Patrick Dempsey: Driving force

The actor and racing driver talks to Brummell about his Tag Heuer Monaco, the world’s first square-faced chronograph

Watches & Jewellery 25 Nov 2019

Actor Patrick Dempsey wears a Tag Heuer Monaco watch
The new TAG Heuer Monaco 2009-2019 Special Edition watch (left) with the original TAG Heuer Monaco watch, first released in 1969

Where is your watch from?

This is from Belgium; I picked it up on my way to Spa [the racing circuit], and that was probably in 2015.

When did you first become aware of the TAG Heuer Monaco?

Oh, it was as a kid. There was the film with McQueen of course, and the logo on Matchbox cars. That’s where I first saw it, on the little Porsche 917. I didn’t put it all together until much, much later: the watch, the film, the cars. Then I bought one of the commemorative McQueen edition Monaco’s, which had the white face and the racing stripes. That was my first Monaco watch. When I became an ambassador for the brand, I started to spend more time with Jack Heuer [who was CEO when the Monaco watch was launched in 1968 and is still involved with the brand today] and began to understand the history and started to collect the older watches.

Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans
Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans

What is it about the Monaco that you particularly like?

This is just so identified with Le Mans and racing; that’s what it means to me. It really is a racer’s watch. It was designed for that; look at where the positioning [of the pushers] is – your hand is still on the wheel and you can actually reach over and use it. I actually used it during the Le Mans race twice: I could look down and see how much time I had left in the stint.

You’ve competed in Le Mans four times and have reached the podium in 2015. It must be physically gruelling?

You have the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix, you have the Indy 500 and Le Mans. For me those are the three most important races. I find it emotionally gruelling; physically not so much. It is physically demanding but the emotional stress, I think, is the biggest challenge of Le Mans. Other tracks are much more physical, but the emotional toll it takes is exhausting, because you’re so aware of the size of the crowd, the enormity of the event, that you have to really be strong mentally.

How did you get into racing in the first place?

I’ve always loved racing since I was a little kid. I used to watch it all the time on TV, and my wife would get so tired of me on Sundays watching car racing, she said, you know what? I’ll give you a three day competition certificate I got it for Christmas!

Is it really that simple?

If you want to go racing, you need to go to a proper school to get the fundamentals, the technique, to understand what the cars do… It’s a three-day course where they basically teach you the fundamentals of braking, corner speed, apex, all the terminology.

What is it about racing that you love?

It’s the smell, it’s the vibration, it’s the sound, it’s a bit of the adrenaline initially, and then you realise that can be counterproductive, and you need to really be calm, you need to be mentally focused and you have to be emotionally disciplined; and then it’s how much can you push and then it’s the situational awareness and the competition and the camaraderie, and then it becomes so many other things. And it’s a battle within yourself. At the end of the day, it’s how far can you push yourself, how comfortable can you be being uncomfortable? That’s what makes people great.

Talking of which… Steve McQueen starred in the film Le Mans and wore a TAG Heuer Monaco, helping to make the model famous. As an actor, what do you think is the enduring appeal of McQueen?

He’s just kind of cool. There’s a quiet strength and vulnerability about him that’s there. And it’s hard to imagine McQueen not having the Monaco watch, and racing and Le Mans.

And the movie is authentic because, like you, McQueen was also a real racing driver?

Yeah. The good thing about the movie is that it conveys the essence of what Le Mans is all about. The experience hasn’t changed that much; the technology has changed, style has changed, the circuit has changed a little bit. But he captured the essence of what it is to be in the race, and what it means to watch the race. And it’s just remarkable. But he was fanatical about it, because he came from the racing point of view.

Having raced Le Mans yourself, you really believe the film captures the spirit and the mood of it?

Absolutely. It captures the ambience and the ritual of it. And that hasn’t changed, and that’s what I think is remarkable about [the] Monaco [Formula 1 Grand Prix] and Le Mans and [the] Indy [500]. Those three events for me are… well, the triple crown. It’s just like having the TAG Heuer Carrera watch, the TAG Heuer Autavia and then the TAG Heuer Monaco. It’s like, they’re all different and yet together they’re beautiful.