Snetterton’s pit wall can be an inhospitable place. It was late winter and the cold easterly wind battered the faces of those assembled to survey un-liveried machines as they trialled their way up and along the Senna Straight.

My eyes lifted, alerted by the familiar tone of the mighty Cosworth-Caterham, holding its nerve whilst pushing off-line before easing into the caress of the Russell chicane. A second later, a more moderately powered Ginetta arrived at the same point, braking-hard and late in an attempt to hasten out of the dog-leg. As the young racer and his instructor made their way towards another lap, I seized the opportunity to engage the huddled figure beside me.

“He’s creating too much over-steer” I quipped. For an all-too lingering moment, silence prevailed as my neighbour thoughtfully scribbled notes in a worn but trusted book. He paused, and then raised his head. “He has to” came the reply.

This was the extent of my first ever conversation with John Surtees. Seven years later and both our worlds have changed.

In the Beginning

The 1950s will be remembered as a time that a generation broke free from the shackles of war. No longer confined by expectations or tradition, those with ambition found opportunities waiting. For a young man from Surrey, his chance was the offer of an engineering apprenticeship with Vincent, the motorcycle manufacturer. Jack Surtees Sr owned a business in Forest Hill that sold and maintained Vincents. He was also an exceptional sidecar racer. Countless hours spent by his father’s side meant that John was already moulded for this world.

jack-and-john-surtees-in-1951-709x570Jack Surtees introduced his son, John, to sidecar racing at a very young age.

His first racing success came when he was just 14. Travelling with the family to Cockfosters for the Trent Park speed trials, he was only too eager to stand-in when Jack’s sidecar passenger failed to appear. “Team Surtees” was born that day and it came as no surprise to anyone that they finished ahead of the field. Unfortunately, it was also no surprise that the organisers discovered John’s age; hence the victory was forfeited.

One year later and he would finally compete in his own right, first at grass-tracking, and then on “the road” with a self-modified 500cc Vincent Grey Flash. An outright win in only his second ever tarmac race at Aberdare would set him on his way, and building on this success, it was decided that for 1951, still aged only 17, he should embark on his first season-long campaign of racing. For those who knew him, John Surtees’ talent was obvious. For those who didn’t, they were about to find out.

August of that year saw the family travel to the relatively new circuit at Thruxton in Hampshire. The track was fast and undulating, dirty and unforgiving. Even today, it presents challenges like no other. It was the Bank Holiday weekend, and it was very, very wet; Motor Cycle magazine going so far as to describe conditions as “vile”.

Despite the weather, a substantial crowd had gathered to cheer-on the heroes of the day, and in particular, Geoff Duke, the year’s new 350cc World Champion (who was also well on his way to capturing the 500cc crown as well). At 28, Duke was entering the peak of his career and as the flag fell at the start of each of the two feature races, he soon left the pack trailing… all bar young Surtees.

It was Duke’s mighty Norton that always led the way but the Vincent chased hard, calling on both to break through the normal limits of adhesion as they charged towards the line. In the end, the Norton was just too strong, yet later, whilst gathering thoughts at the presentation, it was Duke who stood in awe of the teenager who, he remarked, had made him ride so very fast.

The encounter served well. Surtees now knew that he should never underestimate others, but he also knew they would not underestimate him.

Ten years on and of the senior classifications, Duke would lay claim to 4 Isle of Man TT and 6 World Championship crowns; Surtees could boast 6 and 7.

The following seasons, he would move-on, firstly with a Norton, eventually becoming a factory rider in 1955. But the midlands-based company had, like many others, been struggling to maintain sales and there was a general reluctance to continue in top-flight competition. Realising that there was little option but to look overseas, for 1956, eyes were cast across the channel. There were flirtations with BMW, Gilera and Moto Guzzi, but his heart took him to MV Agusta.

signing-for-augusta-John Surtees Count AgustaSurtees signs to ride for MV Agusta. From L to R: Count Agusta, John Surtees.

The Agustas loved racing, and worked to indulge their passion. They were well suited; Count Domenico wanted to be the best, and Surtees knew that with the right backing, he could be too. Just three 500cc races later and the dream was delivered: Surtees was the new World Champion, a feat that he and the rosso e argento would go on to repeat in both the 350cc and 500cc classes consecutively from 1958 – 1960.

It was whilst he was building his credentials that a new wave of bequiffed engineers embarked on a revolution of their own; one that would change the world of motorsport forever.

