Article features images courtesy of The Cahier Archive (f1-photo.com)

On the great man’s 83rd birthday, Elle Haus shares an exclusive, and personal, interview with John Surtees on his unmatched place in motorsport history. 

John Surtees is in a class of his own; during an extraordinary career in Motorsport spanning three decades, the Briton won seven motorcycle World Championships and a Formula One crown.

Racing was in his blood. His father Jack was a successful motorcycle sidecar racer and shop proprietor. The young Surtees grew up around bikes, attending race meetings with his father as his self-appointed “trainee mechanic” and putting together his first bike, an old Wallis-Blackburne Speedway, at the tender age of 11.

From an apprentice at the Vincent-HRD motorcycle factory to dominating top-level motorcycle racing, in 1960 Surtees transitioned from bikes to cars with unwavering ease. To this day John Surtees is still the only World Champion on both two and four wheels.

Elle Haus: What was it that sparked your love for motorsport and got you into racing in the first place?

John Surtees: In the first place my father was British sidecar champion before the war, and then after the war when he came out of the army he started again. So we’re talking about the end of 1944, beginning of 1945 and I was ten years old. I became the general cleaner of parts, and I would call myself trainee mechanic when we went to his race meetings. So that started it. And basically, it was him coming home one evening and saying, “Lads there’s a box over there, put it together and you can ride it”. And what it was, an old Wallace Blackburn Speedway bike.

EH: And you put it together yourself at that young age?

JS: I put it together, yes. This was when I was about 11, and I put it together. Because we didn’t have anywhere to go at that time, my father was involved with Brands Hatch, and it was a grass track. Around the outside of the grass track, there was a cinder path for the spectators. And my father took me down to Brands Hatch when he went there for a meeting of a club and I rode it around the outside on the spectator’s cinder path. And that’s when I first rode.

EH: Had you always planned your career to start off with motorcycle racing and then switch to cars?

JS: No I never thought about it, it all just came along. First of all my big interest was working with spanners and putting things together, so the obvious thing then was to ride, to make sure it went. And then I left school and started my apprenticeship at Stevenage Vincent HRD. Phil Irving, a rather famous Australian name, was deeply involved, he was down there. In fact, my father turned round to racing a Vincent. And I remember going down there and seeing Phil Irving grinding the cams to give him for what was going to be one of the first racing ones. And there was one made for George Brown which would later be named Gunga Din, and the other one was one which Dad had, and these were the Rapides in modified forms.

My first race was on an Excelsior B14 500 and that wasn’t very successful [laughs]. I went to this grass track race and it was a very wet day, and I fell off it in every way you can imagine. And my father said, “Lad, I think it’s a bit big for you,” as it was a 500cc, so I got a 250cc Triumph which I built up and I raced. Then in the final race with that at Silverstone, the conrod broke and threw me down the road.

I went to Vincent to start my apprenticeship and I suppose my career really sparked there because I managed to get hold of – with Dad’s help, by putting it on a higher purchase – a bike which was lying in pieces in the corner which was a prototype Grey Flash Model 500cc. And I put that together; and in my second race at a place in Wales called Aberdare Park, I won. And on that day I became a racer in my own right – not just a mechanic trying a bike. Because on that day the bike spoke to me and I spoke to it and we become one. And that stood me in good stead for basically the rest of my career.

EH: After so many years on bikes, was the transition to Formula 1 an easy one or a difficult one?

JS: I hadn’t planned to do cars at all. I’d never seen a car race and, of course, you didn’t have television or anything in those days. And in any case, I was totally and utterly engaged in my career. The way life goes I went to a Sportsman of the Year event, a dinner in Park Lane in London. This was 1958, and on my table was Mike Hawthorn – who just won the World Championship with Ferrari – and Reg Parnell, who was quite a famous racer in his own right, but was also Team Manager of Aston Martin. And Tony Vandervell, who of course was the builder of the Vanwall cars, [and] also quite an enthusiastic motorcyclist, having been a Director of Norton Motors. The conversation got round to where Mike Hawthorn said, “John, try a car sometime; they stand up easier” [laughs]. So I said, “No, no. I’m a motorcyclist”.

