FORMULA RENAULT UK: 2000-2002
Results: 2000 (10th), 2001 (3rd), 2002 (1st) After graduating to car racing, Watts landed the UK Formula First title in 1998 before doing Formula Palmer Audi. But his biggest early challenge was Formula Renault in 2000, when he was team-mate to Kimi Raikkonen at Manor.
“Formula Renault was a huge time for me and a massive learning experience,” says Watts. “I signed with Manor alongside Kimi and I think I learned more that year than perhaps any other in my career.
“I was never the most naturally gifted driver and had to work bloody hard at being quick, so I’d take notes constantly. Kimi was usually always faster than me. He was special, and just naturally quick in every condition. I’d get to the track super-early and spend hours going through his data trying to work out where he was faster than me. He’d rock up late, have a snooze in the back of the truck, then plonk his helmet on and go smash whatever time I was trying to catch. He was immense and a really good laugh too.
“I still have his data and those notes and I pull them out every now and then as a reminder. I won the first-ever race for the Tatuus chassis at Brands Hatch that year, which was the only time I beat Kimi. But then I got into too many shunts to be in the championship picture. Kimi of course then went straight to F1 with Sauber, which none of us saw coming.
“Working with Manor boss Tony Shaw and my race engineer Simon Finnis was great. They were blackand-white type of people and there was no bullsh*t. They bollocked me when I needed it and kept me in line and the results came.
“I moved to Fortec for 2002 and it was my big year. It was my third in the category and I simply had to win it, but the strength in depth of the grid was amazing looking back, especially at what drivers like Lewis [Hamilton] and Jamie [Green] have gone on to achieve.
“I started the year really well and racked up the wins to get a points gap and used the experience advantage, but Lewis and Jamie came on so strong at the end of the year as they got up to speed. I remember the season finale at Donington and the first race on Saturday. We had an amazing three-car fight for the lead, trading it every lap and just giving each other enough room to be fair. It was one of the best races I’ve ever had. Lewis won it but I took the title and went out partying on Saturday night. I was nowhere on Sunday and had a blinding headache, but I was champion.”
Hamilton (no. 25) and Watts in 2002 Watts (left) beat Lewis Hamilton to FRUK title