John Cooper, Jack Brabham, Tony Rudd and Colin Chapman had all seen service with their Air Force, and all understood the principles of “light over might”. These men, the engine builders they worked with, and the drivers who so willingly put themselves to the test would challenge the establishment and thinking that had ruled Grand Prix motor racing since it first began. The Garagista, as so scorningly described by Enzo Ferrari, would go on to not only win races but hearts and minds too. They were the future. It was only a matter of time.

As the decade made its transition, so did John Surtees. His Italian job had paid-off and both he and MV Agusta were much the better for it. Yet for all the titles and the lire, the Count remained aloof. The Englishman still wanted to race at home, the Italian didn’t.

During this period, the world championship season consisted of only 6 – 8 meetings, and for a young man, hungry for the thrill, this simply wasn’t enough.

At first, Surtees had been allowed to return to the UK to compete in one-off events with his Norton, but as the victories amassed, the Italian press started to suggest that it might be the rider and not the machine that mattered. When contracts were redrawn, the Count was adamant; the only bike that Surtees could ride would be his.

From Bikes to Cars

With a growing reputation and time on his hands, it was inevitable that at some stage, an opportunity to try a race car would be presented.

In 1959, Aston Martin and then Vanwall came calling. The Feltham-based squad wasted no time: They brought with them the now iconic DBR1, the car that had taken outright honours that year at Le Mans. They tested at Goodwood; Surtees wasn’t only on the pace, he lapped faster there than the car had ever lapped before.

Team boss Reg Parnell was well-prepared, instantly producing a contract for a works-drive. It was declined; Surtees was, after all, a biker with championships to defend. Moreover, he hadn’t yet raced a car and felt that this would be a step too far and too fast.

The Vanwall test was even more telling. Again held at Goodwood, Tony Vandervell arranged for one of his VW5s to be used, the same car that had taken the inaugural Formula One Constructors’ title the year before. But this time, the measure wasn’t just the clock. Stirling Moss had driven the car to victory in Holland, Portugal and Morocco, and he’d tested at the West Sussex track too. In Moss’s own words, “the only way you can tell how good a bloke is, is to look at the other driver. . .” Surtees went faster.

Returning to Italy, the Englishman and the Count would campaign together for one last time, taking again both the 350cc and 500cc world titles.

But whilst his contract was strict as far as two-wheels were concerned, there was nothing to say that he couldn’t enjoy the occasional four-wheel outing as well. With this in mind, he set-off to buy a Cooper T52, the new Formula Junior car.

Arriving in Surrey, he was introduced to a man who had been waiting patiently for this moment. Ken Tyrrell had raced Coopers with moderate success in both Formula 3 and then Formula 2. Now he was embarking on a career in team management, running works-Cooper Juniors. Tyrrell smiled, shook hands and informed Surtees that his cheque book would not be needed that day – he already had a car and would be entering him in the BARC Members’ Meeting at Goodwood.

The Dawn of Two Eras

Saturday, March 19th, 1960 would become a day to remember.

It was only as he arrived at Goodwood that morning that Surtees realised he’d never actually seen a car race before, let alone competed in one. By the time he was ready to return home, he’d collected his first pole position, and had been narrowly beaten to the flag by the Lotus 18 of Jimmy Clark.

If there had been any doubts before, there weren’t now. And so as Clark and Chapman celebrated the first ever win for a Cosworth engine, Surtees was left to reflect that it had been his error in “managing” a back-marker that had forced the result. He knew he could, and should, have done better.

Two weeks later he was back in the cockpit, this time at Oulton Park. His Formula Junior outing halting prematurely with a gearbox failure, but in the Formula 2 race, he led the Coopers home to finish 2nd.

Later that month, he would travel to Aintree for the BARC 200. Here, the best of the rest would square-up to the mighty Porsches. Moss’s Rob Walker entry took the honours that day, with Bonnier and Hill in the two factory 718s duelling for second, but it was the hard chasing rookie in 4th who stood out. image of John Surtees driving a Lotus F1 car on a US highway to the race track in 1960 (Image credit: Bobby Fabi).

* * *

Colin Chapman had brought Team Lotus to Formula One just two years earlier, yet for all his success with sports cars, the ultimate prize had so far eluded him.

