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John Surtees — unique F1 champion

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. One wonders how he would perform today in Nascar: Nascar Tickets.

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.