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Interview with John Surtees: "I would have liked to talk to Schumacher"

On 25 October 1964, John Surtees made himself immortal. On this date, the seven-time motorcycle world champion won the World Cup Title with Ferrari in the Formula 1. The 80-year old Englishman is currently the only champion on two and four wheels. We visited Big John in England and chatted with him about his career. Today about his transition from motorcycle to car.

Had you always planned your career this way: First motorcycle racing, then the switch to the car?

Surtees: That was never intended. I grew up with motorcycles. My father was a motorcycle courier during the war. It all started with a bomb which fell into our garden during the war. We then moved to Yorkshire. In one of the moving crates was a whole stack of magazines. On top there was a motorcycle magazine with a photo of the Isle of Man TT on the cover. The picture showed Schorsch Meier as he flew over the crest of Bray Hill with his BMW. That fascinated me.

Many, many years later, after the end of my career, I met Schorsch Meier at the Salzburgring. He gave me one of his trophies. I drove exactly this motorcycle at the Salzburgring which I had tracked down and bought in America. That meant the world to me. Because the fuse for my career was initiated. I rebuilt Meier's machine from the original individual pieces. Today it stands in the BMW Museum. I found that the motorcycle should come back home. After the war, my father went back to motorcycle racing and I accompanied him. First, just as a passenger and his mechanic. Then I built my own motorcycles, starting racing with a Vincent and then I finally switched to Norton. After I had beaten world champion Geoff Duke, MV Agusta signed me under contract.

And how did they come to race cars?

Surtees: In 1958, I went to the ceremony for Sportsman of the Year. Mike Hawthorn had just become Formula 1 World Champion. I had won the motorcycle title. We sat at the same table with Reg Parnell, who was team manager of Aston Martin and with Vanwall founder Tony Vanderwell. Hawthorn said suddenly: John, you should try auto racing. Cars stand better than motorcycles. I was not interested.

Two months later I got a call Reg Parnell. He offered me the Aston Martin DBR1 for testing with which Stirling Moss had won the 1000 km Nürburgring. I told him that I would never drive a race car. He said I should try it. So I went to Goodwood, drove a few laps and got a contract offer. I declined with the words: I am a motorcycle racer. On the same evening, Tony Vander Well called and offered me his Formula 1 car to test. So back to Goodwood. I drove for two days and then told Tony that he would withdraw his retirement from racing if I would drive for him. Again I declined.

So what changed your mind?

Surtees: The relationship with MVAgusta deteriorated because I also continued motorcycle racing with my Norton in England. An Italian newspaper wrote: John Surtees does not need MV Agusta to win. The MV boss was upset and wanted me to give up driving the Norton. But would have meant too few races for me. The Word Cup season did not have as many races as it does today. Therefore, I told the MV people that I wanted to go race the 250cc class in addition to the 350cc and 500cc classes. Count Agusta also refused this. But there was nothing in my contract that would have stopped me from auto racing. So why not try?

My father suggested to buy a formula 2 car. I went to Cooper and bought a Cooper Climax. There, I met also Ken Tyrrell. He had already planned for me to race in his formula junior program, without asking me. Tyrrell had already talked with the RAC so that I could get a license without a lot of red tape. I only had to drive one training round under observation at Goodwood. Then I placed the car at the pole position. It was so new that it was driven without paint as with the Silver Arrows. I fought with Jim Clark in the race, until I made a mistake on the lap because I forgot that I had four wheels not two beneath me. At the end, I was second.

Were there other attempts?

Surtees: Yes, because the 1960 season still had not begun, I was free. The week after my début, I competed at Oulton Park on four wheels with my recently purchased Formula 2 car. Dad was first, I was second mechanic. I finished second behind Innes Ireland. In Aintree, I led the team of British cars as fourth with the fastest racing lap of the race. We did not stand a chance against the three Formula 2 Porsches. Colin Chapman came around the corner and invited me for a Formula 1 test with his Lotus. I was still a passionate motorcyclist and was not sure whether I should accept the offer. After the test at Silverstone he offered me a drive with a factory Lotus. I told him that I had no time because of the motorcycle racing. He said that I could always drive when there were no motorcycle races pending. We shook hands on it.