For 1960, he introduced the 18; it was to transform Lotus’s fortunes. Innes Ireland had already tasted victory in that years’ Glover Trophy (a non-championship race at Goodwood, held to F1 rules) and Stirling Moss was soon to record the marque’s first championship round win at Monaco. Chapman could sense his ascendancy, but he knew he needed the right men beside him.

Surtees was invited to test along with the incumbent Ireland at Silverstone. Once again, Surtees was fastest and Chapman wasted no time in persuading him to race with Lotus when commitments allowed.

The speed of John Surtees’ promotion to the Formula One grid was remarkable. Just 10 weeks after his first ever car race, he would line-up at Monaco. As it happened, it was an inauspicious start to this chapter in his career, the Lotus failing after just 17 laps.

With the demands of his motorcycle racing career, he would not return until the British Grand Prix in July. A second place here, then pole position and fastest-lap next time out at Oporto sealed his credentials. Chapman wanted Surtees to take Team Lotus into 1961’s new era of the 1.5 litre engine; but Ferrari wanted him too.

* * *

More than half a century later, it’s clear as we talk that this is still a difficult period for him to reconcile. There’s clear respect for Chapman and all he achieved, though references to “kit-car parts” also allude to the fact that an unease remains about the integrity of some of his creations. Nevertheless, back in 1961, the opportunity was presented to lead the Lotus team and to choose his running mate. “Jimmy” (Clark) was named.

We can only imagine the potency of a Chapman / Surtees / Clark combination, and it was, perhaps, when Innes Ireland did exactly this that the whole scheme fell apart. He, after all, already possessed a contract and was not about to be overlooked. With accusations flying, Surtees walked away.

Ironically, he’d already walked away from Ferrari, despite seeing the effort that had gone in to developing their new 6-cylinder engine.

* * *

JS: “They (Ferrari) knew I was leaving MV Agusta and invited me over to Maranello to take a look at the operation. They actually asked me to join them, despite the fact that I’d only done a handful of races, but I didn’t think it was right; I didn’t know enough about Formula One to perhaps withstand the pressures you get in Italy. Besides, I thought I was going to Lotus . . .”

* * *

His reaction was to prove costly. Formula One was changing and he’d just turned-down the two teams best equipped for success.

With Ireland’s outburst being conducted through the media, the news soon reached Reg Parnell, who was now in charge of his own Formula One operation. Determined not to lose out a second time, Parnell made his position clear – he’d just struck a deal to take-on sponsorship from Yeoman Credit and had been promised works T53s by John Cooper. For a man keen to build success around him, everything suddenly seemed to fall into place for John Surtees and a deal was struck.

But in the murky world of Formula One, promises don’t always count for much. In this case, Esso, a long-time partner of Cooper, were unhappy at the prospect of the best cars going to an unaffiliated team. Less competitive “production” models were to be delivered instead. To make matters worse, the new, once all-conquering, Coventry Climax engine was, compared to Ferrari’s V6, both under-developed and under-powered.

Nevertheless, 1961 started well for the new partnership. At Goodwood, a brace of British names would line-up to contest the pre-season Glover Trophy. Stirling Moss was on pole by over a second but at the race start, it was Surtees who out-dragged the Lotus into the first corner.

By race end, Moss, Graham Hill and Ireland were all left trailing. It was John Surtees’ first victory with a Formula One car. The remaining season would, however, be largely frustrating, with just two minor points finishes to show. It was, instead, Ferrari, the team he had earlier refused that dominated the year.

The Second Time of Asking

For all the majesty of this era, motor racing was still a deadly sport and 1961 would prove no different. Going into the penultimate round at Monza, Ferrari drivers Wolfgang von Trips and Phil Hill were battling for supremacy, the former just having the edge.

With only six scores counting, third place or better that day would have delivered the championship to von Trips, and starting from pole, it seemed inevitable that the German would etch his name into history: He did.

Half-way around the second lap, he touched wheels with Jim Clark’s Lotus as the Scotsman tried to pass. The contact sent von Trips along the banking before his car somersaulted through the crowd then back onto the track. More than a dozen people lay dead or dying, von Trips included.

There was no celebration from either Phil Hill or Ferrari that day. Both inherited titles and despite hardened exteriors, both were deeply troubled.

Monza’s tragedy resulted in another call from Maranello. Again, he refused.

JS: “I was asked again to go to Ferrari . . . I went over to Maranello and spoke with them but I just thought no, no. They already had too many drivers on board, and too many people . . . it just felt all wrong.”

* * *

Returning to England, his energies were channelled into a new project instead.

