With six TT race vic­to­ries and a to­tal of 13 repli­cas to his credit, Surtees outscored other such leg­endary fig­ures on The Is­land as Ge­off Duke (five and nine re­spec­tively) and Jim Red­man with five and 17, in­clud­ing sev­eral in the light­weight classes whic

Classic Racer - - HOW IT BEGAN - Words: Alan Cath­cart Pic­tures: Mor­tons Archive

Only the leg­endary Mike Hail­wood with 14 wins and Gi­a­como Agostini with 10 (ty­ing with the great pre-sec­ond World War mae­stro Stan­ley Woods), were more suc­cess­ful in the big-bike classes. Con­sid­er­ing the honours he was later to gain there, Surtees’ Is­land de­but could hardly have been less aus­pi­cious. Al­ready iden­ti­fied as a star of the fu­ture by virtue of his grow­ing suc­cess as an 18-year-old short cir­cuit rider, plans to ride in the Manx GP of 1952 fell through when, as a Vin­cent ap­pren­tice, he was called on to as­sist the fac­tory in a se­ries of record at­tempts at Montl­h­ery in Septem­ber that year. How­ever in 1953 John and his fa­ther ob­tained the prom­ise of a Manx Nor­ton from Nor­ton boss Gilbert Smith, and en­tered for the TT. Imag­ine John’s as­ton­ish­ment when leg­endary Nor­ton race boss Joe Craig then came up with a brace of Nor­ton fac­tory ma­chines, on which to make his Is­land de­but! “To say I was both as­ton­ished and over­awed would be an un­der­state­ment,” re­calls John. “Here I was, a lad of 19, still an ap­pren­tice, with a his­tory of some suc­cess on short cir­cuits but ab­so­lutely no ex­pe­ri­ence of the TT course, be­ing en­trusted with two of his pet ma­chines by the most fa­mous man in Bri­tish racing. I was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied at the re­spon­si­bil­ity.” In the end though, fate in­ter­ceded, for Surtees had also agreed to ride a 125cc EMC two-stroke for Dr Joe Ehrlich in the Ultra-light­weight race, be­fore the of­fer of the works Nor­tons came along. “I rea­soned that any ex­tra mileage I could get in would be worth­while,” says John, “and though Joe Craig was very un­happy about my rid­ing the EMC, I’d promised Ehrlich and felt I had to see it through. Un­for­tu­nately, the front forks col­lapsed on the long left-han­der af­ter Bal­laugh Bridge, called Bal­lacrye, and I ended up on my ear with a bro­ken left wrist. I was so dis­ap­pointed and up­set I took the next boat home. It took nearly a year for Joe Craig to bring him­self to speak to me again, he was so an­gry.” That next year though, in 1954, things went much bet­ter when, armed with a pair of pro­duc­tion Manx Nor­tons, John fin­ished 11th and 16th in his first TTS, gain­ing repli­cas in each. This and his in­creas­ing dom­i­na­tion of the short cir­cuit scene led to a re­newed in­vi­ta­tion to join the works Nor­ton team for the 1955 sea­son, al­beit armed only with ‘su­per-manxes’ af­ter the with­drawal of the fac­tory team from Grand Prix racing. Fourth in the Ju­nior, John was also well-placed in the Se­nior TT when he, ahem, ran out of petrol at

Creg-ny-baa on the last lap, and had to push in. Even the de­mand­ing Mr Craig was not above mak­ing the odd mis­take… Now be­gan the phase of the Surtees bike racing ca­reer for which he is most fa­mous – his five-year as­so­ci­a­tion with the leg­endary MV Agusta team con­trolled by the equally leg­endary Count Domenico Agusta. MV­mounted, John Surtees scored his first Isle of Man vic­tory in the 1956 Se­nior TT, af­ter be­ing ex­cluded in the Ju­nior when he yet again ran out of petrol on the last lap and had to bor­row a milk bot­tle full from a spec­ta­tor on the Moun­tain to get home. “About the worst thing that ever hap­pened to me in the Is­land apart from the EMC in­ci­dent was run­ning out of fuel twice,” says John rue­fully. “I only ever fell off one other time, when I came round Sarah’s Cot­tage in prac­tice to find a cow loose in the road, and wrote off my race bike against her. I was un­hurt, the cow pretty much so, too, but the MV was a bas­ket case. In fact, I never ever fell off in a race over there, and just as well, too.” In­stead, Surtees won most of them: fourth and sec­ond be­hind the Gil­eras in 1957, he achieved the dou­ble-dou­ble for the first time ever in the two suc­ceed­ing years, win­ning the Ju­nior and Se­nior races in each. It might have been a re­mark­able hat­trick of dou­ble wins but for a se­ries of bike prob­lems in the 1960 Ju­nior, leav­ing him to strug­gle home sec­ond be­hind his good friend and MV team-mate John Har­tle, while win­ning the Se­nior TT later in the week. At the end of that year, Surtees moved on to the world of For­mula 1 car racing, and suc­cess on four wheels. Rid­ing the TT cir­cuit is like speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage: once you learn how to do so, you never re­ally for­get. A mea­sure of Surtees’ abil­ity in the IOM came in the in­au­gu­ral TT Caval­cade in the Iom’s mil­len­nium year of 1979, when af­ter a 19-year ab­sence from the Is­land he lapped at over 96mph from a stand­ing start on a 500cc MV Agusta, with­out more­over hav­ing rid­den a racing bike in pub­lic for al­most that long. What kind of ap­proach en­abled him to per­form such amaz­ing feats on the Moun­tain Cir­cuit? “Well, when I first went, there was quite a dis­tinct divi­sion in my day, be­tween Grand Prix rid­ers and short cir­cuit com­peti­tors and a cer­tain mys­tique was con­ferred on

