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Yesterday’s Hero – John Surtees

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.


John Surtees in the Ferrari 158, 1964

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.

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Formula 1 Bad Boys

Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to have been in trouble with police in Hungary over a matter of alcohol and sitting behind the wheel of a car. This follows other stories of the flying Finn’s night club and partying exploits.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen and friend

It has echoes of an F1 tradition that we all thought had died out with the advent of the super-professional driver epitomized by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher: the “bad boy” syndrome. In the 1950s, many drivers were renowned for their wild behavior at parties, Mike Hawthorn especially gaining a reputation for being heavily into wine, women and song. It was as though the working class lads, who suddenly found the heights of motor sport available to them, intended to make the most of their brief moments of fame. They worked hard and they played hard.

This continued into the sixties, although there were already signs of a growing professionalism that had no time for drunken high jinks. Drivers like Jim Clark and John Surtees were serious about racing and saw it as a profession rather than a bit of fun. Some, such as Graham Hill, still knew how to relax and party between races, however.

By the 1970s, advertising had upped the stakes so high that it was clear that F1 was now more of a business than a sport; the sober attitude of most drivers reflected this too. So James Hunt stands out as the last of the playboy drivers, an isolated throwback to F1′s wilder days. With his retirement, we all thought that era was gone forever.

Through the eighties and nineties we became used to the dour professionals, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, pursuing their career objectives with unwavering intensity. Flashes of humor from such as Johnny Herbert gave relief but the overall atmosphere was that this was far too serious a business to have fun in (hmmm, I think I just identified the reason for Minardi’s huge popularity).

And now Kimi Raikkonen arrives to upset all our preconceived notions. It would have to be someone like him, of course – a driver so talented that all his off track adventures can be ignored by the team manager. Oh, there might be the occasional “talking-to” in the motorhome but, when you’re paying the guy millions to drive for you, it’s not easy to lay down the law about his private life.

What Kimi does for us all is demonstrate that it’s possible to be damn good at your job and still have a good time on your days off. For too long we have believed that only the dedicated monomaniac can get to the very top of any profession. Kimi shows that, with youth, talent and energy, that doesn’t have to be true. After all, what is the point in being paid so much if you can’t live a little as a result?

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Lola Cars – the Survivor

Over the years, F1 has seen countless new teams arrive, compete briefly and then disappear. Very rarely does a new team survive long enough to join the list of the great ones. But there is one constructor that has hovered on the edge of the sport and never gone away, adopting a policy of making F1 cars for others but avoiding direct involvement. I speak of Eric Broadley’s Lola cars, of course.

Lola is the one constructor we would all love to see involved in F1; they have a long history of success in other forms of racing and, if properly funded, would almost certainly produce competitive cars. It will never happen now – FIA rules have as good as killed off the chances of new constructors entering the sport – but we can still dream of what might have been.

The closest Lola came to running their own F1 team was way back in 1962. For that year they produced cars for the Bowmaker Yeoman team to be driven by John Surtees and Roy Salvadori. Its potential was shown by John in gaining pole position for its very first race but results thereafter were disappointing. Lola withdrew from the project at the end of the year.

1962 Lola

John Surtees in the 1962 Lola

From then on, Lola kept at arms length from F1, designing and building cars for others to try their luck. They had a hand in the Honda RA300 of 1967 (which won the Italian GP that year) and there followed a long list of customers. One of the most notable of these was Graham Hill’s team sponsored by Embassy. The car showed promise but its chances were cut short in 1975 by Graham’s tragic death in a flying accident.

Embassy Hill

Graham Hill in the Embassy Hill

Incidentally, in researching for this post, I came across the entry list for the 1974 British GP. I was struck by the numbers of small constructors on the list – Iso-Marlboro (Frank Williams’ team at the time), Trojan, Ensign, Hesketh, Maki, Lyncar and Token, as well as several old works cars entered by private concerns. Most of them did not qualify but at least they had a go. The seventies really were the heyday of the little guy, all thanks to the ubiquitous Cosworth/Hewland combination.

In the late nineties, there was news of yet another attempt by Lola to enter F1, this time as a full works team. Nothing much transpired, however, as promised sponsorship money evaporated and we are left still wondering what would have happened had Lola put all their efforts into F1.

I have said before that Chris Amon was the best driver never to win an F1 race (interestingly, he drove a Lola in 1963). Could it be that Lola was the best F1 car constructor never to enter the sport?

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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.

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