We all buy things with functions that we intend to use but never do. For instance, numerous individuals upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the 4S purely because they wanted to talk back to something during the morning commute. BMW customers pay a hefty premium for the M Sport package on their cars for that one time they think they’ll take it to the track. Who knows how many people bought Samsung’s Smart Fridge so they could tweet about what craft beer they pulled out, only to promptly spill it on the LCD display?
Such is the case when buying a chronograph. I know you’ve seen the ads for chronographs. It’s down to a formula: Put a picture of world famous racing driver (or Tom Kristensen) at the front. Have picture of racing car in background. Image of perfectly polished watch is placed either on side or bottom of individual. Tagline will be placed at the bottom of the ad. Promptly sell thousands (or if you’re Richard Mille, tens) of the things to people who think “Now there’s something new to wear for the next track day.”
When I bought my TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph four years ago, I thought I knew what I was doing. I was going to be timing race cars. That tachymeter would come in handy when setting a new record driving from Portofino to Cortina in my rented Alfa. On track days at Laguna Seca, I’d be perceived as the guy who knew what he was doing. I could time my laps while go-karting instead of looking up at the board with my lap times.
I admit it. I was taken in with the advertising. I was young. I was naïve. I didn’t know any better. (As you read on, you’ll quickly learn that hasn’t changed.) After all, it was what Kimi Raikkonen, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Lewis Hamilton had all shilled been brand ambassadors for. These men were my heroes. I was going to be like them. Cool guys. Racers. People who use their four-figure chronographs to time their laps.
None of that was going to be the case.
After four years with my Carrera, I’ve used the chronograph to time cars exactly twice, to compare the lap times between an F-body Pontiac Firebird decimating the competition and a race-prepped Honda Fit at a US Touring Car Championship race. The other instance was timing go-karts, but the track’s timing system was much more accurate than mine. None of this has boded well for a goal of becoming a Ferrari Formula 1 team timekeeper.
Instead, I’ve used the chronograph for timing whatever I’m cooking on the stove, how long it takes for Windows Vista to boot, figuring out how many pages per minute the copier can print out, and determining how long the commencement speeches at graduation were. Boring stuff, really. And those sorts of moments are few and far between, especially commencement.
In fact, I even used the chronograph once to keep track of a different country. This involves incredible foresight and planning, such as ensuring you know exactly when the clock strikes 12 in the other country. However, this doesn’t work if I’m traveling to India since I, a) have an early bedtime so I’ll sleep through midnight and b) be preoccupied with meeting a writing deadline at noon.
And the tachymeter? The only time I ever used the feature was to play average speed games on morning commutes, using the gantry signs as my mile markers. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you switch off the radio because Ke$ha is overplayed, there’s no way to connect your smartphone to the stereo, and are incapable of texting while driving. (My record time: 75 mph. The California Highway Patrol won’t be pleased.)
Now, you may mention my Carrera hardly epitomizes the ideal chronograph. You’ll mention chronographs like the Rolex Daytona, a stainless-steel version of which won’t be attained on your first attempt, the TAG Heuers with “Mikro” in their name that nobody really buys, and the Zenith El Primero Striking 10th, notably worn by a man who jumped from the edge of Earth, but didn’t bother using his chronograph to time his descent, so we don’t know if the chronograph function works at supersonic speeds.
Mechanical chronographs once made sense. There was a time they were used to measure how far the artillery was from you on the battlefield based on how long it took a shell to explode on the ground behind you. They were used to time motor races when quartz clocks hadn’t been invented yet. Low-level divers could use them to time their air supply. Doctors could use them to time patient’s breathing. Pilots and astronauts could use them to make corrections while flying.
However, there are dedicated instruments for all of those things now, and mechanical chronographs have become too expensive for those functions.
I understand that the chronograph represents an added complication, and that if I’m complaining about mechanical chronographs, I may as well launch into a diatribe into the uselessness of tourbillons (I mean, wasn’t it proved that they don’t help?), minute repeaters (you can’t simply glance at the dial like a normal person?), perpetual calendars (they’re only handy come February), and the sidereal time indicator (I didn’t even bother figuring out how that one works).
Despite these qualms, I don’t think I’ll ditch my chronograph anytime soon. Even though I use it to keep track of different time zones. Even though I use it as an egg timer. Even though I’ve never used it to time my laps around Laguna Seca. Even though I use it for basically anything but timing cars. Even though it made me angry that commencement took longer than it should have.
I still need something to keep myself entertained during morning commutes.