Surtees was born in February 1934 in Tatsfield, Surrey.
He started racing bikes at 15, going on to win the 500cc
World Championship in 1956, '58, '59 and '60. He also won
the 350cc title in 1958, '59 and '60. For good measure,
Surtees also competed in the TT with some success, winning
the Senior in 1956, coming 2nd in the Senior and 4th in
the Junior in '57, winning both in '58 and '59 and winning
the Senior in '60 while coming 2nd in the Junior.
Driving Formula One cars
for Lotus when he was not racing bikes for MV Agusta in
1960, he was second in the British Grand Prix and had other
notable successes at the end of that year. He retired from
motorcycling and became a full time driver in 1961. He won
the F1 World Championship in 1964, driving a Ferrari, and
to this day remains the only man ever to have achieved world
titles on both 2 and 4 wheels.
Renowned as a forthright
and straight talking character, Surtees is not that fond
of talking to journalists. We are extremely fortunate, then,
that he agreed to an interview with Simon Bradley late in
SB: You're still the
only man ever to have been a world champion on both 2 and
4 wheels. Do you think anyone is likely to achieve that
might. He’s started early enough. I first saw a bike
race after the war when I was 11, and started tinkering
soon afterwards. I had my first race at 15. Rossi raced
earlier than that and got a few championships under his
belt early. Whoever does it, though, they'll have to make
a conscious decision to stop bike racing and go to cars
at that point, perhaps because he has realised his ambitions
and has become excited by a new challenge.
SB: So how did you make the transition?
JS: Well I got into car racing having raced just about everything
I could with 2 wheels and won just about everything going.
Count Agusta wanted to restrict me to just Championship
events, only about 8 meetings a year which wasn’t
enough for me. I was only 25 and still in my ascendancy,
and I loved racing. I wasn’t worried about the competition
– at that stage I had beaten everyone around on either
Norton or MV – but racing was my entire life and so
I needed more than I would have been allowed to do. I looked
at my contract which had a year to run and saw that it didn’t
restrict me from car racing.
I saw my first car race from the cockpit
of racing car at Goodwood in 1960. My 1st race was in Formula
Junior, and I was pipped on the line by Jim Clarke in works
Lotus. The next race was at Oulton Park as a private entry
in Cooper Climax F2 – my father and I took van &
trailer up there - and I came 2nd to Innes Ireland in the
other works Lotus. Well my 3rd race was the Aintree International
against many works teams. I came in 3rd behind both works
Porsches, was the first Brit home and set the fastest lap.
Colin Chapman rang me and said “You’re driving
F1.” I said “Am I? No, I’m motorcycling.”
He just “Come along for a try.” So I went to
Silverstone and tried out. It must have gone reasonably
well because Colin said “When you’re not racing
motorbikes you can race a car.” So my fourth ever
car race was in F1 at 25.
You know, lots of times, people scrabble
round looking for something else to do in life when they’re
over the hill. There’s a power curve for people –
they go along and have to match their natural physical ability
with their experience. As they get older their physical
ability deteriorates but that is partly offset by their
increasing experience. They may not have the dash or even
motivation of when they were younger but their experience
keeps them ahead of the game. This is not the time to change
path – you need to be on the upward slope for both
things. Rossi will still be the same age as I was if he
changes path during the next couple of years.
SB: What do you think of the current
crop of bike racers?
JS: I haven't really studied
them but I believe that it is vital we get someone in the
results in MotoGP. World Superbikes is good racing but it
is only a stepping stone. I saw the final at Imola and thought
it was a good scrap where both riders used their heads,
raced hard and put on a good show. Ambition should drive
them both into GP (it has – Ed) in the same
way that when you become British Champion you then want
to move on to become World Champion. It’s a shame
that Fogarty never really had the confidence in his abilities
to take the chance of a less certain paycheque in GP racing
against the sure bet in Superbikes.
difficult to be constructive speaking from one age group
about another. But I don’t agree with the type of
presentation many modern sportsmen take. I believe that
they should understand that, while they are getting paid
for getting results, that they also have a responsibility
to represent their sport in the best possible light. Performance
on the track is only part of what one should be judged on
– all you can say is that they won against the competition
on the day. Nobody can take that away from them. But as
far as Great Britain is concerned, where every sport is
vying for the attention of the public and the sponsors,
people who are competing at the highest level have a duty
to present themselves in a way that will forward the best
interests of the sport. It saddens me to see that there
is rarely a mention of motorcycling in the Sports Personality
of the Year awards. Is this, perhaps, because of the word
“personality?” Look at the way that footballers
behave. They often set a very poor example but they unfortunately,
and quite mistakenly in my mind, often can do no wrong in
the eyes of the national media. Therefore motor sport starts
at a disadvantage. So the people have to frankly try harder
in order to lift the perception of the sport which in turn
would also bring more column inches and sponsorship. There
is tremendous support for motor sport generally. But it
is not as vocal and doesn’t seem to be appreciated
by the dailies. One just has to see that the recent Brazilian
car Grand Prix had a considerably higher audience than Manchester
United’s European Cup game and motorcycling can provide
even better entertainment. We need characters like Rossi
but characters who should realise that they are highly paid
and that that means they have a responsibility to the sport.