By the end of ’61, it was generally felt that the Coopers were becoming less competitive and with the much valued Yeoman Credit sponsorship at stake, Surtees prompted Parnell to commission a brand new design from Eric Broadley of Lola.

* * *

JS: “So I took what I thought was a good move, both in terms of learning more about Formula One, and to help produce what we thought would be a very competitive car. And I saw that Eric Broadley could quite possibly be the best person to rival Colin Chapman.”

* * *

Surtees was never far from Broadley’s side as the MK IV was developed. It was, after all, of his own doing that he was in this position. He’d been able to walk away from Ferrari as both understood that the timing wasn’t right; but he’d left Lotus as they were building for success. Chapman hadn’t forgotten this, opting to replace the departing Ireland with Trevor Taylor instead.

They worked late into the night, almost every night, as the Lola took shape, and as the flurry of the early spring non-championship races descended, it was soon clear that they had a fast car, but a very fragile one.

Nevertheless, arriving in Zandvoort for the season opener, spirits were high. By the end of practice, Surtees had claimed pole, Graham Hill in the new BRM was a close second, and then came Clark, Brabham, McLaren and Ireland. Taylor was nearly 3 seconds behind Surtees and over 2 seconds behind team mate, Clark. That was as good as it would get. A stress failure after just 8 laps causing Surtees to crash hard. Soon afterwards, his team mate, Roy Salvadori, would be called-in and withdrawn.

Next time out at Monaco was better, a strong drive to 4th place starting a run of points-scoring finishes, including two second places at Silverstone and then the Nürburgring. But for Salvadori, the misery continued. He would either fail to start or fail to finish every race that year. For Parnell too, the experiment was over. Bowmaker, Yeoman’s parent, pulled the funding and with it, the prospect of any real development of the car.

Despite all the obvious disappointments at the time, it’s now clear to see that Broadley, Surtees and Parnell did a remarkable job. They took-on the best; BRM, Lotus, Cooper, Porsche and Ferrari, and they came 4th. These were teams with years of experience in Formula One behind them. It didn’t go unnoticed.

Maranello Calling

Just twelve months prior, Ferrari had seemed almost invincible. Only two outstanding performances from Stirling Moss and his Rob Walker Lotus (Monaco and the Nürburgring) would prevent complete dominance. Now, in the wane of 1962, they had managed just three podiums and had been outscored by Surtees alone. If this wasn’t enough, there were defections from both the management team and the engineering crew. It’s no wonder that the Scuderia refer to this period as The Bittersweet Years.

* * *

JS: “Ferrari had.. rather fallen apart. By the end of the year, (Carlo) Chiti had left, and Phil Hill had gone too. They called again and said come along.. this time, you MUST join us. So I went and saw what had changed and thought, do you know what, it might be the time.. Because the best time to join an Italian team is not when they’re winning, but when they’re down. It had been like this at MV Agusta and I could see the same combination of factors at Maranello.”

* * *

And so it was. The complacency that had blighted the defence of Hill’s title had been escorted out of the building: In came Surtees, to work alongside Forghieri, the engineer who would establish himself as one of the finest, but in too came the new team manager, Eugenio Dragoni.

Only it wasn’t quite as simple as this.

There were two Ferraris at Maranello; the business, which gorged on hard cash and craved the sporting success that might justify its continuance: And there was Enzo. Outwardly, they were one and the same, but deep behind the red-bricked walls were layers of conflict and mistrust.

By the early 1960s, tensions had risen palpably. The Scuderia had become remote with its thinking, Enzo holding firm to the beliefs that had once served him well. But the pressures of balancing so many different facets, all tinged with agenda or emotion were resonating deep into the heart of a man who would become increasingly isolated.. even sometimes misguided.

For Ferrari the manufacturer, this seemed like their heyday. Year after year, they and their customers would arrive at Le Mans, and year after year, they would take away the spoils. This is how Ferrari survived. They were supported by the Italian racing federation, and they would build and prepare new cars for wealthy individuals on both sides of the Atlantic.

John-Surtees-interview-Ferrari_G15Surtees was destined to drive for Ferrari, but not until 1963.

But motor racing is an expensive sport and the pressures to compete with new chassis technologies, improved aerodynamics, and lighter, more efficient engines was proving to be costly. Although it would never be admitted, Ferrari was slowly becoming broke.

