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MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with John Surtees

Jan 9, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

173659380AH00033_Goodwood_F Getty Images

As he prepares to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his Formula One world championship win, British racing legend John Surtees took some time to speak to MotorSportsTalk about his life and career in motorsport as well as his views on the modern sport – and of course, that double points rule…

Let’s start off at the beginning of your career. What was it that sparked your love for motorsport and got you into racing in the first place? 

JOHN SURTEES: Well of course motorsport for me encompasses two, three and four wheels. My car racing career didn’t start until somewhat later in that I saw my first car race from the cockpit of a car in which I was competing in, which is going back to as far as 1960. My road racing career on motorcycles started in 1950 at Brands Hatch. My career then started and I became British champion and world champion on a number of occasions, right up until I retired at the end of 1960 from motorcycle racing. I had had the idea sewn in my head about possibly trying a car in 1958 when I met up with Mike Hawthorn who had just been crowned world champion in Formula One, and Tony Vandervell who won the championship with his Vanwall cars in the constructors, and they suggested it. My first drive in a race car came testing an Aston Martin DBR1 car which was a car that won Le Mans and also won at the Nurburgring and like Stirling [Moss] had driven and Tony Brooks. I tested that at Goodwood and they asked me to drive for them, I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist”, but then I decided at the end of 1960 to actually try cars, so that year I drove cars and motorcycles – different weekends obviously. My first drive was in a Formula Junior for Ken Tyrell, my second drive was in a Formula 2 car which I had bought. My third one was again Formula 2 and then Colin Chapman said “drive Formula One!”. I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist!” “Well drive Formula One when you’re not motorcycling.” And so that’s how my year developed!

After so many years on bikes, was the transition into a Formula One car easy or was it quite difficult?

JS: I had to obviously learn to deal with all sorts of different conditions and a bit of track craft was different, but the actual ability to relate to the car and communicate with it – which is what you have to do, it’s just as you’re racing a bike – that came along quite well. You have to get all those experiences about how you cope with different weather conditions with a car, which of course was somewhat different with a bike. And the biggest single thing of course was that you had to know the other competitors, because I had never seen any racing at all. I knew nothing about any of the other people who I was racing against, whereas in motorcycling I knew intimately how you would treat different riders etc. I had to build up all that data log on the environment in which I was racing.

How did you get into contact with Enzo Ferrari and end up driving for him in Formula One?

JS: They called me at the end of my first year in Formula One, and said “would you come to Maranello and have a look.” So I went there and had a look and everything else and I listened to their plans and thought that frankly I needed to have more experience, so I said no. I did a year then when I worked with the building of a Formula One car which was a Lola, and that gave me a lot of ground work. They asked me again at the end of that year. In fact, with our new car, we had beaten the Ferrari team in the world championship and finished fourth with the new car. They asked me again and I went out and I joined them.

It must have been very humbling. What was it like working with Enzo as a man?

JS: It was different times to nowadays of course. It was very much a situation where he ruled the whole thing, and so you were never quite sure what was happening necessarily. He tended to be changeable and he was trying to keep a lot of things going which was very difficult, because he didn’t concentrate just on Formula One like they do today. He had a big programme which held back the Formula One programme in sportscars. They were very good to drive, the prototype cars, and I had the job of doing the development work on them, because they introduced a new range in 1963 when I joined them. Very enjoyable working with them and racing them. But it did detract from the Formula One programme and made it that much difficult to win Formula One races.

Was it quite frustrating racing and knowing that you’re in a car that could be so much better if they concentrated solely on Formula One? 

JS: It was disconcerting at the beginning of the year. The first three races or so, you were struggling against teams who had been working strenuously all through the winter and doing all this testing and preparing themselves and frankly you didn’t do any of that work really until the Le Mans race.

Your association with Ferrari then came to an end in 1966. Could you talk us through your decision to quit?

JS: In the middle of the year when I was leading the world championship, a political scene all came up involved with Fiat and things which… if one looked back, just the same as he [Enzo] said to me some years later, we would have perhaps sorted it out other ways. As it was, I was quite impetuous in those days and also very targeted on trying to get things done and the rest of it. That time, this made me fall foul of certain elements within the Ferrari company and I changed sides. I was unfortunate not to still win the world championship, because we got the Cooper-Maserati which I transferred to be quite competitive, apart from a couple of silly incidents, we were there.

