W eltmeister on two and four wheels. Nobody has done that before John Surtees and probably nobody after him will be able to decorate themselves with it. John Surtees made the one-off double on October 25, 1964 at the finals in Mexico City. After seven motorcycle titles, four of them in the premier class over 500 cubic centimeters, he now also had the most coveted trophy in automobile sport. It's comparable to a track and field athlete who won the gold medal in the long jump and in the high jump.
Surtees is alone with his performance to this day. The few who have tried to emulate him have failed. At our meeting in October 2014, Surtees said mischievously: “And if someone does manage to do it, at least I'll be the first.” In 1971 and 1972 Mike Hailwood came close to winning a GP. Both times in a Formula 1 car from Surtees. Other switchers like Bill Ivey, Giacomo Agostini, Johnny Cecotto or Eddie Lawson drowned on four wheels. Valentino Rossi left his hands on it after extensive test drives in a Ferrari.
John Surtees knew why: “Because they were all too old to switch. We all have a performance curve. And at some point it will point down. Only beforehand are you able to adapt. After that we are too immobile. Then you only trust your experience and knowledge to maintain your performance. I was 25 years old when I took the plunge. At that point, I still had ten good years ahead of me as a motorcycle racer. If I hadn't done it in 1960, it might never have happened. Shortly afterwards, the Japanese got into motorcycling. If I had got involved in a project, I might have always stayed true to motorcycles. ”
How Surtees came from motorcycles to cars
Surtees never planned a second career after motorcycling . He grew up with motorcycles. His father was a motorcycle courier during the war. Then he drove races. John was his mechanic and co-driver. He built his first racing bikes himself on the basis of a Vincent. The spark was provided by the cover picture of a motorcycle magazine: “The picture showed Schorsch Meier flying his BMW over Bray Hill near the Isle of Man. That fascinated me. Many, many years later, after finishing my career, I met Schorsch Meier at the Salzburgring. I found Meier's machine in America, itrebuilt from the original individual pieces and then drove exactly this motorcycle. That meant a lot to me. “
Surtees later sold the machine to BMW. It's there in the museum. “I thought this bike had to go home. After the war my father drove motorcycle races again and I went with him. At first only as a passenger and his mechanic. Then I built my motorcycles myself, started racing a Vincent and then finally switched to Norton. After I beat world champion Geoff Duke, MV Agusta signed me. ”
In 1960, Surtees ended as double world champion in the 350 and 500 class. Like all of his titles, he drove them out on an MV Agusta. But the relationship with the Italian cult brand had cooled down a bit this year. “I also drove my Norton to motorcycle races in England. An Italian newspaper wrote: John Surtees doesn't need an MV Agusta to win. The MV boss was angry and wanted to forbid me to drive on the Norton. But that would have been too few races for me. Back then, the World Cup season didn't consist of as many races as it does today. That is why I suggested to the MV people that I also want to race 250 in addition to the 350 and 500 classes. Count Agusta also refused. ”
Chance brought Surtees to the racing car
But there was nothing in the contract that prevented Surtees from racing. So why not give it a try? “My father suggested buying a Formula 2 car. I went to Cooper and bought a Cooper Climax. There I met Ken Tyrrell. He had already scheduled me for races in his Formula Junior program without asking me. Tyrrell had already agreed with the RAC that I should get a license without much bureaucracy. I just had to do one practice session at Goodwood. Then I put the car on pole position. It was so new that it drove without paint, like the Silver Arrows once did. In the race, I fought with Jim Clark until I made a mistake while lapping because he forgot that I was no longer two, buthad four wheels under me. In the end I came in second. ”
The motorcycle ace had first made contact with the four-wheeler scene back in 1958 when he was named 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 Principal at Aston Martin, and Vanwall founder Tony Vanderwell. Hawthorn suddenly said, John, you should be racing. Cars see better than motorcycles. I didn't want to hear about it. ”
Two months later, Reg Parnell called Surtees. “He offered me the Aston Martin DBR1 for testing, with which Stirling Moss had won the 1,000 kilometers at the Nürburgring. I told him that I had never driven a racing car. He said I should try. So I went to Goodwood, did a few laps, and they offered me a contract. But I refused with the words: I am a motorcycle racer. Tony Vanderwell contacted me that evening and offered me his Formula 1 car for testing. So I'm back to Goodwood. I drove for two days and after that Tony told me that if I drove for him, he would undo his retirement from racing. Again I canceled. ”
In 1960 the ice broke. The motorcycle season had not yet started. “In the week after my debut on four wheels, I competed in Oulton Park with the Formula 2 car I just bought. Dad was first mechanic, I was second. I finished second behind Innes Ireland. At Aintree, I led the ranks of English cars in fourth with the fastest lap. We had no chance against the three Porsche Formula 2 cars. Colin Chapman came around the corner and invited me to a Formula 1 test with his Lotus. ”
Surtees was still a motorcycle racer at heart and therefore not sure whether to accept the offer. After the test at Silverstone, he offered me to drive a factory Lotus. I told him I didn't have time because of the motorcycle races. He said I should always go when there were no motorcycle races going on. We agreed with a handshake. '
