JUN 25th 2014

Q&A: 'Try cars, they stand up easier' John Surtees talks two wheels and four

This weekend at Goodwood, a true champion takes centre stage as guest of honour of the 2014 Festival of Speed. Someone not just ‘addicted to winning’ but a born racer able to win at the highest level – on two wheels or four. It’s a claim to fame that immediately calls up one name and one name only: John Surtees.

This is a big year for John – or as he would prefer to have it, a big year for the charity he set up after his son, Henry, was killed in a freak accident at Brands Hatch in 2010. The Henry Surtees Foundation is the beneficiary of John’s public works this year, and there’s no shortage of those, at Goodwood and elsewhere. Perhaps more drives, rides, lunches, openings, book-signings and interviews since he was winning grands prix.

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Why this year? It’s his 80th birthday and 50 years since the seven-times motor cycle World Champion did what no one had ever done before and went on to win the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship. ‘This year gives me an opportunity to celebrate things I wouldn’t normally worry about, particularly the 80 years part, and make them work for the foundation,’ John tells us when we arrive at his Elizabethan manor house in Surrey for the Goodwood Road & Racing birthday interview. The foundation has raised almost half a million pounds to help air ambulance services and support youngsters find a career in motor sport.

John is taking his FoS driving responsibilities seriously: we arrive with the dust still settling on the driveway after his own impromptu shake-down tests with the Ferrari 158 he will be driving at FoS. ‘I needed to make sure the clutch adjustment was correct,’ he says, quickly adding, ‘but don’t publicise that – if there’s any noise round here I always blame Gatwick…’

Are you looking forward to driving up the hill again?

It’s always very special at Goodwood the way you reacquaint yourself with old friends, both people and machinery. But it can be quite highly pressured riding a bike in one session and driving a car in another. Getting out of leathers into overalls and back again is a little tiring. Which is why this year I am only driving.

But you are driving the Ferrari 158 – your championship-winning car from 1964. What’s it like?

We had highs and lows and at times I cursed the car but we did achieve the championship with it. We got the handling quite nice; it was in between a Lotus and a more forgiving, more tail-out Cooper. It wouldn’t have done so well at the fast circuits if it hadn’t been like that. When it was on song it was able to compete pretty well with the best of the Climaxes. The only thing was it did vary. The fuel injection was difficult to calibrate, and we had quite a variation in performance depending on temperature and conditions. The car didn’t really get developed properly until later.

Are you going to make a lot of noise in the 158? Plenty of wheelspin?

There’s no point in people not hearing the engines, but I am not going to let it scream to silly levels. If an engine can go to 10,500 revs then it’s quite sensible to take it to 10,000. We didn’t do burn-outs and doughnuts in our time and I don’t think they have a place. Might be fine if you are in other people’s machinery…

The FoS theme this year is ‘addicted to winning’. How addicted were you at the time?

I think everyone who goes racing must have that objective in mind. You can’t be happy playing second fiddle. For me, the bike side went pretty well. I couldn’t complain about that, as private owner and works rider. But you always want more. At Ferrari we could have had more (championships). The most annoying time in one’s career is when you can’t win. And there were times in my car racing career when things didn’t work out.

John Surtees (left) leafs through his biography with GRR's Bob Murray

Anything you’d change if you could?

Sometimes I became too enthusiastic about the challenge of a new machine. If I had been looking at it entirely as John Surtees racing driver I would have been a little more careful making sure I was always sat in the most competitive cars. Despite that I wouldn’t want to have missed any of the experiences I have had, and the people I have been able to work with. I remember Mr Ferrari’s last words to me not long before he died. ‘John, we must remember the good times and not the mistakes’. I think that sums everything up.

Did you think you were being particularly innovative at the time going from bikes to cars?

One or two drivers before the war had done it. There was a German rider who had won the TT who started to race grand prix cars. The person I had to beat in motorcycling was Geoff Duke and he had tried his hand at cars with Aston Martin.

Could someone win titles on bikes and cars again?

People say it could never be done again but I wouldn’t say that. If they are young enough to adapt to the change then who knows?

How did your switch from two to four wheels come about?

I went to a Sportsman of the Year dinner on Park Lane in 1958. I was with Tony Vandervell (whose Vanwalls had just won that year’s constructors’ championship), Aston Martin team owner Reg Parnell and Mike Hawthorn. Mike said to me, ‘You should try cars, they stand up easier’. A couple of months later Reg rang me and asked if I would go to Goodwood to do some testing with DBR1 – the car that Stirling had won with at the ‘Ring. So I went down to Goodwood and I suppose I just took to it. I certainly didn’t find any difficulty. Reg offered me a contract but I just said no, I am a motorcyclist.