You raced in a golden era of Formula One against the likes of Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. Who would you say was your greatest competitor?

JS: Well basically when I first started of course in 1960, we had Stirling Moss around who was driving a similar car to what I was driving, so he was the yardstick. He was always a great competitor. You had my first teammate, Jimmy Clark, in Lotus, we were together there. In fact Colin Chapman offered me the number one position in the team, but again for political reasons and things like this, it didn’t come about. Jimmy was a great driver. You had Graham and you had Dan Gurney who you could never underestimate, and Jack Brabham. They were all there. The latter part we came across Stewart of course, but I look upon the others as being of my period.

One of the races you never entered was the Indy 500. Was this through choice or was it something you wanted to win?

JS: I did all the testing on the Indianapolis car for the 1966 season, and then I had a very bad accident at the end of ’65 in a Lola sportscar in which I broke part of my back and a number of other injuries which were touch and go for a while. So I wasn’t able to commit myself, I didn’t know whether I would be fit. And in any case, I had to commit myself first and foremost to Ferrari who I was contracted to and who had been very supportive during my accident. So I had to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to race the Indy car which I had tested. They said “well who do you pass it over to?” So I arranged with them that they would pass it over to Graham Hill, and of course he actually won with that car!

So what racing did you do in North America?

JS: Racing in America I enjoyed very much. We went with our own team and went with the Lola cars and fitted Chevrolet engines into them and won the first Can-Am Series which was very prestigious. That was very heartening and very good, with very good competitors. Those big sportscars were very enjoyable cars. Different, but again enjoyable. The prototype cars, like your racing Ferrari, were good, the circuits you did, the 1000km etc, and the out and out sportscar races using the five litre and seven litre engines were also different but nice.

You spoke earlier about your junior career and getting into Formula One. Nowadays, funding is such an important thing. You do work with Racing Steps, so how important do you think it is that this group helps fund young drivers and how difficult do you think it is for young drivers to get into the sport? 

JS: Well I think it’s vital, things like Racing Steps. Racing Steps is fairly unique. You know it doesn’t have a race team like Red Bull. Red Bull have also been fantastic for developing drivers and giving opportunities, but Racing Steps has certainly on the British scene gone along and given the drivers the ability to display their skills etc. Unfortunately, you come to a scene where that’s not necessarily enough if you’re going to follow a Formula One career. Nowadays, that dreaded thing of ‘bought drives’ comes in and they’re highly financed. I think the structure of motorsport is wrong, and there needs to be a system that allows talent to be able to progress without having mega bucks to support it. So I think that in many ways, like Racing Steps is doing at this moment, they’ve got to look at perhaps feeding drivers perhaps into the American scene. One of our drivers will in fact be in America next year, and that is good from a point of view of taking the British challenge over there. But it’s sad that in a way Formula One does not necessarily, except in rare examples, take the very best drivers.

For next season, there’s the idea of introducing the double points round for the final race. What do you make of this idea?

JS: (sighs) It must be purely a commercial gimmick. I think it’s totally and utterly wrong. This means of trying to artificially change the results of championships or races is something which is not in the true spirit of what we should be trying to achieve.

Finally, would you be willing to make a prediction for this year’s world championship?

JS: Very difficult to say. It would depend largely how the engine side develops. When you go along and see the complete way that the Red Bull team is operated and its structure, and you have a driver like Sebastian Vettel who has been superb in every area and the way he attacks his racing is something which is an example to all these young drivers I think, they must have a chance to be right at the top. Ferrari, with the opportunity to develop the new engines and going back to V6s, there’s a chance for them. I’m not quite so sure how the relationship with Alonso and Raikkonen will work. It’s not the one I would necessarily have chosen, but just the same, they’ll be there. Mercedes, also. I don’t like what I’ve seen happening at Mercedes, this juggle that’s taking place and people like Ross Brawn going. But just the same, they have immense resources and some very good people, and two very capable drivers. McLaren’s last year with Mercedes will be trying to lift up their game. It’s going to be very interesting, and the first race everyone will eagerly watch how things develop.

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