About a month later, I had a phone call from Reg Parnell and he said, “I’ve got the Aston Martin DBR-1, the one Stirling [Moss] won with at the Nürburgring. We want to do some testing and I want you to drive it.” I said, “I’ve never driven a racing car”. “Well, now’s your chance”, he replied. 

So I went to Goodwood, and I thought nothing wrong in this. I went round and round and I came in and Reg said, “Would you sign this?” I said, “What’s that?”, and it was a contract. I said, “No, no, no. I’m a motorcyclist”. But it’s a DBR1, which is a super motorcar. That night I had a call from a very angry Tony Vandervell saying, “What are you driving one of those for? If you’re going to drive a car, you’re going to drive a motorcyclist car, the Vanwall.”.

He’d retired from racing of course. He said, “I’m sending down two cars tomorrow to Goodwood, I want you to be there.” I thought well it’s an offer I can’t refuse. I went and I sat in a Formula One car for the first time. And I went round and around and he said, “Right you’re coming again tomorrow”. So, I went there again [the next day] and he said, “Right I’m coming out of retirement, and I’m going to come out of retirement and build you a car”. And, of course, he did go along and do just that. And, again, I said, “No, no. I’m a motorcyclist”. He said, “I’m going to build a car in any case”, and he built the rear engine Vanwall which, unfortunately, it only ever had one race, and then the Formula stopped.

But what coincided with this a little later was Augusta had got upset by the fact that the Italian press had said that I didn’t need an MV Augusta to win. And this was because also I had carried on preparing my own machines at home because I loved working away still with my spanners. I had prepared my Nortons, etc. of which I’d kept two of and I had gone to Brands Hatch and Silverstone and won still. And the Italian papers said “Surtees doesn’t need an MV”, so he said, “That’s no good, we can’t have that, you can only do Championship races”.

Now in those days, you didn’t have the number of Championship races you have today. I thought this was crazy; I’ve got a contract, and I’m not going to break a contract. But I don’t want to only race 350cc and 500cc. I suggested to him I race 250cc as well; so I would do 250 class, 350 class and 500. And he said, “No, no, no. We have our 250 riders and they would be upset if you did that, so we cannot do that.”. I thought there’s nothing in my contract that stops me. I thought that I’d buy a car and do some races along with my father helping me on the preparation side. So I rang to Cooper to buy a Formula 2 car, and I got there and we talked about Formula 2 cars, a Cooper Climax, and John Cooper said he wanted me to meet someone. And this gentleman stepped forward and said, “I’m Ken Tyrrell. I’m going to form a Formula junior team for Cooper, working with Austin. I have entered you.” He didn’t say, “Can I?”.

“I have entered you for Goodwood in the March race, I’ve checked that there’s no motorcycle events on”, he said. “I’ve also spoken to the RAC and they will give you a licence after seeing you in practice.” I wasn’t going to argue with that.

Going to Goodwood I got to see my first ever race; the car was only finished just before the race, so it wasn’t painted or anything. It was still in aluminium, and that was it. I had my first race. I actually put it on pole position and then had a dice with Jimmy Clark, and when we were lapping someone, and I got it a bit wrong, I forgot I had four wheels I think, I used a bit too much grass. I did a bit of Jack Brabham type driving using a large amount of grass and it got me back in contention, but I picked up again and I finished second.

I then went to two races with my Formula 2 at Oulton Park, where I got second again behind the works Lotus of Innes Ireland. On to Aintree for the International and I was the first British car, and got fastest lap, and Colin Chapman came to me and said, “I want you to try a Formula 1 [car],” so I said “No, look I’m a motorcyclist,” and he said, “Do it when you’re not motorcycling, just come and try one”.

