Last week, former Tag Heuer marketing manager Mike Vogt drove to the brand’s headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, to hand in a prototype watch he had been holding on to for 30 years.

The prototype was none other than the wristwatch developed in 1994 in collaboration with Brazilian triple world Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, just before his death during the San Marino Grand Prix the same year.

Senna wore the watch during the race weekend, but gifted it to Vogt shortly before the fatal event.

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Vogt has since kept the watch that the driver gave him under lock and key, putting it on his own wrist only once — just after he removed it from a safety deposit box before delivering it to Tag Heuer.

“I never wanted to wear it properly,” he explains. “It would somehow have seemed not right, even disrespectful.”

So, two years ago, after speaking to Frédéric Arnault, chief executive of Tag Heuer at the time, Vogt set the wheels in motion to give the prototype watch to the brand’s museum. And, last Friday, he handed it over to Tag Heuer’s heritage director, Nicholas Biebuyck.

It will now take pride of place in a special Senna display that also includes one of the driver’s race helmets and other special and limited edition Senna watches that the brand released over the past 30 years.

Vogt, now 60, was a 28-year-old Formula One fan when he landed his dream job of working with the brand. He became a marketing manager soon afterwards. “The quartz crisis of the 1970s and ’80s meant that an entire generation of people of my age had bypassed the watch industry due to the fact that companies weren’t recruiting,” he says.

Mike Vogt and Ayrton Senna
Mike Vogt and Ayrton Senna

“But, then, brands began to realise professional marketing had to be brought into the business, and I became one of a bunch of hungry young managers at Tag Heuer during what proved to be an amazing period in the industry — not least for me, because I was asked to build a team to deal with marketing, PR and sponsorship, and to develop and action a strategy.”

Part of that involved aggressively promoting the brand in Formula One circles — which meant doing everything from ensuring Tag Heuer banners were hung in the best places for optimum television exposure to hosting retailers, clients, and journalists during race weekends.

“It was also essential to develop personal relationships with the drivers,” says Vogt. “That included supplying them with watches, in return for which they would happily talk with our customers during the race weekend.”

It was through this networking that Vogt met and befriended Senna in 1992, at which time he was driving for McLaren — which, about a decade before, had merged with Mansour Ojjeh’s Tag Group to start a partnership that continues today.

Mike Vogt with the prototype watch worn by Ayrton Senna © Simon Habegger

In 1985, Tag had acquired the Heuer brand which, logically, sponsored the McLaren team with which Senna won the Formula One World Championship in 1990 and 1991 — before moving to Williams, ahead of the 1994 season, in exchange for a reported $20mn salary.

“Tag Heuer was a McLaren sponsor but, when Senna changed to Williams, it was very important to us to keep him,” says Vogt.

The former marketing manager recalls how, at the time, both Senna and his manager, Celso Lemos, were very keen to develop the Senna brand to ensure he had an income after he retired from racing. They came up with the slogan “Driven to Perfection” and created the famous Senna “S” logo, which features in the watches.

“Our idea was to make a special watch based on the new 6000 Series of high-end models that were officially launched in 1994, and Senna suggested featuring a chequered flag pattern on the dial and a red Senna S, and fitting the watch with his preferred type of leather bracelet,” says Vogt.

A prototype was duly made and supplied to Senna, who was wearing it on the fateful weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix, at Imola.

The day before the race, Senna met Vogt to discuss the proposed series of watches. During the conversation, Vogt explained that, much as he wanted to be able to buy one for himself right away, Tag Heuer rules forbade staff from doing so.

“It was at that point that Ayrton took the prototype off his wrist, handed it to me and said he wanted me to have it.”

After Senna’s death, there were suggestions that the watch project should be abandoned.

“But I felt I had made a commitment to him to make it a success,” says Vogt. “So we came up with an elegant solution: to make 1,000 pieces in each of three sizes and donate some of the proceeds to the Instituto Ayrton Senna, which his family, led by his sister Viviane, set-up six months after his death.”

The production watches differed from the original design in featuring the applied S in silver rather than in red. Since then, Tag has released about 10 different editions dedicated to Senna, while examples of the original 6000 Series models now change hands on the vintage market for up to £4,000.

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