Audemars Piguet has launched one of the most sophisticated chronographs yet devised. The watch is both a marvel – a chronograph with two flyback central seconds hands (like a split-seconds, but not – bear with us), from the hand of Giulio Papi – and a story with heart, as its genesis starts with a visit Michael Schumacher made to Audemars Piguet in 2010, three years prior to the skiing accident from which he remains hospitalised.

Talking to some of the watchmakers, he asked why there was no useful lap-timer on the market. According to AP, the company leapt into action to take on the challenge – despite Schumacher elaborating the idea to say he wanted to be able to time consecutive laps continuously, something for which you either need the full rig of electronic timers, or a bank of stop-watches.

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

Now, five and a bit years later, Audemars Piguet presents the Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher. According to AP, the watch was ready to show Schumacher in 2013, but has needed the intervening time to test properly. His skiing accident in December of that year had AP wondering whether to cancel. But the family were quick to back the project’s completion and eventual launch this week in the giant eventing arena that’s part of the CS Ranch.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun


The split-seconds arms race

At the beginning of 2015, of the “Big Three” powerhouses in top-end watchmaking – Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin – only Patek Philippe had its own in-house chronograph movements. All that has now changed.

In January, Vacheron Constantin entered the fray with a trio of spectacular haute horlogerie chronos for its new Harmony collection: a hand-wound monopusher, a hand-wound monopusher tourbillon, and an ultra-thin monopusher split-seconds automatic with peripheral rotor.

In March, Patek Philippe brought out a new split-seconds version of its 29-535 chronograph, the purists masterpiece that is Reference 5307. In launching the Concept Laptimer, Audemars Piguet has taken things further still, and closed the circle in terms of major manufacture brands producing in-house chronographs. Besides Patek and Vacheron, it joins Blancpain, Breguet, A Lange & Sohne and Montblanc in the ranks of makers of chronographs, including split-seconds, at the very highest level.


Doing the splits, AP-style

This is the world’s first mechanical chronograph with alternating consecutive lap timing and flyback function, and was specifically engineered for timing repeated laps on the racetrack.

What does that mean? Well, let's call it a close relation of the split-seconds chronograph, though it isn't really one at all, since it replaces the classic split style with the ability to flyback either of the two seconds hands independently.

Confused? Well, we'll explain more in a moment, but just imagine what it's like to make the thing. Bear in mind that making a split-seconds mechanism – as already demonstrated this year by Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin – is considered among the most demanding procedures in watchmaking.

Audemars Piguet has taken this and twisted it into something new – and, it has to be said, more functionally sensible for timing laps – resulting in a movement, AP caliber 2923, that is quite unlike any other. As a way to step into the world of in-house chronographs, it's a bit of a doozy.

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

In a normal split-seconds, when the split-seconds button is pushed, the seconds hand appears to split in two, with one hand stopping and the other continuing – push again, and the stopped hand will instantly catch up with the other and continue. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer is quite different.

In its simplest guise, it works as a normal flyback chronograph: start the chronograph running with the pusher at 2 o’clock, and use the 4 o’clock pusher to reset the seconds hand to zero and continue running (this is actually two seconds hands locked together).

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

The “laptimer” pusher at 9 o’clock splits the two seconds hands, but in a very novel way. The first hand – let’s call it Hand A – stops, as with a normal split-seconds; but instead of continuing, the other hand – Hand B – instantaneously flies back to zero and restarts. You can then fly this hand back using the 4 o’clock pusher if you like, while Hand A remains stationary. Or, if you hit the 9 o’clock pusher again, Hand A restarts from zero while Hand B comes to a halt.

Audemars Piguet Caliber 2923

It’s a mind-meltingly complex horological operation, with a mechanism – blackened and grained for a modern, muscular finish – requiring three different column wheels. One column wheel controls the chronograph sequence, the other two govern the laptimer sequences.

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

Other advances include “solid” lubricants for the ultra-slim components, specially designed conical gear teeth, and a new oscillating wheel coupling mechanism to ensure the smooth action of the seconds hands. Moreover, there are two mainspring barrels, set in parallel, which provide an impressive 80 hours of power reserve. With a frequency of 28,800 vph, the Concept Laptimer can record times down to 1/8th of a second.

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

Wearable, and market-ready

For all its complexity, the watch is easy to use and surprisingly wearable, housed as it is in Audemars Piguet’s Concept case design – the over-all look strongly recalls January’s Royal Oak Concept RD#1 minute repeater. The first prototype was apparently rejected on size grounds, but the final version is a far-from-unusual 44mm, in a forged carbon case with titanium bezel, with crown and pushpieces in black ceramic and 18-carat gold.

Audemars Piguet
Studio Diode SA - Denis Hayoun

The final surprising fact: while one might expect this – as with the Concept RD#1 – to be an experimental concept piece with production slated some time in the future, this one is ready to roll. Audemars Piguet is producing 221 Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher watches, that being the number of F1 races in which Michael Schumacher competed.

The watches are priced at £175,100.

Audemars Piguet
Audemars Piguet