Second in the second Grand Prix, pole position in the third
Surtees hit Formula 1 like a bomb. “I dropped out in the first two races. At the race in Silverstone, which was not part of the World Championship, an oil pump went on strike. The gearbox broke in Monte Carlo. I finished second at the British GP. In Portugal, I put the car on pole position. It was only my third GP start. I guided comfortably until liquid splashed over the pedals and I slipped off the brakes. I landed in the straw bale. That still annoys me today. “
Then Colin Chapman wanted to make Surtees his number 1 in the stable for 1961. “Colin asked me to choose my teammate. I said I would love to drive with Jimmy Clark. Third was Innes Ireland and he didn't like me. TheOld hands were often skeptical of the newcomers back then. Then there was a big argument. Innes had a contract and insisted on it. I stayed out because the auto scene was still too new for me. Suddenly I was standing there without a cockpit. Maybe I should have asserted myself harder, but I lived in a new world I didn't know anyone. '
In 1961 Surtees drove Cooper with moderate success. Ferrari was easy to think about this season. In 1962, the switch made a name for himself as a reliable newcomer to the new Lola team. Surtees finished fourth with 19 points. Enzo Ferrari had seen enough. From 1963 John Surtees was a Ferrari works driver. And was instrumental in ensuring that the brand came back to the top after having bottomed out. The first GP victory in 1963 at the Nürburgring was followed by the world championship title a year later.
Surtees had an interesting explanation for the smooth transition to the unfamiliar profession: “They are both driving machines. Only the interpretation of driving it is different. I learned my trade on motorcycles. Everything went natural and relaxed. The film was slowly playing as it should be. At first I was cramped in the car. Since I had no experience, the tension and concentration was more intense. With more experience, I felt more comfortable and more comfortable. Fast corners were not a problem. The driving experience was very similar to that of a motorcycle. For slow corners you need completely new technology in the car. The motorcycles of the time were far removed from the car from the lines and setup. Today's machines are much closer. They brake better, have more rubber pads. '
The other way around would have been more difficult, believed the master of all classes:' The connection between the car and the driver is the seat. You are strapped into it. You move on the motorcycle. The centrifugal forces feel different. It is likely to be more difficult to jump from your car onto your motorcycle. It would have been nice to talk to Michael Schumacher about the subject. He drove motorcycle races after his time in Ferrari. “Before contact was made, Schumacher had his skiing accident.
The breakthrough came on the Solitude
in the 1964 World Cup Surtees don't look like a future world champion for a long time. As usual, Ferrari initially focused on the Le Mans 24 Hours. A win there sold more cars for the road. The new Ferrari V8 engine distributed its 210 hp unevenly across the rev range and was accordingly difficult to drive. Surtees described it as follows: “A lot of power at the top, nothing below.” The worm was in the Bosch injection. “It was actually developed for engines with a larger displacement than the 1.5 liter that our Formula 1 engine had at the time. The English V8s from Climax and B.R.M. had a lot of power, especially in the middle speed range. Our engine was only in very specific weather conditionscompetitive. It couldn't be too cold or too warm so that the mixture was properly prepared. '
The racing engineer Michael May found the solution. “He built a new regulator for the injection. We then tested it on the Solitude. We now had significantly more power in the middle speed range. The improved responsiveness of our V8 paid off at the Nürburgring because there are many passages where the engine had to hang on to the accelerator. I then won the race and that brought me back to the title race. “
At the next race in Austria, Surtees was leading again when the rear suspension broke. Team-mate Lorenzo Bandini won the race, which Ferrari confirmed by having a competitive car. Then Monza followed. “The track and the weather were perfect for our engine. At the top we've always had a good performance. And in contrast to Spa at the beginning of the season, the pistons held out this time too. My second win this year brought me the World Cup lead. “
But it was not without drama. B.R.M. boss Louis Stanley tried to impose a start ban on Surtees. The Englishman was involved in an accident with a Ferrari GTO at a race at Goodwood the week before, in which he hit his head. “I suffered a mild concussion, which led Stanley to have my attendance banned on medical grounds. Our team manager, Mr. Dragoni, helped me for the only time in my Ferrari career. He took me to Milan to an institute that works with NASA doctors. They had developed a process with which one could determine from the reactions whether I was fit to drive a race. They wired me up and found that everything was okay. '
The grand finale in Mexico City
After finishing second in Watkins-Glen behind Graham Hill, three drivers drove along Title chances to the final in Mexico. It became a thriller. Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jim Clark grabbed the crown. Thedecisive battle started badly for Ferrari's number one. Engine damage during training, dropouts at the start, only 13th place after the first lap. 'Only when the engine got hot did it run properly again.' By the middle of the race, Surtees had caught up with his teammate Bandini, who was fighting for 3rd place with Graham Hill behind Jim Clark and Dan Gurney.
