New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

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.

Win­ning suc­cess

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.

World cham­pion

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 bren­don­


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

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