MOTOR SPORT FLASHBACK
MICHAEL LOOKS BACK AT THE LIVES OF TWO RECENTLY DEPARTED CHAMPION BLOKES
John Surtees, 1934–2017
In January 1996, I was approached by the organizers of the Classic Motorcycle Festival to see if I would be interested in interviewing the ‘superstar’ they were bringing out for their big annual meeting over the first weekend of February. I had a one-hour-long radio show at the time, and they wondered if I might like to chat with John Surtees …? Well, that was a simple decision, but a moment or two later, I was asking myself, what have I just agreed to? — given that everything I’d ever read and heard about the only man to be world champion on two wheels and four was that he was difficult, awkward, and prone to being prickly. I was given the phone number of his hotel, so that arrangements for the interview could be worked out. He didn’t care what we talked about so long as it excluded BRM and Chaparral. “So, we’ll ignore 1969, then,” I suggested, and he seemed impressed that I knew the culprits behind his worst ever year in motor sport. Once on air, he was utterly magnificent — full of funny anecdotes, totally open and engaging. I’ve repeated the story many times since — better not to have preconceived views, irrespective of what you read about various racing personalities. I could imagine Surtees, like so many others, could have been so completely focused while on the job that it could have been possible to simply write him off as an obsessed tyrant. I guess he mellowed, because, in 1996, a week before his 62nd birthday, he was quite charming. Replaying the tape of the interview brought the memories flooding back — his father was a motorcycle dealer and racer, so it was no surprise that both sons got into it, too. John swung on his father’s sidecar initially, but was soon riding and winning. In 1956, he switched to MV Augusta from Norton — and so began something of a love affair with Italy.
John won his first 500cc championship that year and more titles followed. In 1959, he was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year — despite talents like Mike Hailwood and Barry Sheene, Surtees remains the only ‘motor cyclist’ to have won that coveted prize. His win rate on two wheels was astonishing, and it was no surprise that offers were coming from racing car companies: “My contract with Count Augusta meant [that] I could only ride his bikes whereas previously I’d been racing every weekend. The contract never said anything about cars so despite being a bit sceptical, when Tony Vandervell offered me a Vanwall to test I found myself saying ‘yes’. He said ‘ just take it easy — get the feel, we won’t take any times.’ It was only later that I found out they had taken times and they must have been all right because I was offered a Formula 1 [F1] drive,” he said. When Formula Junior was introduced to the UK in 1960, two future world champions were often competing against one another at the front — one was Jim Clark in a Lotus and the other was John Surtees. Lotus founder Colin Chapman knew how good his man was and immediately signed the four-wheel rookie for his F1 team alongside Clark and Innes Ireland. It was not a match made in heaven, and, despite showing great speed, backed up by some solid results, Surtees and Chapman clashed. By now, John was committed to cars, and he began 1962 by putting the debuting F1 Lola on pole — and, by then, Ferrari was taking notice. Surtees was already well known to the Italians from the MV Augusta days and had been dubbed ‘Il Grande John’, or ‘Big John’, because of his big heart, not his stature.
He joined the famous scuderia in 1963 and that year won his maiden F1 Grand Prix. At the end of 1964, he was crowned world champion in one of the closest finishes before or since, when three Brits — Surtees, Clark, and Graham Hill — all went into the final race with the chance of emerging as champion. The links with Lola prevailed, and Surtees was generally the guy the Mclarens of Bruce and Chris Amon had to beat in British Group 7 racing (the forerunner to Can-am) in 1965. Late in 1965, something on the Lola broke in Canada, and, for a while, it was feared that Il Grande John’s days were over. He had been earmarked to do the 1966 Tasman Series in a 2.4 Ferrari V6 — after all, he’d tasted success here before when he’d won the first ever Grand Prix at Pukekohe. Not only was that plan in ruins but so, perhaps, was ever racing again. John said, “It took a while but eventually I came right — we [Ferrari] should have won the title in ’66 — taking nothing away from Jack [Brabham] who did a fantastic job, but Ferrari seemed to believe all the press that they were going to walk it.” Surtees won at Spa but was subsequently excluded from Ferrari’s Le Mans line-up — “They thought I wasn’t fit enough for a 24hour race after the accident.” Shattered by this, Surtees — clearly a man of principle — quit and joined Cooper, powered by Maserati, the Scuderia’s great rival. He won the final round of 1966 for Cooper and finished second on the points table — the best Ferrari driver was eighth … He had some consolation from 1966, and it came in the form of lots of American dollars when he became the inaugural CanAm champion in his own red Lolas with the distinctive broad white ‘Surtees arrow’. His connection with the world of bikes was renewed when Honda, after putting a toe in the water of F1 after an initial foray into European bike racing, got serious by signing Surtees in a one-car team. The powerful V12 was overweight, but, late in 1967, Surtees himself took over some of the chassis coordination, and he won at Monza in the closest finish of the year. For the Italians, victory for their beloved Il Grande John was the next best thing to a Ferrari winning. He shared fourth in the world championship with the man who had effectively replaced him at Ferrari — Chris Amon. That win proved to be his last in a Grand Prix — Honda withdrew at the end of ’68, and, after the horror year with BRM, John made the decision to build his own cars. He raced for the last time in 1972 and then battled on as a constructor until the end of that decade. Despite championships for his Formula 5000 and Formula 2 cars, a Surtees never won a Grand Prix. He remarried; started a family; and, according to close friends, mellowed considerably. His 18-year-old son Henry was killed in a freak accident in 2009. In time, the familiar smile returned, and Il Grande John started turning up again at Historic events — either in leathers or a race suit — very much a favourite with the crowds, who no doubt wondered if he’d ever get his knighthood. John Surtees died in March 2017 aged 83.