We weren’t highly paid in our time
but I and most of my colleagues did appreciate how fortunate
we were to actually be good enough to be paid for doing
something we loved. Certainly when I started if I hadn’t
been good enough to get some success I wouldn’t have
been able to afford to get to the next meeting.
SB: What about our dominance of the
JS: There is something
to be said for the theory that at any given period people
like Honda have been too obsessed with the Isle of Man.
It would have been far better for British motorcycling if
we had approached it more like the Americans and Australians
and said “We’re going for what counts.”
The Isle of Man is special but it is now a freak and you
need a special form of specialist. Someone who has ridden
there lots of times will always beat a newcomer. There's
no longer a totally world class field so it doesn’t
really count for much in the sport as a whole. I would have
like to have seen the manufacturers put more support into
creating a British World Champion at Grand Prix level.
Motorcycling has fallen away in the public's
esteem, despite how good racing it is and despite the quality
of talent there. Unfortunately it has been projected, both
by some of the media and by some racers, as a gutter sport.
That is very sad. We need someone like Sheene again, although
it was a shame that he went along for the money at the end
but he did succeed at the highest level and he left nobody
in any doubt about his enthusiasm by coming back in recent
years and racing again. He could be a laugh and had a big
personality. He could embarrass you but he would not disgrace
SB: Is it money that’s changed
JS: A certain degree of
money too early in some of the people’s careers has
meant that they have ceased to be continuously motivated.
Champions have been made too early by the press and in turn
t they have been able to get good sponsorship and a good
living, but that burning desire to be a champion has been
extinguished. I won’t name names, but there have been
a number of people who, it would appear looking from the
outside, at times have had too much money which has squashed
their ambition. We are without a real contender now, though,
at least in MotoGP.
felt very sorry for Walker - he had the guts to go along
and make the step, but didn’t get the best of luck
and was under extreme pressure. But that's just the thing
I was on about – the key thing is that he achieved
some success and took the difficult path rather than staying
with the easy money. I applaud Walker and Hodgson and the
others because they are the only way we're going to get
a British World Champion, and I sincerely hope that someone
will go out there and back them up.
So what we have to do now is lift up the
image of the sport. When the BBC lost car GPs I went to
their director of sport and suggested that this was the
chance to re-establish themselves and do what they did with
cars. But they turned round and said there was no real vehicle
to latch it to because we didn’t have a British contender.
We need to work on the acceptance of motorcycling. There
are wonderful lads and terrific support out there, people
who turn up and applaud and are enthusiastic regardless
of who is winning. So many people who don’t even go
near a bike any more but still have a fond affection for
biking, and it hurts them as well when the sport is ignored
by the media.
SB: So what would have happened if
you'd stayed with bikes?
JS: Oh I would have continued
to develop. I was still at that stage and I have confidence
that I would have continued to succeed despite riders such
as Gary Hocking and Mike Hailwood. It would have been fun,
particularly with the challenge of some of the interesting
machine changes. But at the same time I had been there and
had done it and new horizons beckoned.
SB: Do you still ride?
JS: Not on the road. I
do the odd event like the Mallory post TT and Misano. I
normally do 3 or 4 events a year but this year has largely
been taken up with my son’s karting career. The main
thing I say to him is to enjoy it for the right reasons
and let life take you. One of the dangers these days is
that there are so many hangers on who will latch on as soon
as someone starts showing any promise and if you’re
not careful you get lost. In a way, perhaps our British
champion got lost the same way.
I will probably get a 600 at some point.
I have a Black Shadow which I need to get restored and one
or two road machines that I don’t use at the moment.
It’s been some time since I've ridden a bike at length
on the road, but then I never did ride on the road much
except when I was an apprentice at Vincents. Then I used
to ride from Addington (near Croydon, South London -
Ed) to up to Stevenage (North of London in Hertfordshire
- Ed) all the time.
SB: What do you think of the new GP
JS: In view of the world
opinion that four strokes are the way to go, it is perhaps a step forward.
At the same time I still don’t believe that the two
stroke problems weren’t able to be resolved with the
technology available. As we’ve seen with F1, though,
for motorsport to survive it has not only to be a sport
but also an entertainment. So making the same sound is not
good, just like in F1 where they’re all V10s and 4
strokes. With Moto GP the sound has come back into racing.
Variety is a good thing. I can’t help feeling that
it would have been nice to have been even more courageous,
a V6 perhaps. I think it's short term to talk about 900+cc
Grand Prix bikes.
