John Surtees OBE (1934 -2017) was an extraordinary man. To win World Championships both on two wheels and, in grand prix racing, on four, is a feat almost impossible to imagine ever being repeated. 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. 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 that 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. After the war, my father distributed Vincent motorcycles in 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 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.
Nick Mason: Do you remember your first actual victory?
JS: It was in Aberdare, Wales, probably one of the most important races of my life. When one comes together with a piece of machinery, it’s significant. You have to become part of it. That’s what happened on that day. Suddenly, it was talking to me. That day, I became a racer!
NM: Can you explain your technique for your famous lightning starts?
JS: One thing is that you were instantly switched on. You sensed 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, if you manage that, it brings a degree of control, which is invaluable. Also, we didn’t have the same reliability as today. 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?
TOFM: You famously turned Ferrari down during initial negotiations.
JS: I remember my first meeting with the Old Man, in Modena and 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. Lotus offered me number one position, but there were contractual disputes, so I walked away from it, which left me with no car or drive. 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. 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. Enzo was a big fan of the Mini and had even discussed using its 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 had a successful relationship with Ferrari, but it was often a turbulent one.
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?
TOFM: The 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours was truly pivotal…
JS: [Team boss Eugenio] 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.’