You were a Formula 1 driver after only three races in race cars?

Surtees: Yes, everything went rapidly. Also with the Formula 1 car. I had to drop out of the first two races. In a race in Silverstone which did not count toward the World Cup, an oil pump went on strike. In Monte Carlo, the transmission went out. I finished second at the English GP. In Portugal, I placed the car at the pole position. With my third GP start! I held a comfortable lead until I squirted a liquid over the pedals and I slipped off the brake. I ended up in the bales of straw. That still annoys me even today.

After that Colin wanted to make me the number 1 driver. He asked me to choose my team-mates. I said that I would like to drive with Jimmy Clark. Third place on the team was Innes Ireland and he did not like me. The old-timers were often sceptical toward the newcomers back then. There was a big argument. Innes had a contract and insisted on it. I kept out of it because this scene was still too new for me. All of a sudden, I stood there without a cockpit. Maybe I should have asserted myself more, but I was living in a new world which I was not familiar with.

Did the easy transition to cars surprise you?

Surtees: Yes and no. They're both driving machines. Only the interpretation of driving them is different. I had learned my craft on motorcycles. There, everything was natural and relaxed. The film ran slowly, just as it should. I was initially tense in the car. Since I had no experience, the tension and concentration were intense. With more experience I felt more comfortable and more at ease. Fast corners were no problem. Here, a ride on the motorcycle was very similar. For slow curves, you need a completely new technique in the car. Then motorcycles back then were far away from the lines and the set-up of the car. Today's machines are much closer to each other. They brake better; have more rubber.

For both disciplines, you need a feeling for speed and balance. Where is the biggest difference?

Surtees: From a technical point of view, the set-up and tire management. I always tried to place myself in the car or the motorcycle and understand what it wanted to tell me. Initially, I was only a translator for the cars. Due to my lack of knowledge, I had to depend on the engineers. There were no computers. There were only three parameters. The tire temperatures, the statements of the drivers and stop clock. For me, the largest learning requirement was in having to get to know new people. I lived in my two-wheel world and knew everyone there.

I knew how each of my colleagues would react in a duel. I knew the drivers; who I could trust and not trust. That is why I was much more decisive in passing manoeuvres. The same was true on the sidelines. I had to start from scratch when I changed to four wheels. I made my mistakes and paid with accidents. Because I was too trusting. The teams were rather small compared to today's. It was still important to have a good network on the team. At Lotus, it was easy. You talked to Colin Chapman. He understood racing drivers because he himself was a very good driver. At Ferrari, it was then more difficult. There were a lot of politics.

Would the change from a car to a motorcycle have been more difficult?

Surtees: The connection of the car to the driver is the seat. You are strapped in tightly in it. On the motorcycle, you can move around. The G-forces feel different. It's probably harder to change from the car to the motorcycle. It would have been nice to talk to Michael Schumacher on the topic. He did motorcycle racing after his Ferrari time.

Why are there so few motorcycle racers who were successful in the car?

Surtees: Mike Hailwood was a very good race driver in cars. He was somewhat lost in his first phase in 1962 at Lola and he returned to motorcycles. His father had convinced him to follow in my footsteps. Mike then returned to Formula 1 after a longer pause, this time with my team. I wanted to help him with my experience. Mike has done a good job for us. We came within an inch of winning a Grand Prix together. It's true that many have failed. And I told him why. Because they were already too old to change. We hall have a performance curve. And sometimes it points downward. But you are only able to adjust yourself prior to this,

Then we are too set in our ways. Then you only trust your experience and your knowledge to maintain your performance. I was 25 years old when I took the plunge.. At that time, I still had a good ten years before me as a motorcyclist. If I hadn't done it in 1960, I may never have done it. Right after that, the Japanese entered motorcycle sports. If I had let myself be pulled into a project then, I would have possibly remained true to motorcycles.

Tomorrow you can read about how the serious accident in Mosport costed John Surtees the World Cup title in 1966 and how his time at Ferrari ended.



Daniel Reinhard


25 January 2015
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