There was an element of déjà vu as Surtees arrived with his kitbag at Maranello. He found the situation none too dissimilar to when he first joined MV Agusta. There was heritage and a hunger for more success; they just needed focus and resources. As he was to soon discover, both of the latter would conspire against him – the focus was revenues, and the need to sell sports cars; while the resource were driven by Enzo’s desire to get closer to FIAT’s Agnelli family — enter Dragoni.

* * *

Back in England, the garage teams were busy shaping the new monocoque cars that would propel them to yet further success.

It was a different story in Italy. Rather than rolling-out the old 156, the car that had at first dominated Formula One, but had since whimpered into submission, there was only one thing on everybody’s mind – Le Mans. Enzo had been busy striking deals with old friends; friends who wanted to race, and had the cash to keep the Prancing Horse alive. There was the new 250P to launch and little else mattered.

* * *

JS: “Although I loved the idea of driving the development cars, what I hadn’t appreciated is that Ferrari employed a two-part season. Part one was the preparation of the prototypes. Only after Le Mans could we think about Formula One. This is how they kept going, by continuing to feed out, often just hiring-out the newer, faster, better cars.. and of course through the support from the Federation.”

“So my first job was to test them all. I’d test the cars going out to customers, many of whom would, of course, be my opposition when we raced, and then I’d test my own car too.”

* * *

With only a very limited amount of time (and money) to spend on the 156, the only real development that took place ahead of the 1963 season was an attempt to improve the V6 engine by introducing “direct injection”. The results were sporadic. At the season opener at Monaco, he raced to 4th and drove the fastest lap. Next time out in Spa, the car gave-up.

For Round 3 at Zandvoort, Surtees claimed his first podium, but then at Reims he would run for only 25 minutes before the fuel pump failed. Ferrari, who had once been known for building strong, fast and reliable cars were struggling. Yet it was becoming increasingly clear that this needn’t be the case.

With the 250P, they and Surtees were supreme. He eclipsed the field at Sebring, and repeated the feat at the Nürburgring. Eleven weeks later, he was to return, having finally been able to put the sports car programme to bed.

In Ferrari’s all-conquering 1961 season, it had taken an exceptional drive through the Eifel mountains from Stirling Moss to turn the tables on the Scuderia.

In ’63, John Surtees returned the compliment. Jim Clark and Lotus had appeared unbeatable, but with time invested in the 156, Surtees was able to push Clark hard, then harder still. In qualifying, they were well matched, less than a second separating them over the 14 mile course. Bandini’s BRM in third was more than 7 seconds adrift.

Despite the advantage of their new direct injection system, Ferrari’s V6 was still fragile and managing the balance between performance, reliability and track conditions demanded a unique collaboration of skill, patience and guile.

* * *

JS: “It (the V6) presented its own set of problems; it wasn’t that easy to regulate the carburetion and although it was pretty solid, you couldn’t exploit the rev range. So we knew we had to be careful because where it could generate the real and continual power, it just wasn’t reliable. It had limitations, so I had to restrict it, and it restricted me.”

* * *

The first lap was a frantic affair. Clark was straight off the line, pursued by former champion Graham Hill. But Surtees’ Ferrari hesitated, allowing Richie Ginther in the BRM and Bruce McLaren’s Cooper to squeeze him from the second row. The duelling commenced, with the BRM struggling to match the agility of the Lotus — the strain on its gearbox was too much. Hill limped into retirement whilst Surtees re-passed both McLaren and then Ginther — he was now on Clark’s tail.

Their pace was punishing and the two were soon clear of any threat, other than, of course, the stresses on their own machinery.

The Lotus was first to buckle, firing haphazardly between eight and seven cylinders. Surtees could see what was happening, equally aware that the 156 was also straining. But he knew this circuit well and understood that perhaps here more than anywhere, he could make the difference.

Momentum became his ace as he daringly carried more speed into and through each corner. Clark simply couldn’t escape, he was being pushed too hard and he could no longer coax his ailing engine. Sensing the opportunity, Surtees passed and drove home to his first championship round victory in Formula One. It was also Ferrari’s first win since ’61. There was, at last, hope on the horizon.

MORE: Follow this link to see British Pathé’s cine report of the race — WATCH THE VIDEO.

The Time, the Place

In many ways, 1964 started no differently to the previous year. There was a new car, the V8 engined 158, but there was little in the way of early season development that might allow its potential to show.

