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A Unique Champion – John Surtees

John Surtees is still the only person ever to win world championships on both two wheels and four. I watched him in the sixties and, in my opinion, he was as fast as Jim Clark but not as astute in his choice of car. Jimmy stuck close to Colin Chapman throughout his career, knowing he was on to a good thing; Surtees made the risky decision to go to Ferrari, won a championship for them, and then fell out with il Commendatore. It was all downhill from there.

John Surtees

John Surtees

I will admit that my assessment of John Surtees is based almost entirely upon one race: the German Grand Prix of 1963. It was John’s first year with the Ferrari team and it looked as though he’d made a bad mistake in going there. In 1962 Ferrari had swept all before it with their shark-nosed 156, its V6 engine providing far more power and speed than the 4-cylinder Coventry Climax engines of the other teams. For 1963, however, Climax produced a V8 that immediately put the British cars ahead. Ferrari started work on a V8 of their own but, for most of the year, John had to soldier on with the V6.

It was a frustrating time for him but he tried hard in the underpowered car, usually achieving good finishes. And then came the German Grand Prix. This was held at the old Nurburgring, all 14 miles of it, the most challenging test of any driver with its huge variety of corners, straights, bumps, dips and even a banked corner known as the Carousel. The closest we have to it now is the shortened Grand Prix course at Spa in Belgium, but even that is a pale shadow in comparison to the Nurburgring. It was mighty and only very brave and capable drivers could win there.

Being a bike rider, John was certainly brave and he managed to qualify the Ferrari in second spot, right next to Jim Clark’s pole position. And, in the race, John hit the front and stayed there. For lap after lap he increased his lead over the more powerful Climax-engined cars, putting his car on the edge through every corner and wringing the utmost from the engine down the long straights. Clark tried hard but could not catch him.

In the end, John won by over a minute from Clark and the rest trailed in even further back. It was a victory won through the driver’s skill and courage alone, for we knew that the Ferrari was not the equal of the British cars, especially the Lotus. And it is the reason I think Jim Clark was not the fastest of them all in the sixties. The Nurburgring sorts them out and that day, August 4, 1963, John Surtees proved that he was a Ringmeister.

Surtees TS7

Surtees TS7

John went on from there to win the championship the next year and then to go from one failing team to another, eventually forming his own team to compete in the seventies. But, to me, his greatest moment came in Germany at the most terrifying circuit of all, when he showed the world that the great Jim Clark could be beaten and beaten well.

6 Responses to “A Unique Champion – John Surtees”

  1. Ah the ‘Ring!
    It’s very name holds echoes of terror, elation, death and victory! If Surtees won there with an under-powered car then he must be one of the greatest ever. The main straight of the ‘Ring goes on and on and on, so to keep a lead there he must have put tons of time on the others in the many corners.
    It looked for a while like Valentino Rossi might try to emulate the great Surtees by moving to F1. If anyone could equal Surtees record it would be Valentino but, as I suspected it would, it came to nothing. Rossi made some comment about not wanting to be a Formula 1 robot which I take to mean “Ferrari didn’t want me anymore.” Shame I’d love to see if his skills transfered to F1. :D

  2. Generally speaking, bike racers have not been a great success when they try to step up to F1, Mad. After Surtees, only Mike Hailwood proved at all useful on four wheels. I think different skills are involved in the two types of racing; bike racing requires enormous courage – in F1 that’ll get you killed; bikes still require that “seat-of-the-pants” thing, whereas F1 increasingly demands that you put your trust in the engineers and aerodynamics. What might be interesting is to see Rossi have a go at Indycars, where the cars still require a combination of brute force and guts to drive fast.

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention: it was indeed the corners that enabled Surtees to gain enough of a lead to hang on through the long straights. It is also true that his long experience of the Ring while riding bikes gave him a knowledge of the circuit that transferred well to cars. But he still had to get that Ferrari through the corners quicker than Clark, didn’t he? ;)

  4. If anyone could do it Rossi could do it. He started in karts so he’s not completely unfamiliar with two wheeled competition. They do say he was a second off the top F1 times straight away in the Ferrari…

  5. I meant FOUR wheeled there

  6. I knew that. ;)

    But, if it’s true that Rossi was only a second off the best times in a Ferrari, he would have been good, certainly. I wonder why they decided against him.

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