Then a bit later Tony rang, said he’d heard I’d been driving the Aston and that he was taking the Vanwall out of mothballs for me so I could test that. So it was back to Goodwood for two days of testing. The Vanwall was a strange car to handle but I went as quick in it as anyone who had driven it before. But again I just said no, I am a motorcyclist.

So what happened next?

At the end of 1959 MV Agusta wanted to restrict me to world championship races only which meant very few races. But there was nothing in the contract to stop me driving a car – so I went to John Cooper and bought an F2 car. John introduced me to Ken Tyrrell who was just forming his team. He said he’d heard what I’d done in testing and that he was building me a car, he’d entered me at Goodwood, he’d spoken to the RAC and had even arranged my licence.

Your first race was at Goodwood…

That’s right. I put the car on pole and had a dice with Jimmy Clark in the works Lotus, then I got it wrong and went off on the grass lapping someone, but eventually came home second.

That’s surely an extraordinary achievement – what did you feel at the time?

I thought it was quite interesting…

Are you a more natural rider or driver?

It’s the suit you are wearing at the time.

Okay, so which was the more rewarding for you?

The one that placed the most strain on me was the car racing. Particularly in the early years when I knew none of the other competitors. A major thing in racing is to know who you are competing against, those you can take liberties with, those you have to steer clear of and those you can have total confidence in when you are racing wheel to wheel.

How would you go driving in F1 today?

I don’t think the challenges are any different. You have to relate to the machine in the same way even though you have to apply yourself differently because of the different technology. Basically, once a competitor always a competitor.

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Apart from seven motorcycle World Championships, six Isle of Man TT wins, F1 with Lotus, BRM, Cooper, Honda and the F1 title with Ferrari, sports car wins at Sebring and the Nürburgring and Monza 1000km, numerous Le Mans starts, victory in the Can-Am championship in a Lola you helped develop, and running your own team – is there anything you feel is missing?

I would dearly love to have continued Team Surtees from 1973. It was a great shame to have to wind the team down after winning in F2 and knocking on the door of F1. The team story is one where I had to compromise too much to keep things together.

As for races, I would have liked to have driven at Indianapolis. I tested the car and was ready to do it in 1966 but then at the end of ’65 I had my big accident and had to concentrate on getting fit for my main responsibility, which was Ferrari. So I turned it down. I recommended that Graham Hill take my place which he did. And he won.

What’s in your garage these days?

I keep most of my cars and bikes here at home, and I have my own workshop which is where I look after the bikes. Some of my road cars are here as well. I like BMWs and have a 507, a 503 cabriolet, a 503 coupé (which needs restoring) and a Bertone-designed 3200 V8 CS coupe from 1962. I also have a Mercedes-Benz SL Gullwing from 1956, one of the last made.

The road car with the most memories for me is the 507 which I have had from new. Agusta asked me if I would like a present for winning my first motorcycle World Championship. I was in Germany and had seen this beautiful BMW, so I suggested a 507. We ended up going fifty-fifty on it! I used to drive it backwards and forwards to Italy. But then when I joined Ferrari, Mr Ferrari said he didn’t like me driving a German car so then I had to have Ferraris.

If there was only one tankful of petrol left in the world what would you put it in?

The most important thing in your life is where it starts – the spark which ignites the flame. And the spark for me was the first race I ever won at Aberdare in Wales. On that day I came together with machine to create a mechanical relationship which stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. So I would put that last tank in my Vincent Grey Flash because that’s where it all started for me.

What doesn’t the world know about John Surtees?

My life has been an open book, no massive secrets at all. All people should appreciate about me is that I loved what I did. The only reason I was able to do it was because I was good enough at it, otherwise I would never have been able to manage it.

The John Surtees vehicle display is situated opposite the Media Centre at the Festival of Speed. John will be signing copies of his new book, John Surtees: My Incredible Life on Two and Four Wheels (Evro Publishing, 304pp, standard edition £50, leather-bound £175) every day of FoS at the Surtees marquee. There will be a presentation to Lord March at 4pm on Friday. All proceeds from the book and from the sale of merchandise on the stand go to the Henry Surtees Foundation, the charity set up by John in 2010 after his 18-year-old son Henry was killed in a freak accident at Brands Hatch when a wheel came off another car and struck him on the head.

Photography: David Edmund-Jones

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