Motorsport

John Surtees CBE

For my latest interview, I caught up with the only man to win on both two & four wheels. The late John Surtees CBE to discuss his amazing career and how can people get involved with the Henry Surtees Foundation?

 

  • You started your racing career out on two wheels. How surprised were you to rapidly ascend the motorbike racing ladder having won your first of four 500cc Championships in your first season for the Augusta team in 1956 whilst absolutely dominating the 350 and 500cc championships from 1958-60?
  • After I won my first race at the end of 1950 on my Vincent Grey Flash, my race career developed at a fast rate. I had a lot of success on British circuits from then on including in 1952 leading and challenging Geoff Duke on the works Norton with my Grey Flash at Thruxton. Towards the end of 1953 I got my first Norton and took part in my first ever World Championship event, the Ulster Grand Prix finishing 6th.  In 1954 I rode 350cc and 500cc Nortons and a 250cc REG having wins at every event I took part in.  In 1955 I joined Norton and again had an extremely successful season on the British circuits and selected international races as well as winning the Ulster GP 250cc race on an NSU.  I also was able to beat Geoff Duke twice on British circuits at the end of the season.  Therefore, when I joined the Grand Prix team there was no-one, apart from one or two Italian riders, who I would be competing against who I hadn’t already beaten riding a Vincent or Norton.

 

  • What was it like racing against the legendary Geoff Duke en route to your 500CC titles?
  • Geoff Duke had been World Champion on both Norton and Gilera which speaks for itself.

 

  • When the opportunity arose for you to try out four-wheel racing in 1960, how tough was it to adapt to racing cars after a successful decade of racing on two wheels?
  • In 1960, I took the decision to drive cars as well as compete in the motorcycle World Championships. This was only due to Count Agusta restricting the amount of racing that I could do to only Championship events.  I had no problem producing the speed but obviously had to gain experience and knowledge of all the other competitors and of working together with a four wheeled machine as against two.

 

  • You started your F1 career at Lotus for Colin Chapman before declining a season long deal for 1961. If you accepted the deal, could you now of seen yourself winning the world championship earlier than you did with Ferrari?

Colin asked me to drive after I had done 3 or 4 junior races.   At the end of the season he offered me the number one slot in the team and choice of team mate.   I accepted the deal but then couldn’t stand some of the abuse I suffered from an existing team member.

 

  • How special was it to secure the 1964 F1 crown for Ferrari albeit in dramatic circumstances at the Mexican GP which saw an all British showdown between you, Jim Clark and Graham Hill for the drivers’ championship on international soil?
  • 1964 was of course special and a recovery programme because Ferrari was so occupied with Le Mans and we didn’t get going until after Le Mans. I should have won both the Austrian Grand Prix where I was leading but had a suspension failure and the American GP where I was taken off the track by a person I was lapping which allowed Graham Hill to get away.  It was about time that we should have a little fortune on our side but you have to remember that due to that engine misfire I had to recover from something like 14th position after those initial laps.

 

  • After winning the F1 championship, your relationship with Ferrari stayed strong despite a poor start to your title defence and culminated in your decision to quit the team on eve of the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours. How disappointed were you that both you and the team couldn’t push on and try to win more championships against Colin Chapman’s Lotus side?
  • Despite me having been upset that the team was not prepared for the F1 season properly again for 1965, I was still very much part of Ferrari and involved with both sport and F1 cars.  Enzo Ferrari was very understanding and helpful when I had my major accident in Canada.  With what was in the pipeline there was the opportunity to win perhaps a number of championships and both I and Enzo, as he later admitted, lost out over us parting.

 

  • After leaving Ferrari, you moved to Cooper Maserati and finished runner up to the late Sir Jack Braham before launching Team Surtees in 1970. Why did you decide to set up your own F1 team and what advice would you give youngsters who want to set their own racing team in the modern era?
  • With the Cooper Maserati it was still possible for me to have won the World Championship in 1966. Working with the team, the car became quite competitive, but a retirement at Reims from a front row grid position and leading on the first lap with the splitting of a bag tank when in the leading group at Monza, the loss of two gears at the Nurburgring when in a winning position and also being spun round by Peter Arundel exiting the pits at the US Grand Prix when again I was the fastest car on the track and in a potentially winning position, put paid to that.  The only consolation came was with the win in Mexico.

 

I set up my own team because of my frustration with the people that I had driven for in 1969.  Formula One is now very big business and not something that youngsters would normally contemplate.

 

  • You set up the Henry Surtees Foundation following a tragic accident at Brands Hatch involving your grandson, Henry who died after being struck by a loose wheel in 2009. How can people reading this get involved in raising money for the HSF which goes towards helping to assist people who have suffered head injuries in returning to their communities with support for equipment and facilities?
  • The Foundation was set up partly for the objectives you mention. We have a number of events and functions we get involved in where support is always welcome.  Please see our website.  In turn people can always do their own thing, and in many instances they have done running marathons etc.  All we can assure you is that we won’t waste a lot of your money on administration and will try and make every penny work.

 

  • Finally, what does it feel like to be the oldest F1 and MotoGP World Champion still alive today?
  • I have always wanted to be in front, however in relation to your last question this is one time that I would rather be behind as I still have a lot of things to do in life if I can find the time.

 

If want to check out the Henry Surtees Foundation website then please visit this link; http://henrysurteesfoundation.com/

 

 

6 thoughts on “John Surtees CBE

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