The incredible achievements of John Surtees, winning World Championships on both two wheels and four, remain unmatched. We meet a truly remarkable man, one who is a cherished part of Ferrari history
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
John Surtees OBE is an extraordinary man. Actually “unique” is probably more accurate. To win World Championships on both two wheels and in grand prix racing on four sets him apart from any other sportsman in the world, a feat almost impossible to imagine being repeated. This is not the only remarkable aspect to the man. There is a quality of honesty and an indomitable spirit that coalesces to create a hero worthy of his colossal achievements. I’ve met John a number of times over the years, but was particularly fortunate to have him drive my 250 GTO at the first Goodwood Revival a decade ago. I suppose I should have expected it, but within a few laps he was not just quick but had put it on the front row of the grid… Although the wildly rising value of these cars might seem their greatest claim to fame, I think the chance to watch a driver of this calibre at work is an equally valuable asset!
In conversation with him, one quickly becomes aware of an approach to both sport and life that appears to be grounded and influenced by his early life with motorcycles and motorcycle racing. There is obvious affection for those formative days and his father’s influence, but also for the mechanical aspects of the machines that he both worked with and rode on. His fascination with mechanical engineering clearly runs deep. An example: his kitchen has a rather lovely wooden roller blind, installed well over 100 years ago. This had recently broken and John had taken the device apart, discovered the problem and gone about ordering new springs to be made. I’ve done the same with a 1901 Panhard…
In some ways it is the simplicity of his approach to racing that is particularly extraordinary in the modern world, where politics and sponsorship have become all-important in achieving results. I particularly liked his explanation (sometimes delivered to a potential team principal) about how the number-one driver status should be worked out: John favours a system based on which driver is the quickest. A morning was not really sufficient to cover John’s racing life. As well as competing at the highest level – he won seven motorcycle world titles with MV Agusta and, of course, the 1964 Formula One World Championship with Ferrari – he also formed Team Surtees in 1970, running his own cars successfully, and winning the Formula Two Championship in 1972, with the fondly remembered Mike Hailwood driving. His memory is phenomenal, be it for a specific race or engineering detail, and the only frustration is that, although he can all too often remember some particular luminary behaving less than decorously, he discreetly refuses to reveal their name. He also has an abiding interest in motorsport, and an analytical appreciation of modern racing that is particularly impressive, given that it relates to a sport that has provided him with so much success, but also terrible tragedy. In July 2009, John’s son Henry was killed after being hit by a wheel that had broken loose from a competitor’s car during an F2 race at Brands Hatch. The fortitude shown by John and his wife Jane has been astonishing, but perhaps inevitably both appear to be incapable of doing anything less than brilliantly. It is perhaps no surprise that the Henry Surtees Foundation, formed in his memory, has become phenomenally successful, and continues to contribute to increased safety as well as research into racing related trauma. I have to say that of all the interviews I have been privileged to conduct on behalf of this Magazine, this was perhaps the one I feel most honoured to have enjoyed.
The Official Ferrari Magazine: Would you say you were a born biker?
John Surtees: It’s better to say that competition was in the blood. Most sports people tend to be competitive. That urge is the main driving force. I was born in 1934, and my father had started racing side-cars. Graham Walker – former F1 commentator Murray’s father – asked him to run the workshop and help train dispatch riders at the army base in Catterick. A bomb had landed in our front garden, so Dad summoned us up north, and we moved into a house overlooking the moors. He’d come across a box full of Meccano. I also found a tea box full of his motorcycle magazines. The top copy had a photo of George Meier, at the Isle of Man TT standing on the footrest of his BMW compressor. That made a major impression on me.
Nick Mason: Clearly it did run in the family. When did you ride competitively for the first time?
JS: After the war, my father distributed Vincent motorcycles in south-west London, and he was keen to race what he sold. He was due to do a speed trial, his passenger didn’t turn up, so he said to me, ‘Lad, you’ve seen it done, you need to be there for that bit, and you need to hang out the back there. Give it a go!’ And I pulled on a rather oversized pair of his leathers. The Vincent was quick and we won. Unfortunately, I was underage, so we were disqualified. But that’s where I started. I bought a Tiger Triumph 250 for £12 later on. ‘Lad, make it a racer!’ my father said. So I did. My first road race was held at Brands Hatch, one of the first road races ever held there, in 1950. In the same meeting, having his first road race, was a certain Bernie Ecclestone, in the 500cc class, me in the 250cc. For a moment, I actually led my first ever race. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on my bike at the time, but I managed to slide past the leader…
NM: Do you remember your first actual victory?
JS: It was in Aberdare, in Wales, probably one of the most important races of my life, because I won it. When one comes together with a piece of machinery, it’s significant. Sometimes people ride a bike or drive a car, and never relate to it. It’s like playing a musical instrument, you can play a tune but you might not feel it. You have to become part of it. That’s what happened on that day. Suddenly, it was talking to me. That started a winning pattern that continued right through. Until then I’d largely been a mechanic, testing things to see if they worked. That day, I became a racer!
