How Rolex, Tag Heuer and Chopard draw inspiration and technology from auto racing to create iconic timepieces

Timekeeping is vital in a sport like auto racing where speed and accuracy are everything. The history between the two worlds goes back as far as the history of modern auto racing itself. Over the years, watchmakers have shared their timekeeping know-how on the circuits, whether as official timekeepers or supporters of drivers and teams.

The automotive world has also lent itself to the growth of watchmaking, particularly in terms of technology and innovation. One of the most notable cross-pollinations of the two areas is the use of high-performance materials that can withstand the rigorous speeds and power of racing. Carbon fiber, popular for its light weight and first tested on the F1 track in the early 1990s, has found its way into dials and cases from Zenith, Tag Heure and Hublot, among others.

But collaboration doesn’t stop there for watchmakers like Richard Mille. The Richard Mille RM 67-02 Extraflat Automatic, which would appear on Charles Leclerc’s wrist at the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, underwent rigorous wear testing with the help of the racer before going into production.

Here we look at some of watchmaking’s most iconic designs with unique connections to the automotive world. You may be surprised that some of these designs have found popularity and success beyond the racetrack, becoming the most sought-after watches among big names in sports and entertainment.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

The winner of the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona Helio Castroneves took home a trophy and a Rolex Daytona. Photo: Rolex

If you follow the Instagram pages of NBA or NFL players, chances are you see the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona on Instagram feeds more often than on the racetracks.
The chronograph, which displays elapsed time in hours and minutes and a seconds hand that counts down to ⅛ of a second, was part of Rolex’s lineup years before the watchmaker officially gave it the Daytona moniker in 1965, three years after becoming the official timekeeper for the became Daytona races in Florida. The race is now officially called the Rolex 24 at Daytona and celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Paul Newman Rolex Daytona.  Photo: Phillips
Rolex Daytona was previously owned by Paul Newman. Photo: Phillips

In recent years, rare vintage references have consistently fetched exceptional prices at auction as the model has grown in popularity. The famous Paul Newman Daytona previously owned by the actor sold for $17.8 million, making it the best-selling wristwatch ever sold at auction at the time of its sale in 2017.

Since then, the watchmaker has created a variety of iterations of this watch, including designs with ceramic bezels and heavily limited versions in rainbow colors.

Tag Heuer Monaco

Steve McQueen Tag Heuer.  Photo: Tag Heuer
A version of the Monaco watch worn by Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans. Photo: Tag Heuer

The watch was first launched in 1969, when the brand was still called Heuer, to expand their automatic chronograph manufacturing capabilities. However, the watch didn’t reach its full potential until 1971, when the King of Cool, Steven McQueen, decided to wear it in the movies Le Mans.

The decision is perhaps one of the smartest marketing ploys in watchmaking history; The partnership came about the moment McQueen set his eye on the watch, drawn by its unusual shape. A departure from its round contemporaries, the square chronograph was immediately associated with the film and the Le Mans race.

Tag Heuer, which adopted the new name in 1985, continues to celebrate half a century of star power associated with the watch. Contemporary editions of the watch are still being produced today.

Although Rolex is now the official timekeeper of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is probably the Heuer Monaco that has the most recognizable connection to the race.

Chopard Mille Miglia

Chopard Mille Miglia.  Photo: Chopard
Chopard’s Mille Miglia watch. Photo: Chopard

With a personal connection to the Mille Miglia race, Chopard has created numerous interpretations of the timepiece, ranging from classic to sporty.

Today, although the Mille Miglia has evolved from a high-speed endurance race to an open-road rally, it remains a popular event with a rich history. The race spans 1,000, or Mille Miglia in Italian, and takes participants from Rome and back along a scenic route, stopping in San Marino, Parma, among other places.

Established in 1927, the event ended in 1957 when two fatal accidents claimed the lives of spectators, including five children.

But the scenic drive was too beautiful to forget, and in 1982 the Mille Miglia made a comeback as a road rally, with amateur drivers tearing through Italy in vintage cars.

The President of the Swiss watch brand Chopard Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, a keen car driver and classic car collector, took part in the Mille Miglia. And in 1988, the brand became a sponsor of the race, a partnership that continues to this day.

The Mille Miglia collection often focuses on the chronograph complication and is packed with racing details. The collection, created specifically for the race and featuring details ranging from the race’s official shade of red on the dials to leather straps reminiscent of vintage car seats, has grown in popularity along with the race itself.

See also: Rafael Nadal, Eileen Gu and 4 top athletes raising millions as luxury watch brand ambassadors

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