Fast times

 
Timothy Barber
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FOR racing drivers, people assume it’s what you’ve got parked on your driveway that counts, but it’s what you’ve got on your wrist as well,” says Mark Blundell, the former F1 ace who took an epic fourth place at the weekend’s Rolex 24-hour race at Daytona. He has over 20 high-end watches. “There’s a lot of banter between the drivers, and having the best watch is part of that,” he continues, admitting some envy at his Daytona team-mate Martin Brundle’s latest acquisition, a watch from the outlandish Richard Mille line.

The relationship between watches and fast cars is one of the most embedded associations in either field, as summed-up by Rolex’s link to Daytona. Its Daytona line of chronographs is arguably the most romantic, celebrated range, made famous by Paul Newman in the Sixties.

The chronograph (stopwatch function) is the classic motoring watch, and Blundell says he still uses one to time laps – “generally it’ll be accurate enough to tell me what I need to know,” he says. In the age of digitalised monitoring of every function and component of an F1 car, Blundell says the fact that it’s still powered by a mechanised series of finely-tuned pistons and valves appeals to the same passions as a good watch.

“It’s that level of appreciation. Looking at a well-made racing car is like looking at a piece of art – you see the nuances and the attention to detail of the engine, and it’s the same with a handmade mechanical watch.”

Jaeger le-Coultre links with Aston Martin, Chopard works with Alpha Romeo, Graham works with Mercedes. Blundell’s favourite watch, meanwhile, is his Breitling for Bentley, one of a limited edition of six made when he drove for Bentley at Le Mans.

That circuit is also the site of the most influential motoring endorsement in watch history, Steve McQueen’s sporting of TAG Heuer’s square Monaco watch in the 1971 Le Mans film. Last month the company unveiled its latest pieces dedicated to motorsports. The Carrera Mikrograph 1/100th Second is one of the highest-grade pieces TAG has ever put out, celebrating the company’s involvement in timing races, which goes back to the earliest days of motorsport. Meanwhile the new MP4 12C is a masculine piece born of TAG’s long-running partnership with McLaren, and named after McLaren’s MP4 Supercar.

1. Rolex Everose Daytona in rose gold, £20,550. www.rolex.com
2. Chopard GT XL Chrono Alfa Romeo. www.chopard.com
3. Graham Mercedes Trackmaster GP, £4,500. www.jurawatches.co.uk
4. TAG Heuer Carrera Mikrograph 1/100 Second Chronograph,
£25,000 www.tagheuer.com

WATCHES AT THE THIN END OF (A LOT OF) WEDGE

THE sudden upsizing of watches a few years ago was all very well for sporty, showy designs, but more problematic if elegance and understatement float your boat. Designers of more formal watches found themselves with a quandary: how to adapt to the new tastes, where diameters under 38mm look rather weedy, without sacrificing the refinement that distinguishes them?

The answer: go thin. Or rather, go ultra-thin. Case in point: Piaget’s Altiplano is a mere 5.25mm high on the wrist, yet a sizeable 43mm in diameter. Subtle, minimalist, and capable of sliding smoothly under the shirt-cuff, it’s nevertheless big enough to seem current and considered.

The watch industry loves any excuse to do unfeasibly difficult technological things, and slotting scores of moving parts into hair-thin watches is about as tricky as it gets. Simpler, inherently slimmer quartz watches killed the previous race to thinness back in the early Seventies, but the renewed emphasis on technical wizardry as a luxury end in its own right, and the post-recession swing to more understated styles, has put this back on the agenda. As well as Piaget, Jaeger Le-Coultre, Ralph Lauren and Vacheron Constantin have produced watches ploughing a very trim furrow.

This year, Piaget has followed up the Altiplano by creating the thinnest ever tourbillon, a sensational, see-through Art Deco number that’s light as a button and streamlined as a bullet. Its six-figure-and-then-some price tag (under wraps for now) reflects the painstaking skill and time required to squash the most extreme complication into a 1.4cm-thick movement.

Other entrants include a square number from Ralph Lauren; the slimmed-down Reverso line from Jaeger Le-Coultre; an ultra-thin piece from A. Lange & Sohne’s Saxonia; and, perhaps most interestingly, a slender piece from the traditionally bulbous, one-of-a-kind Richard Mille. The RM033 is still classic Mille, but it won’t get caught on the doorknob as you walk past. TB

1. Ralph Lauren Slim Classique square, £10,400. www.ralphlaurenwatches.com
2. Piaget Altiplano, £13,200. www.piaget.com
3. Piaget Emperador Coussin Tourbillon Automatic Ultra-Thin, price on application. www.piaget.com
4. A. Lange & Sohne Saxonia ultra thin, £14,000,
www.alange-soehne.com
5. Richard Mille RM033, £54,500 www.richard-mille.com