NM: The musical comparison is appropriate. The really nice Stratocaster or Stradivarius. A good instrument makes it easier to play something really great, rather than having to struggle to master something that doesn’t. Can you explain your technique for your famous lightning starts?
JS: One thing is that you are instantly switched on. You sense the moment the flag is about to drop. Secondly, you understood your bike intimately. You knew the engine would fire on that first bump. The important thing was the start and that first lap. As you see with someone like Vettel currently, or Alonso, if you manage that, it brings a degree of control, which is invaluable. Also, we didn’t have the same reliability as today. You could never rely on being able to race your car at 100 per cent. You would find yourself compromising, often from fairly early on. When someone has it right, they’ll maintain a degree of consistency. There are accusations that it becomes predictable, but can we not appreciate an artist at work?
NM: Motor racing is more ruthless now. With Schumacher, it was a joy to watch an artist at work. He was the complete driver, and indeed was prepared to do whatever it took. His mental dexterity was incredible. Perhaps what Vettel did early on this season [ignoring team orders during the Malaysian GP] was a bit disappointing…
JS: [musing] Perhaps. But the way he compromised what he said afterwards was more disappointing. But look at the situation: this was expected to be a much tighter championship year. For Vettel not to compete, to drop back… in the end, the quickest man won. It should be that way. When I went to see the Old Man, and he said, ‘you will be numero uno. In Formula Uno and in sport prototipo!’ I replied, ‘I will be number one by being the fastest. When we test and we race…’ ‘La mentalità del motociclista! The motorcyclist’s mentality!’ he replied.
TOFM: There’s a great quote from Enzo Ferrari in his book Piloti, Che Gente… “My predilection for motorcycle racers is a known fact. They have experience, mechanical know-how, skill for speed, and a background of humble work. [Surtees] was an energetic fighter who never held anything back.” But you turned Ferrari down during initial negotiations.
JS: I remember my first meeting with the Old Man, in Modena. I remember thinking, ‘No. I’m coming into the lion’s den, and I don’t know enough about it.’ I wasn’t ready. I’d done a year of odd races. Some F1 races, some Formula Junior races. Lotus offered me number one position, and choice of teammate: I chose Jimmy Clark. But there were contractual disputes, I was criticised in the press for pushing Innes Ireland out of the team. So I walked away from it, as I’d walked away from Ferrari. Which left me with no car or drive. I fiddled about a bit in 1961. I decided I needed to learn more, and it had to be a works drive. So I approached Eric Broadley at Lola, who I thought was the closest to Colin Chapman, and we built our effort up. We finished fourth in the championship, and nearly won a couple of GPs. But it was very much a learning year. And then Ferrari called.
‘Come and see us! It’s all changed! We’re going to do F1, sports prototypes, you’ll test, and be number one.’ I’d gone to MV Agusta at a similar stage, when they were a bit down. I don’t know, perhaps I enjoyed being with an Italian team when they were a bit down!
TOFM: Did MV Agusta prepare you for Ferrari?
JS: Partly. But remember that Count Agusta didn’t have a long history in motor racing, it was more about personal prestige. It was a vehicle for him. He had an aeronautical business with his brothers. He did become very enthusiastic, although it was difficult to get things done. Enzo was clearly someone whose life was built around motorsport, so it was different. The tragedy that affected him with his son definitely affected how things were done. He ceased to have a contact with the actual racing, so my biggest problem was with the misinformation that was often fed to him. It was often what his associates thought he wanted to hear, and he often didn’t get the true picture. I remember Fangio telling me, ‘Stai attento. Molto pericoloso…’
TOFM: Enzo famously kept his eyes covered. Did the glasses ever come off, literally or metaphorically?
JS: Rarely. [pause] Enzo was a big fan of the Mini. He was a great admirer of Alec Issigonis [the engineering mastermind behind the Mini], and had even discussed using the Mini’s suspension in his cars. His chauffeur would take him to his house in the Adriatic, with him sitting in the passenger seat. I remember travelling with him in the Mini, and in that situation he was a different person. In Maranello, he was virtually a king.
NM: You obviously had a successful relationship with Ferrari, but it was quite often a turbulent one, too. What happened?
JS: [pause] I was impetuous. I was younger and more aggressive. Looking back now, I could have reasoned it through more carefully. That said, I still felt, then and now, like a part of the Ferrari family. I didn’t agree with everything that went on, but you don’t in families, do you? I tried to bring about a more international team. The Italian side of the things is fantastic, but it needs to be harnessed to some outside expertise. That eventually came about in the Schumacher era, but it was something I tried to do. It wasn’t always a popular thing, which caused problems at the time. I was ahead of the curve. Of course, much later on, Ferrari set up its design office in England, which was a step much too far. You can’t take Ferrari out of Italy!