Allan Mccall, 1941–2017
When Allan Mccall was an apprentice, he read about a fellow Kiwi who was travelling the world as a race mechanic. With Wally Willmott as his inspiration, the 22-yearold Mccall was off to England in 1963 and wound up working for Lotus and Jim Clark, no less. He started on the Scot’s Lotus Cortinas in the British Touring Car Championship and eventually on the Lotus 49 in 1967 via the game-changing Indy 500–winning Lotus in 1965. Having established himself, he joined Mclaren in 1968 with Bruce himself and Denny Hulme. It wasn’t long before the Aucklander was thinking about his own designs, and the first Tui car was initially driven by his great mate Bert Hawthorne from Kaiapoi. The Tui was a clever multi-purpose car, and when Hawthorne, in who Allan had great faith, was killed in 1972, Mccall regrouped and adapted the Formula 2 design to the new Atlantic category. When possible, he put a Kiwi behind the wheel, and, in 1973, he convinced a young Jim Murdoch that Atlantics were no more expensive than Formula Fords — “He lent me a chassis and I was very fortunate that he gave me such an opportunity. He was a very talented person who certainly had very definite ideas!” Jim says.
Another Kiwi he put behind the wheel was David Oxton in the rich Canadian series. “It was funded 100% by that most patriotic of travelling Kiwis, Allan Mccall,” Oxton remembers. “We were never top three but we were generally three to seven. Allan was a perfectionist — he wasn’t just a chassis man — he also knew his way around engines and gearboxes. He was a bit like George Begg and Graham Mcrae in that he built his own cars and then tested them on the world stage.”
Cary Taylor worked with Allan at Mclaren in the late ’60s but recalls first getting to know him when they we were working for opposing teams in the 1967 Tasman Series — “We spent quite a lot of time together as Kiwi mechanics who all travelled and worked together, as well as enjoying each other’s company at the sometimes very social after-race functions. During the front half of the 1967 F1 season I didn’t really have much time to keep in contact with Allan — we were both with the two top teams of Lotus and Brabham of which one of which would win the Championship. After Watkins Glen we had time off until the final race at Mexico so a group of us mechanics, Allan included, took ourselves off to New York to watch the Thanksgiving parade then down to Acapulco for some much welcomed R&R. I well remember Allan driving us up some narrow mountain goat road in a hired Mini Moke — if it had gone over the edge they would still be looking for us. We all enjoyed a great after-race function together at a Mexican bullfight ring as Jimmy (his driver) had won the race and Denny the F1 Championship.
“During 1970, my time in the factory was again for Can-am car build up, and I remember Allan working on Bruce’s road car project and on the Indy car team. At some point during this time Allan decided he wanted to build his own car and he tried very hard to get me to join him, as during the previous two summers in New Zealand I had been racing my own BT21, and as Allan had been home for Christmas and came down to Wigram to support me. His idea was to build two cars — I would drive one and Bert Hawthorne the other. It nearly happened but not quite … he was a very skilled engineer with a great passion for motor sport and a much respected Team Mclaren old boy.”
Allan Mccall died in February 2017 after complications from heart surgery.
Driver to … America
Once we had the ‘Driver to Europe’ scheme — now supporters of Brendon Leitch are attempting to put together a package for the talented Southlander to compete in America’s Formula 4 championship in 2017. Martin Day of Dayle ITM says, “We have been part of Brendon’s sponsorship family for four years, increasing our spend each year. His skill as a driver and his determination to succeed, coupled with seeking to achieve the best possible exposure for his sponsors, makes him the perfect brand ambassador. That’s why we have signed up to the membership scheme to assist him into Formula 4.” The Brendon Leitch Supporters’ Club offers exclusive access to, among other things, merchandise and is limited to only 50 memberships, with each membership being a tax deductible (as a donation) $3500 plus GST. When I spoke to Brendon about his prospects, he told me, with that delightful blend of modesty with underlying grit, that he “really hoped that this opportunity might allow him to follow in the footsteps of Scott Dixon”. If you’re interested, check out brendonleitch.com.
Il Grande Giovanni - Pukekohe 1996 on a beloved MV Augusta
Right: Deep in thought - Allan Mccall with Phil Kerr and Denny Hulme
John Surtees driving his car through the pits with most of the body work missing at the 1963 Lakeside International
Above: Allan Mccall (right) at Pukekohe in January 1967 alongside the master, Jim Clarke Below: Allan Mccall (in the ‘Team Tui’ shirt) at Wigramin January 1977 after his driver Tom Gloy had just won