Talking Racing And Watches With F1 Driver Turned Watchmaker Stefan Johansson
Racing fans may remember “Little Leaf” for his years at Ferrari and McLaren, but in the years since he hung up his racing suit, Johansson has continued his passion for art, watchmaking, and driver management.
I first learned of the legend of Stefan Johansson when I was just 13. My dad had taken me to the 79th running of the Indy 500 in 1995 (my first). I'll never forget sitting in the grandstands and watching what turned out to be a fairly controversial race. For starters, my hero Al Unser Jr. wasn't able to get his car up to speed in qualifying and was bumped from the race, and the finish ended up being contested because of Scott Goodyear passing the pace car.
But nestled in the mid-pack on that fateful day in May was a former F1 driver, turned CART racer named Stefan Johansson. The Swedish driver had muscled his Ford-Cosworth powered Reynard 941 car to a respectable 16th place. I didn’t know it at the time, but 25 years later, I would sit down (via Zoom) to chat with a driver that participated in my very first Indy 500.
About Stefan Johansson
Born in Växjö, Sweden, Stefan Nils Edwin Johansson was raised in a familial culture of auto racing. During his nearly decade long career in F1, Johansson raced against some of the most notable names in the history of Formula One. His first (of 12) podiums was shared with Michele Alboreto and Alain Prost at the 1985 Canadian Grand Prix, a race in which Ayrton Senna set the fastest lap. He was teammates with Alain Prost at McLaren, which notably ran a TAG (Heuer) branded Porsche built with twin-turbo V6 engines.
Johansson left Formula One in 1991 and found his way to America to participate in the CART (now IndyCar) series. For five years, Johansson raced for Bettenhausen Racing and won the 1992 Rookie of the Year award. Not bad for someone who spent ten years in Formula One!
Nowadays, Johansson lives in Santa Monica, California, where he splits his time between being an artist, watchmaker, and driver manager. Notably, managing the career of five-time IndyCar champion and fellow watch lover, Scott Dixon.
Interview With Stefan Johansson
This summer, I had the chance to sit down with Johansson. What followed was a relaxed discussion about Johansson’s career, his love of watches, and the now-infamous deer incident.
Josh Shanks: Ok, so how did you go from the world of Formula One, CART, and Sportscar racing to having a design studio for art and watchmaking?
Stefan Johansson: In parallel with my racing, I was always very interested in design and art. Like most people in life, we have hobbies outside of what our vocation is. So, that [art] has always followed me, and painting helped me relax between races.
The watches, I've been doing the design and everything for a long, long time now. For example, art is something that I've been getting serious about in more recent years. However, I've been painting since 1986.
When you've been a professional sportsman, it is tough to fill that void, that vacuum, when you stop. Because everything is so intense, every pore in your body is immersed in your career. You think, eat, sleep, and ponder all the time about what you can do better, what can I do to improve, and this and that. And it's nice to find something that kind of gives you that same focus, just in a completely different way. But it still similarly engages your mind.
JS: So how does this work? Are you calling Swiss manufactures and saying, "Hi, this is Stefan Johansson. I want to make a watch. I need a dial. I need a case. I need movements."?
SJ: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, it's just my deal. You know, it's taken a while to develop the network that I have now. But I'd say I have a pretty strong network of suppliers now. The first batch of watches was made in like 1993, I think. But to get to the point where the brand is now that took almost ten years.
JS: What makes up a Stefan Johansson watch?
SJ: It typically starts with an ETA/Valjoux  movement, which is a pretty straight forward movement – and then I have one supplier that does the case and the crystal and the bezel, and then the rotor, the straps, the dials, the hands, you know. Then I have one house that does the assembly and testing and everything.
So, it works out pretty well. I'm kind of the general contractor, and then I have these people putting all the stuff together for me.
JS: From what I hear, a lot of your fellow competitors have Stefan Johansson watches?
SJ: Yes, when I did the 24 Hours of Le Mans and all the big races, I always used to have one of my co-drivers wear the watch. Then I had them engraved and signed, usually something like, "Tested at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by Michele Alboreto," or Johnny Herbert, JJ Lehto, or whoever. And I still have all those watches. Kenny Bräck wore it when he won the 1999 Indy 500. I still have it engraved on the back and everything.
I’ve tried to theme all these sports watches to somehow latch on my background in racing, to have some inspiration from racing. So, the Mark VIIIC 011, for example, if you look at the hour register on the bottom, I reversed the countdown. I mean, it's just a little gimmick, but I switched the countdown. Instead of a count-up, as you'd see on a typical dial, it's a countdown. So, it starts at 24, and it works backward. It's an homage to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The idea is, you start the clock when the race begins, and it counts down from 24.
