The other day I was taking a rare break from the computer and happened to catch the MotoGP race in Shanghai. My son is an avid motorbike racing fan and I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge from him, so the names were not completely unknown to me. Rossi is the man, of course, and the Ducatis are incredibly fast this year – that much I knew.
It was a good, exciting race but what struck me most were the interviews at the end. The riders are so young! Fresh-faced innocents playing truant from school, it seemed. Okay, maybe it’s the old fogy syndrome kicking in (everyone looks young to me these days) but it does bring home the fact that you have to be a bit insane to race bikes. And the insanity of the young is the belief that they cannot die.
It might have been that I was young at the time too, but John Surtees never looked young to me. His long list of bike racing championships prove that he had the necessary streak of madness, however. Which makes his success in converting to four wheels in 1960 all the more remarkable – few bikers live up to expectations when attempting that and Rossi probably made the right decision in sticking with MotoGP rather than taking a Ferrari drive.
John is famous mainly through being the only man to be a world champion on both two wheels and four but he actually has some claim to being as quick as Jim Clark. While Jim stuck with the design skills of Colin Chapman and so always had a competitive car, John raced for a series of constructors, some good and some not so good. Yet John was always in the hunt, often extracting more from his car than it wanted to give.
In fact, Surtees was a man ahead of his time; as well as being a fast driver, he was also interested in tinkering with the car to improve it. He was, indeed, the prototype of the modern driver, being able to sense what parts of the car needed tweaking and working with the engineers to perfect it. It was entirely natural that he should progress to building his own cars in the seventies, but not before he had supplied Honda with their first ever F1 win (Mexico, 1968).
The sixties is a decade that has gone down in history as belonging to Jim Clark; quite rightly so, since he had more success than any other driver of his era. But there was one that he raced against who should stand shoulder to shoulder with him in our memories. And that man is John Surtees.