Surtees should have won in Portugal – his 2nd F1 race. Image: f1-photo.com

I went to Silverstone, tried it, and he said, “I want you to be my driver in Formula 1, just drive when you’re available”. And so I drove for him. My first race was, in fact, Monaco; I’d never been to Monaco in my life, and Innes Ireland and Jimmy Clark were my teammates, and we all had gearbox troubles there. I then went to Portugal, put in on pole position, and I was leading the race by about 26 seconds and had a rather silly thing happen, in that the fuel had been leaking out of the top tank onto my shoe and my foot slipped on the brake and I made a mistake. There were tramlines up the straight and I didn’t cross the tramlines sharp enough, and so when I went back onto the brakes I was a little bit late. I should have gone up the slip road to turn around – I had plenty of time – but I clipped the straw bales and it dislodged a water hose and so I was out. But I got the fastest lap. And then I got second at the British Grand Prix.

At the end of the season, Colin said, “Right you’re my number one, who do you want as your teammate?” And I said, “Well, I think we are nearly the same age and everything else, so Jimmy”. I chose Jimmy Clark to be my teammate for the following year, 1961. But then a big political thing happened which Innes Ireland got terribly angry and caused a lot of anti-feeling against this new boy coming in and stealing his drive. I walked away from it because I was just a bit upset. So that’s how I got started.

EH: Before joining Ferrari in 1963 you had previously turned down offers to join the team. Why was that?

JS: They came to me at the end of that period at Lotus – this was all happening at the end of 1960. I actually went out to see them and [Carlo] Chiti was still there and I thought they had an exceptional amount/number of drivers, and I thought I didn’t have enough experience. I’d had experiences of the Italians and I thought if I’m going to go to an Italian team I need to be more of a complete driver. And my experience was very limited.

I didn’t have any concern about the speed, but I had concerns about all the other things of dealing with it, so I thought not and I turned it down. They said they wouldn’t ask again. But they did. That was probably the right thing to do at the time.

EH: And you felt you were ready in 1963 when they asked you again?

JS: Well, the situation was that by walking out on the Lotus opportunity, I had burnt my boats a little, and I had gone along in order to get as much experience, and, with some backing from Reg Parnell again and Yeoman Credit, we built the Lola Formula 1 car. As you know, if you look at records, we nearly got the odd win with it – I got second places with it instead – but crucially we finished in front of Ferrari and Porsche in our first year.

But, at the end of the season, they said engines weren’t going to be available because Coventry Climax would restrict them purely to Lotus and Cooper – the old teams, in other words. So Ferrari came in again and I thought this is probably a good time. Ferrari were at a very low ebb, they hadn’t had any success at all, they’d lost some of their engineers and Chiti had left, so they were sort of rebuilding themselves. I thought that’s probably about the same sort of state as when I went to MV Agusta, and it’s probably a good time to go.

EH: What was it like working with Enzo Ferrari and what memories do you have of him?

JS: You never knew quite where you stood with Enzo [laughs]. Mind you, I realised a lot more about him after I had left and started running my own team. I realised that he was trying to keep so many balls in the air competing in both the prototype classes, Le Mans and all these things, as well as do Formula 1. And also [to] build up the production side of cars and also supply race cars to customers.

He was under an awful lot of pressure and he tended to play games rather a lot. He liked to have us all a little bit like puppets on a string, and so would play us along at times. The disappointing thing was with all the sort of pressures, with having lost his son and everything else, the fact that he no longer went to race meetings was something. And so he didn’t see images first hand. This was something which was a bit of a problem. He was relying on second-hand [information] and often people would be just telling him what they thought would suit him to hear rather than necessarily the truth. It was again quite an exciting period, disappointing at times, and not necessarily reaching our full potential; but the fact that remains is it was an experience which was very special. I suppose part of me still remains out there at Maranello because I expected to have probably spent the rest of my life there.

EH: Let me take you back to 25 October 1964; the last race on the Formula 1 calendar was in Mexico City and the finale was a three-way fight between yourself, Jim Clark and Graham Hill for the Championship. Can you talk me through that race?

Surtees season truly began with victory in Germany. Image: f1-photo.com

JS: Yes, but it started before that of course. You can’t look at that one race; you have to look at the year and the fact that with Ferrari they were in an intense battle over the question whether Ford would buy them, or whether Fiat would do it and things like this. They were worried about Le Mans and so the Ford challenge there.

