JOHN SURTEES: A RACER PURE
This special interview is our tribute to the only world champion on two wheels and four, who died in March
“THEY DIDN’T LIKE ME BEING QUICK”
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)