This spe­cial in­ter­view is our trib­ute to the only world cham­pion on two wheels and four, who died in March

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -


John Surtees: the only man to win world cham­pi­onships on two wheels and four. It’s a phrase so of­ten used about one of mo­tor­sport’s greats that, as a de­scrip­tor, the words fre­quently cease to have any mean­ing. Per­haps it’s a func­tion of longevity, the fact that in the decades since, no one has re­motely come close to re­peat­ing so mon­u­men­tal an achieve­ment.

The sta­tis­tics, though, have im­pe­ri­ous weight. At the age of 22 Surtees won his first 500cc cham­pi­onship. Two years later he won both the 500cc and 350cc cham­pi­onships and then re­peated the trick in the fol­low­ing two sea­sons. He made 49 grand prix motorcycling starts, win­ning 38 times. On only four oc­ca­sions did the podium elude him. Jump­ing to For­mula 1

cars there were 111 starts, six wins, 24 podi­ums and the 1964 cham­pi­onship. It beg­gars be­lief. Yet as Surtees was al­ways happy to re­late, with a mis­chievous glint, it was all by chance.

“It started in 1959,” he said. “The idea of driv­ing a car had been planted by Mike Hawthorn days be­fore he was killed [in Jan­uary 1959]. We were all to­gether at a din­ner, and out of the blue Reg Par­nell came up and said: ‘Come to Good­wood, test this car.’ That was the As­ton Martin DBR1. As it hap­pened I was free.

“I went to see John Cooper be­cause I de­cided that when I wasn’t mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing, I would do ex­tra rac­ing in a car. I went to buy a For­mula 2 Cooper Cli­max, but John had ar­ranged for Ken Tyrrell to be there and he said: ‘I’ve en­tered you in Good­wood. I’ve spo­ken to the RAC, they’ll watch you in prac­tice, and if you’re any good they’ll is­sue you with a li­cence.’ That was it.”

No fan­fare, no com­plex con­trac­tual wran­gles, just a straight-up case of chal­lenge – could Surtees com­pete on four wheels – and re­sponse – yes, he could. The rec­ol­lec­tion serves as a snap­shot of Surtees’ view of rac­ing as a world where the ob­vi­ously best so­lu­tion was the one to take; of of­ten black-and-white ab­so­lutes. With hind­sight he would ad­mit that his in­abil­ity to see shades of grey some­times led to tur­bu­lence. First, though, was the thrill of the new. Surtees made his F1 de­but at Monaco in May 1960.

“The world cham­pi­onship scene on four wheels was very dif­fer­ent be­cause I knew no one,” said Surtees. “So the big prob­lem was that I hadn’t served any form of ap­pren­tice­ship to know the peo­ple on or off the track. As a driver or rider you need to make in­stant as­sess­ments of how you deal with some­one. I didn’t know the ones you could take lib­er­ties with, the ones you had to be care­ful with and the ones you could trust. That was a learn­ing curve.”

If Surtees was un­sure of his ri­vals, they were equally mys­ti­fied and in some cases re­sent­ful of an un­proven rookie thrown in at the top.

“Gen­er­ally, it was fine. They were top peo­ple ac­tu­ally – Gra­ham Hill and a few others had a soft spot for mo­tor­cy­cles. I fell foul of Jo Bon­nier, though. A bit of frus­tra­tion came in the race in Bel­gium where I ran into the back of him. Some peo­ple who weren’t at the top of the grid didn’t like this new boy com­ing in and rac­ing at the top. They didn’t like me be­ing quick.”

Re­sent­ment, from one quar­ter in par­tic­u­lar, came to a head at the end of the cam­paign, when Surtees ad­mits emo­tion got the bet­ter of him.

“Af­ter the Tas­man Se­ries, Colin Chap­man said: ‘John, I’ve de­cided I want you to lead the team,’ and told me I had my choice of team-mate. I re­spected [Lo­tus team-mate] Innes Ire­land as a driver, but I wanted Jimmy Clark. I’d fallen foul of Innes when I first came into the team be­cause he re­sented this new boy get­ting the same car as him. Jimmy and me gelled a lit­tle bet­ter.”

On the face of it, it ap­peared straight­for­ward, but Surtees hadn’t reck­oned on the re­ac­tion of Ire­land. “I had this call from Paris, and Innes said: ‘You’ve stolen my drive. I’ve got a con­tract, which is firm.’ I told him: ‘Look, come back and see Colin and ev­ery­thing will be fine.’ We went back and Colin said, ‘It’s all set Innes, you’re fixed up to drive the same cars with BRP [Bri­tish Rac­ing Part­ner­ship]’, but Innes wasn’t hav­ing it.”

The wran­gling was too much for Surtees. “I loved rac­ing, the com­ing to­gether be­tween man and ma­chine. I liked Colin very much but I’d come in for some stick and it was tak­ing away that plea­sure, so I walked away. Did I re­gret it? Later, yes. Maybe I should have been more like Ayr­ton Senna with re­gard to which car I sat in.”

Surtees moved from 500cc mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing (top) to a drive in a Cooper (above), be­fore tak­ing up an of­fer to join Colin Chap­man’s Lo­tus, along­side Jim Clark (right)

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