Racing Watches

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About Racing Watches

While the concept of racing watches today conjures up images of fast cars, asphalt circuits, and champion motorsport drivers, the first racing watch was invented well before the first car made its debut. Like all old school tool watches, the job of mechanical racing watches has been taken over by more precise computers. However, the appeal of racing watches remains strong in today’s luxury watch space thanks to their sporty designs, exciting histories, and cool factor. 

What is a Racing Watch? 

 A racing watch is a chronograph type watch that is commonly associated with motorsports or to a lesser degree yacht racing. A chronograph watch includes a stopwatch function that uses an independent sweep seconds hand to measure elapsed times.

A typical modern chronograph watch features a pair of chronograph pushers on the case, where one pusher serves to start and stop a chronograph hand while the other resets it. Chronographs usually also have three subsidiary dials on the face of the watch. Generally, one dial records how many minutes have passed since the start of the chronograph hand, one dial records how many hours have elapsed since the start of the chronograph hand, and one dial indicates the normal seconds hand.  

What differentiates a racing watch from other types of chronograph watches is the presence of a tachymeter scale on the watch. A tachymeter can be placed on the dial or on the bezel of a watch. A tachymeter is particularly useful for racing as it can be used to measure average speed based on time traveled over a fixed distance. For instance, to measure how fast a car travels over one mile, the user starts the chronograph hand when the car accelerates and stops the hand when the car crosses the finish line. Where the chronograph hand points to on the tachymeter indicates the average speed of the car in miles per hour.  

History of Racing Watches and Chronographs

Louis Moinet invented the very first chronograph pocket watch in 1816—although the French watchmaker called it the “compteur de tierces” (French for “thirds counter”) and not a “chronograph.” Remarkably, Louis Moinet was only credited with this groundbreaking invention in 2013 when the current CEO of the Louis Moinet watch brand, Jean-Marie Schaller, presented proof that Moinet was, in fact, the true inventor of the chronograph watch. 

Prior to this recent revelation, the inventor of the chronograph was thought to be Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, who developed it for King Louis XVIII in 1821 so that the monarch could time horse races. Therefore, Rieussec’s pocket watch chronograph can be considered the first racing watch ever made. The watch dropped ink on demand onto a rotating dial to mark the start and finish of an elapsed time, which explains the origins of the name “chronograph” taken from the Greek words “chronos” (time) and “graph” (writer).  

Organized by the newspaper Le Petit Journal in 1894, the “Competition for Horseless Carriages” from Paris to Rouen is widely considered to be the first official road race. Swiss-made handheld Gallet timers were used to record the event.  

In 1911, Heuer patented the “Time of Trip,” the first dashboard chronograph designed for aircraft and automobiles. Fitted with a mono-pusher to start, stop, and reset the clock, these Heuer dashboard clocks allowed pilots and drivers to read the time and read the duration of a trip (as long as it was less than 12 hours). 

Following many developments by different watchmakers to the chronograph mechanism, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the chronograph transformed into a wristwatch. For instance, Longines developed the first purposely-built chronograph movement for a wristwatch (rather than a pocket watch) in 1913. Then in 1933, Breitling made a breakthrough by inventing the first wristwatch chronograph with two pushers with the first for starting and stopping and the other for resetting. This is often considered the birth of the modern chronograph wristwatch.  

In September 1935, Sir Malcolm Campbell set a land speed record of over 300 miles per hour at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah behind the wheel of his Bluebird car. On his wrist was a Rolex Oyster watch (not a chronograph). The “King of Speed” was so impressed with his watch, he wrote a letter to the company stating: “I have now been using my Rolex Watch for a while, and it is keeping perfect time under somewhat strenuous conditions.” Rolex rewarded the race car driver with a Rolex chronograph reference 2508, complete with two registers and a tachymeter scale on the dial and a pair of chronograph pushers on the case. 

Post-World War II was a significant period for the development of racing watches. In 1957, Omega introduced the Speedmaster chronograph for motorsports as the world’s first chronograph with its tachymeter scale on the bezel as opoosed to printed on the dial. In 1963, Heuer releases the Carrera chronograph, named after the Carrera Panamericana car race. Also in 1963, Rolex debuts the Cosmograph as a new-generation racing chronograph. Rolex’s flagship chronograph soon became the Cosmograph Daytona as the company wanted to highlight its association with the famed Daytona Speedway racetrack.  

1969 saw the birth of the automatic chronograph movement. While it is still disputed which company can lay claim to the very first automatic chronograph, there are a handful of significant pioneers to note. Zenith announced its automatic El Primero chronograph movement in January, Seiko officially released the automatic Speedtimer chronograph watch in May but only in Japan, and the group of watchmakers (Breitling, Buren, Hamilton, Heuer, and Dubois-Depraz) behind the automatic Chronomatic movement launched their chronograph watches in August.  

Despite the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, mechanical racing chronographs not only survived but from the late 1990s until today, they have thrived.  

Popular Racing Chronographs  

Racing chronographs are still some of the most popular types of watches in today’s market, regardless if they are ever used to time a race.  

Some watch brands have teamed up with luxury automakers to make co-branded racing watches such as the Breitling for Bentley collection, the Hublot and Ferrari lineup, the IWC and Mercedes-AMG partnership, the Richard Mille and McLaren collaboration, the Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston Martin alliance, the Roger Dubuis and Lamborghini cooperation, the Bulgari and Maserati mash-up, and the Jacob & Co. and Bugatti partnership. Other brands make watches in honor of famous car races. For instance, there’s the Chopard Mille Miglia, TAG Heuer Formula One, Blancpain L-Evolution Super Trofeo, and the Zenith SVRA Editions.  

A regatta is a series of boat races and some luxury watchmakers make watches specifically for yacht and boat competitions. There’s the Panerai Yachts Challenge collection, the Rolex Yacht-Master II lineup, the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean sailing editions, and the Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta chronographs.  

Some of the most recognizable and coveted motor racing watches today are made by Rolex, TAG Heuer, and Omega. 

As previously mentioned, the Rolex Daytona first came onto the scene in the 1960s. Since then, it has grown to become arguably the most sought-after luxury chronograph there is. The entire Daytona collection from inception until now can be divided into three main generations: vintage manual-wound models made until 1988, automatic models powered by Zenith El-Primero-based movements made until 2000, and automatic models that run on in-house Rolex movements still in production today. Rolex currently offers the Daytona in a range of materials from steel to gold to two-tone to platinum. 

Although the Speedmaster is now more associated with space exploration given its history with the lunar landing and other NASA missions, Omega’s flagship chronograph was specifically developed for racing as illustrated by its tachymeter scale. In fact, Omega makes a dedicated motorsports-inspired collection called the Speedmaster Racing featuring sporty chronographs in a range of materials and sizes. 

Finally, a significant portion of TAG Heuer’s collection is made up of racing watches. There’s the Carrera line that we mentioned previously, as well as the square-shaped Monaco. The Monaco watch became ubiquitous with racing lifestyle after it was worn by Steve McQueen in the 1971 movie, Le Mans. TAG Heuer also makes the Autavia collection of racing watches, named after the vintage Heuer dashboard clocks fitted inside planes and cars. 

It is clear that racing chronographs are here to stay, regardless if the stopwatch function is ever activated during a competitive event. The appeal of racing chronographs has well surpassed its intended audience of car and racing enthusiasts to become must-have timepieces for those who enjoy robust sporty watches linked to the adrenaline-fueled world of motorsports.