TOFM: There’s a suggestion that the Scuderia’s then team manager Eugenio Dragoni used your accident while you were racing a Lola at Mosport Park in 1965 to undermine you. It was a career threatening accident, wasn’t it?
JS: It was touch and go for a while. My left side was shunted up about four and a half inches. The bottom of my spine was knocked off, and there was internal bleeding. Two people were very supportive. One was Tony Vandervell, who flew out to see me and recommended moving me to St Thomas’s in London. ‘Don’t let the Americans near him!’ he said. He arranged for a row of seats to be blocked off on a BA plane, they mummified me, so I couldn’t move around too much, and flew me back to London. The other person who contacted me was Enzo Ferrari. It took me three months to recover. They used the A-frame that they installed engines with to lower me into the car for my first test on my return.
NM: How was your re-entry to the sport?
JS: The main problem was that we’d moved to the 3.0-litre engine in 1966, and it was both heavier and not powerful enough, to begin with anyway. I won at Syracuse, but I remember Jackie Stewart whistling past me somewhere. ‘That’s not ideal,’ I thought. The 330 P3 was a closed cockpit car, and had been tested in my absence by Mike Parkes. I wasn’t too complimentary when I first drove it, which rather set the mood for what would happen later. Monza’s Curva Grande and the Lesmo corners were good for establishing the mechanical and aero capabilities of the car. I couldn’t get through them as fast as I had before. Fantuzzi was there, and we started adding bits to the car, which improved it. It was always very hands-on!
TOFM: Your 1966 season was a difficult one…
JS: During the Monza 1,000km, the heavens opened and my wipers failed. But as long as you kept your speed up, you could see. I pitted, we couldn’t fix them, but carried on and won the race. Afterwards, Dragoni reported to the Old Man that I would have retired the car. Why? Probably because the Old Man had been so supportive after my accident. And Dragoni was mixed up in the negotiations between Maranello and Turin [Fiat was in talks to purchase Ferrari at the time]. We still hadn’t got the 3.0-litre up to speed, so for Monaco I felt the 2.4-litre was the way to go. The edict came down: it must be the 12-cylinder. Ferrari sells 12-cylinder road cars! I said, ‘But we want to win!’ I put it on pole, but I had to ride it like hell to do that. Then my gearbox broke in the race. I also got pole in Spa. It rained so hard that half the grid went out on the first lap and we were aquaplaning. I had Jochen Rindt in a Cooper Maserati behind me, but I let him by, so I could run in his wheel tracks. That was a trick I learned at Le Mans. Yes, there was spray, but you could stay in the wheel tracks and see what you were doing. Then the rain stopped, I went by him, and won the race. Dragoni said, ‘Why did you let a Maserati stay in front of you?’ There were no congratulations for the win.
TOFM: And so to the pivotal 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours showdown a week later…
JS: Dragoni said to me, ‘Mr Agnelli is in the stands, so we’d like [Ludovico] Scarfiotti – who was his nephew – to start the race.’ I liked Ludovico, I liked all the drivers apart from one, who I won’t name, but I wasn’t happy. ‘Are we here to race? You criticised me after Spa. Do I fit in any more? It would appear not. Goodbye!’ I left and drove back to Maranello. I sought out the Old Man. [long pause] It was not a good meeting. [shakes head] Not good. There’s a picture of me walking out of the factory gates with the headline, “The divorce”. I could have played it differently. I could have won at least one more championship with Ferrari. I prefer to remember what the Old Man said to me at Imola many years later when they were naming the circuit after Dino. They were also launching the F40 at the time. He said, ‘We must remember the good times and not the mistakes.’
NM: We have enough here to write a book, John. But we really must talk about the work the Henry Surtees Foundation does.
JS: We hold a charity karting event at Buckmore Park, not only to raise money but also to help youngsters develop in motorsport. We know first hand how difficult it is for them to progress. All sorts of fantastic prizes were donated for our auction, from Puma, Carlin, Manor motorsport, Ferrari sends us things too… Anyway, we provided blood transfusion equipment that has gone into all of Kent’s air ambulances. It’s been used on 90 occasions so far and has saved an estimated 30 lives. We’ve put in something like £50,000. It’s a small price for life, when you think about it.
TOFM: You also made a remarkably brave decision after Henry’s death…
JS: My wife has to take the majority of the credit for our decision to donate Henry’s organs. I was so distraught at the time… she talked about him living on, and afterwards I was happy we made that decision. We had correspondence passed on to us by people [who had benefited from our decision], and it’s what Henry would have wanted. I was tempted to walk away totally from motorsport. But there were all those people who had made those donations, Henry loved what he did, he played no part in the accident, it was a totally freak situation. It wouldn’t have happened in F1, which is what I told Jean Todt. [pause] The following week the rear suspension on those cars was redesigned.
Please visit www.henrysurteesfoundation.com for more information on how you can help raise money for a number of motorsport-related charitable causes