The TAG Heuer Carrera isn’t just about style – it’s also a vital mechanical tool
October 27, 2020
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The relationship between fast cars and fine watches is as interconnected as the cogs and gears that power both machines. For what is a timepiece if not a kind of miniature, precision-tooled dashboard strapped to the wrist? A race car engine defies time with speed, while a mechanical watch measures it in precise increments in order to help the driver perform better. Driver, watch and car all have to perform reliably under the immense life and death pressure of the racetrack.

For race driver and actor Patrick Dempsey, most famous for playing Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy, a TAG Heuer watch is not only an ‘mission critical’ piece of equipment for when he’s competing in races such as the 24 Hour Le Mans at Sebring, but also a precious object filled with memory and meaning. For Dempsey, the TAG Heuer models Monaco, Autavia and Carrera represent a ‘triple crown’ of excellence in motorsport watches. And, while he collects all three, the Carrera retains a special place in his heart.

Its roots stretch back to the 1960s, when the TAG Heuer dial name was simply Heuer and Jack Heuer had taken the reins at the company. He decided to design a wristwatch for race car drivers. It was in the pitstop of Sebring 12 Hours Of Endurance race that Pedro Rodriguez, the daredevil Mexican F1 racer, first told him about the Carrera Panamericana, a race so lethal that it had been banned a few years before. It immediately captured his imagination and prompted him to trademark the Carrera name. In 1963 the icon that we know today was born.

For race car driver Patrick Dempsey, who has competed at Sebring alongside footballer Alessandro Del Piero, this gives the Carrera watch an extra emotional significance. “When you’re at Sebring and you’re looking at the watch, you can’t help but go back in your mind and think what it was like to be a fly on the wall during that conversation between Jack (Heuer) and the younger Rodriguez brother,” says Dempsey of the romance of the watch. “That’s when it all came together: his constant passion and excitement for motorsport and his desire to capture time. It’s an extension of his desire to go faster, and also to be able to see it clearly.”

This was a time of great glamour but also great danger, with daredevil drivers who risked everything on the track and lived like there was no tomorrow. “It was a dangerous era. I mean, you make one mistake and hey, you’re done. And they lost so many people every weekend. It was no joke. You think about that, and then you think about time, and how much time you have remaining in your life. Right? And so it ties together.”

In addition to reliability and accuracy of its movement, the Carrera is notable for its design, which was inspired by the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy of the Bauhaus. Jack Heuer made the watch to be as readable and simple as possible even when the driver was under immense pressure. And like so much mid-century design, the years have not diminished the Carrera’s startling elegance and modernity.

Despite the advent of digital timekeeping, a mechanical Carrera wristwatch remains one of the most practical and efficient ways of keeping time on the track. “I used it during the 24 hour Le Mans. When I was racing I would always have it on, and when I was in the pitstop I could use it to time my drivers. You’re only allowed so much time for each stop. Everything is time. So we needed to be within our window.”

This year, the Carrera plays a starring role in the 160th anniversary of TAG Heuer, with the release of a remastered version of the 1963 original, the TAG Heuer Carrera 160 Years Silver Dial, and a homage to the Heuer Montreal, the TAG Heuer Carrera 160 Years Montreal Edition, plus new, evergreen Carrera Sport Collection.

Powering it all is the sophisticated Calibre Heuer 02 in-house movement, which offers several performance enhancing advances. These include a hefty 80-hour power reserve, a thinner 6.95 mm movement to allow for a thinner case design, a vertical clutch which improves the precision of the start-stop functions and chronograph second hand, and a column wheel to improve accuracy and precision, which is especially noticeable in the smooth functioning of the pushers.

Dempsey has versions of the original Carrera and some of the newer iterations in his personal collection. He likes how the Sport Chronograph moves the design into the present while retaining a sense of uncluttered elegance. “What’s great about it is their understanding of the past is really what’s driving them in the future, which is beautiful to see,” says Dempsey of the new collection.

He reserves his final thoughts for the man himself, Jack Heuer, the 87-year-old TAG Heuer veteran and the man behind all those iconic pieces. “I love how they’re honouring Jack with this collection. When it comes to design and engineering he’s so switched on. He still gets so excited, and it’s great to see.”

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