That one, [the Mark VIIIC 011] Brad Pitt bought that particular one.
SJ: Yeah [laughs], years ago.
JS: So, how does it work? Is your business very bespoke? How many pieces do you sell?
SJ: Almost all of it is bespoke. I do a lot of custom-made for particular clients who may want a specific piece. Or they may wish to put a logo on it or have some of the design changed. So, the majority of the watches I make now are all custom-made in some way or another. The rotor, on the back there, is from my helmet design with the three leaves. So, I custom-made that rotor with the three leaves. The same as I have on my helmet.
JS: Would you say you have a signature model?
SJ: The one with the flags, [the Mark VIIIE 033], is probably the signature model because that has all the F1 flag signals. And it's funny because I've had TAG Heuer, Hublot, and Richard Mille all – because they're friends, I know them all quite well – and they called up and said, "You bastard! I wanted to make that design!" And they'd looked it up and realized I had a registered patent on that one.
JS: For something bespoke, your prices are still pretty reasonable, you know, compared to the market.
SJ: Yeah. Yeah, sometimes I wonder if I should ask for more, you know [laughs].
JS: Do you have a favorite watch? Within either your collection or in the past?
SJ: Generally speaking, I was always quite a big fan of IWC. And they were a bit of inspiration in terms of the clean design language on my watches. I always thought IWC did quite nice, very subtle, beautiful designs. I do admire Richard Mille for the attention to detail and the incredible quality of everything. It's pretty impressive. F.P.Journe, I like for the delicate movements and everything. And some of the complications they do are great.
JS: Let’s talk racing. Today's Formula One culture is very different from your era, especially with COVID. All the guys are in their COVID bubbles, none of the drivers even talk to each other. But after races, back in the '80s, could you sit down and have a beer with these guys and hang out with them?
SJ: Yeah, we sometimes did. Between races sometimes, you know, if it was like a week or so between races, we used to go and hang out like in a resort somewhere. And it was quite a few of us.
For example, between races in Hungary and Austria, we used to go to this place. There was a beautiful lake there, in Austria, and an old castle they turned into a hotel like an hour from Vienna. So, it was me, [Ayrton] Senna, [Alain] Prost, [Gerhard] Berger, Nelson Piquet, and I think [Nigel] Mansell was there, Andrea De Cesaris, [Riccardo] Patrese, there was a whole gang of us.
It was fun. I mean, we had a lot of fun. You know, we were young, everybody was sort of in their 20s, early 30s. You know, the juvenile bullshit you do when you're that age [laughs]. It was a lot of fun.
JS: How did you find life after Formula 1?
SJ: Actually, it was a revelation. The thing with Formula 1 is that it's what everybody strives for and where you want to be because it's the ultimate. But when you come out of all that because you've been so buried in that world – and the pressure and everything, the media and whatnot, everybody wants everything from you, all the time.
JS: If you were to look back, what was the longest second of your life?
SJ: The longest second of my life? Wow. Well, you know what? Funnily enough, it brings us back to when I had that shunt in Austria [and hit a deer in his McLaren F1 Car].
From the moment I hit the deer until the moment I hit the wall felt like, you know, like an hour! But it was probably no more than a second before everything just happened. But it was a massive [expletive] accident.
SJ (continues): And I remember that I had the time to yank out the steering wheel and pull my legs as far up as I could, so I wouldn't lose my legs if I hit the wall head-on because it was going to be a big one. When you've lost steering and brakes and everything – because the deer just took the whole left side of the car off, basically – and then it's wet grass for about 200 meters before you hit anything, it feels like it's accelerating once you leave the actual track. So, I probably hit the wall at a good 160-170 mph. Luckily, the car just spun around on the grass, so it went in backward rather than with the front.
But that second felt like a frickin' hour before it actually hit. So, yeah, that might be the longest second of my life [laughs].
JS: When it happened, were you just like, "Is that honestly a deer? Is that really- Was that what that was?"
SJ: It happened so fast, you don't even- I mean, literally, from the moment I saw the deer until I hit it was like the signal hadn't even gotten from brain to my right foot to brake because you're doing about 280-290 kph coming over that brow – it's blind – the car goes light, and a deer is standing in the middle – I mean, literally, BOOM right there. I didn't even have time to blink before it hit.
SJ: That is why I say I'm lucky. I mean, had it stood like another foot to the right, it would've right in the middle of the car and probably would've taken my head off.
You’ve got to be lucky sometimes!
Learn More About Stefan Johansson at his website.
(Images provided by Stefan Johansson and Watchonista photography by Liam O’Donnell)