Pressures will come about from the world
at large for sporting bikes to be nearer middleweight than
litre class. Insurance will be a major issue for the buying
public. 600s with their light weight and manoeuvrability
will provide all the power that is required. I would have
thought along the lines of setting sights on ending up with
600cc senior classes, 250cc junior and 125cc. The potential
power of 1000cc, if it’s developed to the degree that
modern F1 engines are developed, could be embarrassing.
It would be dangerous and to some degree pointless. Huge
expense would need to be made in developing rider aids to
help cope with the sort of power that would be developed.
I believe something like a 600 would provide the best compromise
for the future.
The current regulations were developed
because the field would be too small otherwise, and we may
see it being revisited in the future. If you go along and
watch, what is obvious is that Honda has a lot more power.
But other bikes are able to stay competitive because they're
more rideable. Usable power is the most important thing.
In F1, for example, British engines never produced as much
power as the others but they were always more usable.
How do you see the bike press?
JS: I get pretty disgusted
when I see some of the magazines demonstrating some road
bikes. I think it's highly antisocial and against the interest
of bikes. This business of going along and talking about
how far you can climb off a bike – if you actually
go and look at the Doohans and Rossis they don’t climb
off a bike as much as these testers who are all exhibitionists.
Sensationalism like this is wrong – a bike is a wonderful
thing to create a relationship with, it’s not something
to become a monkey on. You create a relationship and you
move with the bike to assist it. This deliberate pre-programmed
climb off here and there is so wrong, especially when allied
to riding on the road. It's a great shame its depicted that
way because some of the bikes which are available are wonderful.
SB: We use The Nürburgring a fair
amount. What do you think of the place?
JS: I won GPs there in
cars, bikes and sportscars. I think I'm the only person
to have won in all three categories. I have been back to
drive the short circuit - I did track tests for BMW and
Of course the Nordschleife changed greatly
in my time. When I started it was defined purely with hedges
and the changes took away lots of the character over the
years. The hedges were replaced with guardrails, the track
was widened and they took away the little wiggles you could
straightline on a bike and smoothed a lot of bumps out.
I went there first in 1955 on a private 350 Norton and 250
NSU plus a works BMW. I fell off the NSU, came a close 3rd
on the Norton and was lapping in the same time as Walter
Zeller on the BMW when the carb fell off. I did win a couple
of GPs there, though.
SB: What is your favourite circuit?
JS: I loved the Nürburgring,
old Spa, Solitude (just outside Stuttgart) and Assen because
of the support and interest and the swerves that used to
be round the back, despite it being so flat. That was a
good place if you were a bit down on power. Dundrod was
nice, too. I really enjoyed Brands, Oulton, Cadwell, Aberdare
– the places you had to scratch and work at it but
they had character and if you made it work then it was great.
The crowds used to be huge - sixty-five thousand at Brands
for a challenge race, forty thousand at Silverstone. General
attendances always used to be much higher. Even Greenwich
club races would still have good crowds of between ten and
twenty thousand. Now there are a lot more other activities.
SB: What do you see for the future
of the sport?
JS: Television coverage
means that you have to focus on major events because that’s
what the public thinks of, regardless of what the sport
is. Before you know what's happened, grass roots sport falls
behind because all people want to do is see Rossi or Beckham
or whoever. We need to draw attention back to the wonderful
competition that goes on. The problems at the lower end
of racing are partly because of the mishmash of regulations
as well – modified this and production that. It needs
a degree of simplicity, because at the moment everything
is confused. Even in karting, commercial factors come in
and try to change the whole picture instead of it being
we need is formulae where there is stability. You go along,
put all your money in a bike and then next season the regs
change so it's obsolete. Commercial interests are manipulating
things. Even classic racing is silly – nowadays there
are just disguised 2002 bikes pretending to be classics.
The sort of Norton that Sheene rides, for example, bears
no resemblance to anything that ever came out of Norton
Motors except the badge. It’s a new bike, sure, but
it’s not built to anything like the original design.
A Norton of that period would have a maximum rev limit of
7500 mechanically. Now these things with modified combustion
chambers, valve angles, strokes, heads, cranks and so on
are doing 9500. Which is totally phoney and doesn’t
make the racing any better. There ought to be a bunch of
engines which get drawn out of the hat rather than the current
situation. Look at Junior karting, for example. There, the
basic engine is £300, but if you want a winning engine
it's probably £3000 instead. This is in a class for
8 year olds and it's ridiculous. It's the same in bike racing.
There need to be some classes which go back to basics because
we need to be able to let people compete. We need champions
and champions shouldn’t necessarily have to have deep
pockets. We need to get the esteem of the sport back, so
we need people with the ability but also with enough common
sense to present themselves and represent motorcycling so
that it is accepted on a par with any of our other activities.
SB: John Surtees, thank you very much.