maserati Merak fame, had created it—“But I think there is a little bit of DeLorean and Lamborghini in there, too.” 

Jean-Claude Biver, meanwhile, flew in from a morning meeting at La Chaux-de-Fonds and had to be back in Nyon for a five o’clock session with the artist Richard Orlinski at Hublot, of which he is chairman. He had forgotten to bring even the most basic protective gear—so I presented him with my Peaky Blinders meets P.G. Wodehouse linen cap to prevent his brain from overheating.

Alain Zimmermann, who had just arrived from Japan, came prepared for the weather with a full-faced helmet. As the only man in an open-topped car, and sitting behind seven litres of American muscle, he needed to protect  himself—and this way he did not need any sunscreen.

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Alain Zimmermann (Baume & Mercier/Shelby)

It would be an understatement of Brobdingnagian proportions to say that it was a mixed field. Karl-Friedrich’s Porsche gets to 60mph in a quite outrageous 2.9 seconds, and has the obsessive levels of fit and finish that you expect from the gnomes of Stuttgart. While Giles’s Jag represented the best of Britain circa Swinging London: visible welding marks, obvious rivets, leather straps and a metal cockpit that in the heat was doing a good impression of a pizza oven—this was clearly a car put together by a man with a hammer. The Porsche might have had the edge in modern technology, but the Jag, built using one of six unused VIN numbers from the 1960s is, said Giles, worth two and a half million quid.

And that was another thing: the value of the men and the metal lining up behind the starting flag was such that, at one point, it was not clear whether some of the participants would even be allowed to step onto the circuit, let alone get behind the wheel of a car and—heaven forfend—actually turn the engine on. But, in the end, it was made clear that there would be no competitive driving, no timed laps, no undue burning of rubber, and the general assurance that, on the whole, the casual observer might mistake some of the day’s action for a funeral cortège.

Thruxton itself is a gently undulating ribbon of Tarmac along which cars can reach near take-off speeds before an application of the brakes is required pretty sharpish ahead of two little squiggles called Club Chicane and Cobb Corner so as not to end up having an impromptu off-road experience in rural Hampshire. The idea was that after a safety briefing which contained a five-minute peroration about cones of different colours indicating braking, entry and exit points (followed by the exhortation not to worry too much about the cones), drivers would do a single lap of the track to get their eye in, and then have a second (untimed) crack at the circuit.

As he had to return to Geneva for his daughter’s birthday, Karl-Friedrich and the canary-yellow Porsche went first. Initial lap completed, he waited, engine rumbling, as the glamorous Zoë Gahan waved the chequered flag, and he was off. (It is a measure of the unique way we do things at Vanity Fair On Time that we brandished the flag that traditionally signals the finish of a race to start our on-track proceedings.) Perhaps 120-odd seconds later he was back … and then he was gone again, clearly unable to count to two … the co-president of Chopard was on his third, unscheduled, lap. Happily, once out of his car Karl-Friedrich was quick to reassure me that his numeracy was not in question. “I cheated,” he said. “Once you are in the mood you cannot really stop.” Karl-Friedrich is usually such a well-behaved man, but strap a hand-wound L.U.C 1963 Chrono PuristS on his wrist, then strap him into a Porsche, and man and machines become one—the passion had taken over. As it happened, I was lucky that he only took one extra lap. “You only have two chicanes and the rest is straights and a lot of very soft bends, so you really have to judge what you are doing,” he said. “I think it’s a very interesting circuit. I would like to come on a Saturday afternoon, and spend  a few hours here. You have to get used to it and I think it takes you 10 or 15 laps.” As it was, he was concentrating so hard on the cones that he did not even have time to activate his chronograph.

Meanwhile, Davide Cerrato had gone to a lot of trouble to match the red detailing of his Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph 1000 Limited Edition 18 tourbillon to the paintwork of the M1 and he was annoyed at only having two laps in which to enjoy the colour pairing.

Nevertheless, he had time to find a parallel with watchmaking. “I loved the old black plastic dashboard with small orange or red indicators, which are so 1970s. It makes me think of the first digital quartz movements of the time, when the time appeared in the darkness glowing red,” he said. On the dial of his chrono he was using a different system: the numeral track was luminous, allowing the numbers to stand out in dark contrast to the glowing background.

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Davide Cerrato (Montblanc/BMW)

Design was also on the mind of Jean-Claude Biver as he made his two circuits: majestic, rather than manic, is the adjective to describe the style of driving from a man who has nothing to prove in the industry where he has worked for 43 years. When he took his first job in 1974, the Range Rover and the Zenith El Primero were both just five years old; now they are approaching 50 and are, he says, still recognizable as their younger selves.

“Legends live forever,” he explains of a partnership that sees an exchange of technology and a close working relationship with legendary Land Rover design boss Gerry McGovern, whom Jean-Claude met when both were being honoured at an awards ceremony. “It’s exclusive, it’s prestigious, it’s robust, and it’s somehow eternal,” he said. “There are old Range Rovers that are 40, almost 50 years old; they still drive. There’s so much history. And it’s a history that is not just related to racing, it’s a larger history: it is the Queen’s car.”

Making the circuit at Thruxton, he was struck by the grace as much as the pace. “I felt very strange in the Range Rover, because there was no noise from the engine. It was the first time I was on a track with no noise. Wow—that was strange.”

Which was not at all like Alain Zimmermann’s experience in the Cobra, a vehicle which for many is the definition of the high-speed al fresco motoring experience: “Having no windows is something which is very exciting, because you feel the wind. I really liked the sensual experience. You feel the power of the car, you feel the seven-litre engine. And the noise is phenomenal; when you’re inside a closed car, you get the noise from inside the car, but in the Cobra you get it from everywhere.”

And there were times when I thought that Giles English would have quite fancied taking a tin-opener to his £2.5million car: not to get the surround-sound experience, but rather some air as his cockpit reached blast-furnace temperatures. Had a delicious sandwich lunch not been provided, Giles could have cooked bacon and eggs on any of the metallic surfaces of his car. He looked far cooler in the E-Type in which he arrived, one which he and his brother helped their late father restore 30 years ago.

“We’ve always had a love affair with E-Types, the family loved them,” he said. So he was gratified when Jaguar commissioned some clocks for the Queen’s Jaguars, thus beginning a partnership that has matured into a range of watches based aesthetically on the Smiths Instruments that used to characterize the dash panels of British-built cars. His pleasure and pride were evident in the way he put the neo-vintage E-Type through its paces; so passionate and spirited was his driving that thick grey smoke started pouring out from beneath the bonnet.

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Giles English (Bremont/Jaguar)

As an incendiary spectacle, this eruption was easily the most memorable of the day— although, that said, Grainger-Herr deserves an honourable mention for the dedication he showed in removing the rubber from his tyres, as he channelled the spirit of the legendary Rudolf Caracciola (whose 1934 speed record was achieved on Grainger’s “home stretch” of Autobahn, close to his native Frankfurt). The spirit of the famous interwar Mercedes racing driver was so strongly with him that at one point the car’s owner, who had fitted it with a tracker, rang up and asked him to keep the speed down—just as well we were not timing the laps!

As our drivers walked off the track and the cars were loaded back on to their trailers it was agreed that next year Vanity Fair would set its sights a little higher and stage a day of aerobatic competitions for CEOs of brands with aviation partnerships … Plenty of time to get those pilot’s licences, so no excuses please.

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