the art of rid­ing the TT cir­cuit by peo­ple who pre­tended it was im­pos­si­ble to do well there un­less you’d served your ap­pren­tice­ship at the GPS. Rid­ing at Brands Hatch and Crys­tal Palace and Sil­ver­stone was con­sid­ered a quite in­ad­e­quate up­bring­ing for the rigours of the TT, which re­quired spe­cial­ist skills, or so I was told. “In fact, this was pop­py­cock, as peo­ple like John Har­tle and my­self sub­se­quently proved. The im­por­tant thing about the Moun­tain Course is its length – there’s noth­ing to stop you rid­ing it like a short cir­cuit, but if you do you won’t win, just wear your­self and the bike out. But that’s not to say that a short cir­cuit rider can’t change his ap­proach, and use his skill and abil­ity to at­tack the Is­land in the cor­rect fash­ion. The most vi­tal in­gre­di­ent in racing at the TT is rhythm – get­ting into an es­tab­lished rhythm and stick­ing to it. This is to­tally lack­ing in short cir­cuit racing, where at least half the time you’re en­gaged in ‘spoil­ing’ – try­ing to ob­struct the man be­hind, spoil his over­tak­ing line, out­brake him into cor­ners, and so on. That’s why short cir­cuit races are of­ten won at much slower speeds than if you’d been rid­ing round on your own, whereas on the Is­land, with the stag­gered start­ing in­ter­vals, and the length of the cir­cuit, you’re en­gaged in a much purer form of racing – it’s just you against the clock. “The length is also im­por­tant in that at the TT there are long sec­tions of road where if you make even a small mis­take, you can still be pay­ing for it five miles later, in terms of an ex­tra 200 revs you haven’t at­tained, and so on. You must think much fur­ther ahead than on a shorter course.” So if the IOM does need a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, did Surtees have any dif­fi­culty in adapt­ing his rid­ing style to suit the cir­cuit’s de­mands? “Peo­ple like John Har­tle and my­self tended to bring a kind of short cir­cuit-type ag­gres­sive­ness to the Is­land in terms of at­tack­ing some of the cor­ners, more than per­haps the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of rid­ers like Ge­off Duke had done. Of course, we were partly also helped by tyre de­vel­op­ments – the rub­ber war be­tween Avon and Dun­lop was just be­gin­ning to hot up, which en­abled us to scratch per­haps a lit­tle more con­sis­tently, rather than just make the oc­ca­sional big ef­fort. I’ve al­ways con­tended it’s much bet­ter to make a 98% ef­fort for the whole race, rather than ride at 101% for short bits and if you and the bike sur­vive that, then stroke it at 95% for oth­ers. I think Mike Hail­wood proved this par­tic­u­larly when he made his come­back in 1978 and won the race on a bike that was far from be­ing the fastest in the field, partly be­cause he was a mas­ter at set­tling into a rhythm and then keep­ing it up the whole way through the race.” So how did John Surtees learn thett Course in the first place? “Sim­ply by driv­ing round and round in a car – not on a road bike, it was im­por­tant not to get into the sub­con­scious men­tal­ity of hav­ing to keep on the left-hand side of the white line if you were rid­ing a bike. Do­ing it in the car was dif­fer­ent enough, and any­way I quite of­ten pre­ferred some­one else to drive while I just looked around at every­thing. I buzzed down Bray Hill many hun­dred times more in my mind than I ever did in real life!” A good start was some­thing which Surtees al­ways val­ued highly: “I was al­ways quite well known for my start­ing style, be­cause I used to sit sidesad­dle on the bike un­til it was well un­der way, then cross my leg over and at once change up into sec­ond gear. I didn’t run and bump in the nor­mal way, but would take about three steps and then sit on the bike, re­ly­ing on it to start first time. I al­ways thought other rid­ers wasted a lot of time get­ting aboard the bike, in­stead of get­ting away as fast as pos­si­ble – there was time to be picked up there.”

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