Legendary Watchmaker Laurent Ferrier Reveals His Racing History
Historical photographs provided by Laurent Ferrier
How many people do you know who have designed watches at Patek Philippe, launched their own eponymous watch company (Laurent Ferrier) and also placed third overall in a Kremer-prepared Porsche 935 at Le Mans? Literally only one: Laurent Ferrier. I was able to very briefly get in touch with Laurent Ferrier over Skype the other day, and very quickly it became apparent how close the bond of watchmaking and car racing are to this man.
Ted Gushue: Laurent, what was the first car you ever drove?
Laurent Ferrier: The first one was a little Fiat 500. And to this day I still really like these types of small, almost miniature cars, they’ve held a special place all this time. I have always loved beautiful watches and cars, and there’s a special quality in things that can accomplish a lot in a tight package.
TG: Can you tell me about the first time you decided to get into a race car?
LF: There was a long period of time before I had the money to do any official racing — my father was a watchmaker, a craftsman, and not making the sums needed to send me into racing at a young age — but there was a small racetrack near Geneva, and when I was about 20 years old some friends and I purchased a Lotus 18. The track has since closed, but back then we would take the car there and drive it, though not in any real racing series.
TG: That’s not a bad way to start though, driving a Lotus with your friends on a Swiss racetrack. What was the path towards the official racing that you’ve done?
LF: Well, I had done a driver’s school in Belgium, and was selected from about 300 candidates for the final group, but unfortunately I spun out and was disqualified. Sort of a false start I think you could say. But then after the Lotus was sold, a friend and I purchased a Formula Ford and we entered that into a few sanctioned races. I won a race at Hockenheim in that car, but still, we didn’t have a lot of money, and so could only go racing here and there, not full seasons.
In 1974, we sold all of our cars and we rented a 2-liter open-top prototype for a 1,000km race, which was a pretty new and exciting experience for me back then. I then started racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1975, first in a Lola, and I came back every year until my final one in 1981, having by then driven a Chevron a few times, a Porsche 934 and 935, and my last two years in BMW M1s. I am very happy to have been involved with some great cars and teams and people back then.
TG: That’s quite the list of cars, and to have driven those at Le Mans no less. How did all of this affect your watchmaking studies at the time?
LF: Well I started at Patek Philippe, then left the company, and when they asked me to come back in 1974 I said, “Okay I will come back, yes, but i need the weekends off to participate in my other passion, racing.”
TG: Did you ever think about racing exclusively? It’s not like you weren’t good after all, what with a third place finish at Le Mans.
LF: I would have loved to!
TG: Did you realize that you were laying the foundation for your own company during your time at Patek Philippe?
LF: So the brief story behind the brand is more or less this: one of my partners at Laurent Ferrier, François Servanin, used to race a lot of Porsches at Le Mans. So in 1979 when we took 3rd place as co-drivers, Françoise and I would talk about how one day — a dream — we might open up some kind of business, like a restaurant in the south of France. That didn’t happen, but he came to me in 2008 and said “Here, here’s the money, now you can now make the company you’ve always wanted to.” I was about to retire after over 35 years at Patek Philippe, but I had to take this challenge, I had to see what I could do with my own company. And today it is still a more or less family affair run between myself, my son, and Françoise.
TG: I have to ask now how come you haven’t made a traditional driving watch like a classic tachymeter?
LF: I love watches like that. Probably the most iconic for me in that realm is the Rolex Daytona, and we’d like to never rule out a tachymeter, or any style, in the future. It’s just that now, we want to make sure everything we do has the time and resources dedicated to it to make it something we can be proud of. It has to be done correctly, the mechanics, the aesthetic, each piece needs to be right. It’s a lot of work to develop something like this, a chronograph, and we are a small company that makes our movements in-house, so we are open to making one, but will never produce something that is not to our standards.
TG: How do you think about being unique in these kinds of design? How do you maintain individuality when approaching something like a chronograph watch?
LF: That’s a difficult question. To be honest I have to experiment with what I’ve done over my whole career. Because in the past we were only looking at 2-dimensional, actual physical on-paper drawings of the dials and the case, and my work was to take these drawings try to do it in 3-dimensions way before all these computers programs came about. We didn’t have that stuff back then. To me, what’s tough, what’s key, is the balance. So in taking on a new design, I think I’d have to really play with it for a while, approach it from a lot of different angles, literally and figuratively.
TG: Getting back to the cars now if I may, what do you have currently in your collection?
LF: I don’t really have one right now I’m sad to say.
TG: Okay, so out of what you’ve raced, which ones would you like to own?
LF: That’s a tough one too! The M1 Procar, the 2-liter prototypes i used to race a long, long time ago, and I have to add the Porsche I drove at Le Mans. It was a monster, and not the finest driving experience, but a really remarkable car. There are so many beautiful racing cars, its hard to pick, but those are the ones that really stuck with me.