Again we didn’t work on Formula 1 at all, not until we got past Le Mans and so we sort of went along. You’ll see at the beginning of the year, some of the problems which I had, and then we started working again, and that coincided with just before the Nürburgring so I was able to win that.

Then I was in a position to win in Austria, and I was leading, and a very unusual thing for Ferrari happened – one of the suspension joints broke. We then came along to the American Grand Prix and I was having a bit of a dice with Graham and everything else, and I got mixed up with a lapped car which put me off into the grass and lost me the chance of winning that race. So we then end up going to Mexico.

But it was basically the last place in the world we wanted to have the shoot-out because of the Mexican altitude. The fact that our car with a V8 engine in it worked on a direct fuel injection system was something which was a problem for us, because that particular engine, in that weather and general sort of atmospheric conditions, was very liable to be affected in terms of its performance. We had trouble getting the mixture right. And going to that altitude meant we had a problem with getting it lean enough to be able to cope.

As you will see in the race I dropped back; we broke an engine in practice and we put another in, and we took a chance on the setting of it. We virtually screwed everything up tight on the mixture settings to try and get it a little leaner, to cope with the altitude.

2nd place in Mexico secured the title, with Ferrari running non-traditional blue-and-white colours. Image: f1-photo.com

And I dropped back to 13th place on the first lap because the engine wouldn’t run on eight cylinders, so the start of that race did not go well. It was pretty awful. Then luckily once it overheated, the engine actually fired on eight cylinders and started to run quite reasonably. I was able to pick up and that’s basically the story of the race.

I had again some of the bad luck in the earlier years. I had some, I suppose, good fortune in a way that Jimmy retired [and] there was the incident with Graham, but that was partly I think because they had seen me arrive up the back side there, I’d caught them up. So it was an eventful race, to say the least. It was quite good because Dan Gurney won and Dan was one of the very best of the drivers out there. And of course in one of Jack Brabham’s cars.

EH: You are still the only man to have been a World Champion on both two and four wheels. Do you think anyone is likely to achieve that again?

JS: Might do, might do. Let’s face it, they start and go into international racing at a very young age now in motorcycling.

An individual’s performance is also something where it’s a little like a power curve in the engine; they has a steady rise and everything, to a point, then perhaps flattens out, then perhaps falls away a bit.

The important thing is that one doesn’t go along and start to lose one’s edge in one sport and think about then changing to another.

It’s very important that if one’s going to do it at all, that one stops when they’re probably still getting better at one thing. I was riding at my top level and probably would have been able to continue in motorcycling for another few years.

EH: Who would you say was your greatest competitor in Formula 1?

John and Jack Brabham share a moment in Japan, 2000. Image: f1-photo.com

JS: There are a number. Because, of course, you’ve also got to take in that the cars varied quite a bit. At times, rather like Mercedes nowadays, you had times when certainly Climax and then Cosworth had the edge. But I would say that certainly, and not just because I’m talking to you, certainly in amongst that group Jack [Brabham] was someone who you could never, never underestimate. Apart from the fact that he was unconventional at times, and in those days you didn’t have those great big high curbs and things like this. Jack was never too concerned about at times putting some of his dirt track experience to test [laughs] and, shall we say, making a new piece of circuit. He’d always have a go.

Dan Gurney who I mentioned was a real competitor, and a great enthusiast as well. Obviously, Jimmy Clark and Graham [Hill] both also were good runners. But if you take that four, they were the main ones and it was a case of partly the mechanics of it. I think Jimmy as such had that wonderful relationship and Colin, they all come together for Colin. No disrespect to Jimmy, they did have the edge over everybody else car wise.

EH: If you had your time over, is there anything in your Formula 1 career you would change or do differently?

JS: Yes, with an added degree perhaps of maturity and everything else, I would perhaps say that I should have had second thoughts on how to deal with the situation a little different on two occasions; one was when I walked away from Lotus, and one was when I allowed certain elements in Ferrari to break down everything there. Because I think both those things cost me dearly relative to my career.

John Surtees was speaking to Elle Haus in Australia, February 2016. Many thanks for his time. 

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