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Unique Surtees: 50 years since title

2014-01-13 09:50


JOHN AND HENRY SURTEES: Success in motorsport runs deep in the family - Henry Surtees (right) followed in his father's footsteps until his tragic death in 2009. Image: johnsurtees.com

BIRMINGHAM, England - John Surtees has an infectious laugh and the broadest of grins but there's sadness in his eyes as he prepares for a year of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Formula 1 championship win.

The former Ferrari driver's triumphs are entwined with personal tragedy as motorsport fetes Britain's oldest surviving F1 champion and the only man to have won premier World titles on two wheels and four.

Surtees will turn 80 in February 2014. After competing through some of the most dangerous years of GP racing he is using the attention to help promote a foundation set up after the death of his 18-year-old son Henry in a freak racing accident at Brands Hatch in 2009.


The foundation, whose motto is 'Finding Hope in Loss', raises money for accident care and community support and to help youngsters develop life skills through motorsport-related programmes.

Surtees told Reuters in an interview at the Autosport International show where several of the cars and bikes he raced with were displayed. "In a way I suppose I'm only involved in celebrating 50 years because of the fact that I'm using it also as a vehicle to assist in developing the foundation. "Normally, I think I'd rather just drift around in the background..."

The Briton, always known for forthright opinions on motorsport and an equally direct glare, is hardly a shrinking violet or one to put his feet up but he has no need to shout about his achievements: They speak for themselves. Between 1956 and 1960 he won seven motorcycling championships (three in 350cc and the others in the top 500cc category). In the 1960 season he raced in grands prix on two wheels and four and also won Isle of Man TT.

In recent years Italian MotoGP great Valentino Rossi tested an Ferrari F1 car but never made the switch and the chances of anybody ever again emulating Surtees would appear remote.

He disagrees.

"I don't think it's impossible," he said. "I still look on it as quite a natural thing because certainly when I sat in the car for the first time I was immediately able to go quickly - as quick as anybody else had driven those cars. Today the way one can ride a modern bike, with the tyres and some of the controls which are available, the aids you have got... probably bike and car have come even closer in the relationship.

"So if someone achieves their goals in motorcycling at a certain time and says 'Hmm, perhaps I'll try new challenges' it may happen. But not if they are over the hill. When I changed I probably had 10 years left which could have been at the top of motorcycling."


In Surtees' day what mattered was what was shown on the stop-watch. He was given the opportunity to drive cars because of his speed on bikes and he delivered immediate and eye-opening results. If motorcycling was his first love, part of him will always belong to Maranello and Ferrari - then as now the most glamorous team on the grid.

"We had a variety of life which the present F1 driver doesn't but we didn't have the number of races they have," he said, comparing the eras. "It has been turned into a major commercial operation. "I still would enjoy the challenge of sitting in a modern car but I'd need to knock a few years off. Take about 50 years away again."

The biggest problem Surtees had in F1, having grown up in the world of motorcycles with father Jack, a National champion, was dealing with paddock politics and rivals who resented his sudden arrival in car racing.

Any regrets? He thinks perhaps he was too sensitive, too impetuous. Had he been more ruthless or more patient he might have won more titles.

"Perhaps on two occasions," he mused. "There was the Lotus situation where Colin Chapman at the end of 1960 placed all his faith in me and said 'John, I want you to be No.1. Choose your team mate.'."


Surtees indicated compatriot Jim Clark, for some the greatest driver of all time, but that meant Innes Ireland would be dropped. "Some of the news media got very much in mind that I was stealing Innes's drive," he recalled. "I was perhaps a little too sensitive and walked away. I should perhaps have had a more focused attitude and thought... 'frankly, let them get lost. I'll just look after No.1'."

Clark would go on to win the 1963 and 1965 titles; Surtees beat Graham Hill by one point in 1964 thanks to a scoring system that counted only the best six results.

Of his six career F1 wins, four were with Ferrari and the others for Cooper and Honda. In all, Surtees won 290 of the 621 races he entered on bikes and in cars with another 103 podium finishes. In 1966 he came back from a big sports-car crash in Canada the previous year to lead the championship - only to walk away from Ferrari mid-season after a falling-out.

"Mr Ferrari agreed with me at the end, just before he died actually, that we'd both made a bit of a mistake in that we'd probably lost championships together with the parting in 1966. That again was a bit impetuous," he smiled.

"I was so frustrated by not doing things that we could achieve at Ferrari because of political reasons and people pulling in a different direction but I suppose it was all put right when Enzo said to me 'John, we must remember the good times and not the mistakes'."
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