the john surtees interview

Simon Bradley has a brief chat with one of the true legends of motorsport

John 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 2002.

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 again?

JS: Rossi 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.

It’s 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 TT?

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 you.

SB: Is it money that’s changed the sport?

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.

I 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 format?

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.

SB: 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 Mercedes-Benz there.

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 clear cut.

What 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.

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