Bandini pushed Hill in an attack from the track and was from then on suspected of having deliberately provided shooting assistance. Surtees saw the incident differently. “Graham had two Ferraris in the rearview mirror. He didn't even know where to look first and tried to choose his line in such a way that neither of us could outsmart him. As we approached the hairpin in a pack of three, I could see Graham blocking the inside lane and Lorenzo attacking outside. At the exit of the corner their paths crossed because Graham was being carried outside and Lorenzo wanted to push into the gap inside. They collided and I dived inside. “
Still, Surtees had to wait until the last lap for the ball to hit the number 7 car. Clark was in the lead and on course for the World Cup. But he was already pulling an oil plume behind him. First, the Scot lost the lead to Dan Gurney, then second to Surtees. The 6 points were enough because Graham Hill received nothing. Surtees saw Clark's bad luck as a balancing act. 'During the season I had more technical problems than Jimmy.'
Surtees looked back on his big moment with astonishingly emotionlessness 50 years later: '! For me it was just one race of many. I didn't think about the World Cup stand. I said to myself: drive as fast as you can without your car collapsing and the rest will take care of itself. When I crossed the finish line, I didn't know whether I had won the title. When I got back to the pits, I saw my chief mechanic Borsari with a big grin and the Ferrari flag. That's when I knew I had the title. '
The black hour of Mosport
Only nine months after winning the title, Surtees almost died in a test accident in a Lola sports car. “The accident shouldn't have happened. For me it was good that Lola told me afterwards that a wheel carrier had broken. Attributed to a defective casting. That took away the worry that I'd made a mistake. Otherwise it would have been more difficult to return. '
Despite many broken bones and serious internal injuries, Surtees made it back to the racetrack. “After the accident, I was four inches shorter on one side. My pelvis was split, my thighs broken. The biggest problem was the bruised kidneys. The car landed on me after the rollover. A doctor from St Thomas Hospital in London flew to Canada to examine me. At his instigation, I straightened up againdrawn. It fit to within eight millimeters. The doctors recommended that the best healing is possible in warm weather and in water. That's how I flew to Guadeloupe. There was a nice beach there. There I lay down in the shallow water and did my exercises with my legs. When I got into a racing car for the first time, I was still on crutches. They lifted me into the 2.4 liter Tasman car with a lifting device. And I beat the lap record for Formula 1 at the Modena Autodrom. “
In his absence, a lot had changed in Maranello. Surtees got caught up in the political mills of the Scuderia. Although Surtees won the Belgian GP in 1966, race director Eugenio Dragoni favored the Italian Bandini. “Mr. Dragoni was the only one who wasn't happy about my victory. He didn't think so: “There was a scandal at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Surtees left Ferrari head over heels and switched to Cooper-Maserati. Although he also won a race on the Cooper, changing teams probably cost him the title. “I could have become world champion in 1966 too. Later, Enzo Ferrari and I regretted this step. I saw him just before he died. He said to me, John, we should only remember the good days, not our mistakes. And it was a mistake. I was a bit too impulsive, also because I wanted to make a good comeback after the accident. 'Surtees compensated with winning the title in the dollar-heavy CanAm series.
The third career as a racing team owner
According to Surtees, he was driven by more pragmatismas frustration at this decision: “After all the problems at B.R.M. I wanted to use my own chassis, derived from a Formula 5000 car. I bought Len Terry's Formula 5000 car to have film actor James Garner drive in it. The car was successful in the US and Europe. I had my baby there. The Formula 5000 car became the Surtees TS5. And from that came the plan to do everything myself in the future. I bought a new factory. My first Formula 1 car, the TS7, was ready for the GP England in 1970. “
For nine years, the world champion competed in the premier class with his own team on two and four wheels. Often more bad than right. Surtees lacked the financial means to expand like his idols Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. In 1972 the racing team had its best year with 18 points and 5th place in the World Championship. In 1978 Surtees closed down bitterly. The man they called Big John stayed connected to motorsport until his death. Surtees died on March 10, 2017 at the age of 83 of complications from pneumonia.
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