* * *

JS: “We were lucky that not everyone from the old design team had gone with Chiti. I’d been pushing for us to make a monocoque but the old man said no, so we made a semi-monocoque, which was built a little around old aircraft principles – we gave it an inner framework of tubes and then riveted onto it a stressed skin. We knew that this would be stiffer than a tubular chassis but it was still a compromise.”

* * *

Instead, Enzo’s attention was wholly drawn by having to face-up to a crisis of his own doing.

Worries over Ferrari’s financial viability had led him to open his doors to Ford, but upon learning that he would no longer control the racing operation, he abruptly closed them again, leaving Ford angry, humiliated and out of pocket. They wanted revenge and they knew that the best place to hurt the Italians was at Le Mans — and so the GT40 was conceived.

Enzo was, of course, an old-hand. He knew that Ford’s car would be fast but fragile and that his best chance was to opt for safety in numbers. The plan worked, and months of careful preparation by Surtees and Forghieri resulted in a Ferrari 1-2-3. They would be safe at Le Mans, for now.

But the cost to the Formula One effort was great.

From the season’s first four encounters, only a solitary second place at Zandvoort would see either Surtees or Ferrari register in the points. Instead, it was Lotus, BRM and Brabham that would lead the way; Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Dan Gurney all showing the form that would register them amongst the sport’s all-time greats.

With Le Mans out of the way, it was time for the 158 to be given its chance.

The next race was at Brands Hatch and whilst the pace was once again shared by Clark and Hill, this time both Ferraris would finish in the points, Surtees coming-home in 3rd with Bandini 5th. At last, the Maranello outfit could truly set-about understanding their car.

As was often the case at this time, there were almost as many non-championship races as there were points-scoring rounds and immediately after Brands Hatch, Ferrari, Lotus and BRM all headed for the Solitudering near Stuggart.

* * *

JS: “One problem as I mentioned earlier is that basically we had a new car but we didn’t start working on it until after Le Mans. One of the steps forward was that I went to Solitude and took part in the race there. Solitude was near to Bosch and they came down, although they weren’t officially doing the engine programme; that was Michael May (the Swiss engineer who had helped to develop Porsche’s fuel injection system). We did some juggling around. The race was wet and I was leading early and very easily because we’d made the car a lot more tractable, and more progressive, more manageable. Unfortunately, it dried-up in the race and Jimmy just pipped me, but we knew from here that we could really turn the season around.”

* * *

So it’s only by the half-way point of the season that Ferrari started to get to grips with their new V8 engine, but at the same time they had a potentially much better engine also in development — the “flat-twelve” — but because of outside pressures, possibly from Fiat (who were the named engine sponsor), it was decided that the focus would be on the V8 as it could be better associated with future sports cars.

* * *

JS: “If it hadn’t had been for business, I think that Ferrari would have gone ahead and run with the flat-twelve straight away . . . it would have been the best thing to do. You have to remember that Coventry Climax at that time had a very competitveV8 engine with a very nice power curve, so for us to come-in with another eight-cylinder, we would always be playing catch-up. We should have grasped the initiative and tried to leap-frog them by working on the Twelve instead.”

* * *

There’s a lot of merit in these words of Surtees. The new chassis, despite its limitations, had been working well. It was the direct injection system of the V8 that had performed badly, resulting in so many failures.

And turn-around they did. A year-on from that first Nürburgring win, Surtees’ Ferrari would triumph again, this time accumulating pole position and fastest lap for good measure.

It should, from here, have been a straight fight to the finish. Then came Zeltweg, the old airfield circuit in Austria.

* * *

JS: “This was a big disappointment. We knew we’d finally got a fast car and it would have been a nice win to have. I was in quite a comfortable situation, leading and maintaining a gap, but then something very rare with a Ferrari occurred, it broke a suspension joint on the steering. It must have been a stressed piece of material because this sort of thing just never happened.”

* * *

Only it did happen and Surtees was out. His team mate, Bandini, went on to win that day; it would be his first and only grand prix victory.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the robust mechanical strength of Ferrari, the one thing that could most often be relied-on nearly cost them so dearly. There are, of course, many “what-ifs”, but there had seemed little doubt that the number 7 car would win the spoils that day, and with Clark and Hill both failing to score, the gap to Hill would have been narrowed to just four points; instead, with three races remaining, it remained at thirteen.

Arriving at Monza two weeks later, tensions were starting to rise. Enzo, still haunted by the prospect of future battles with Ford, had contrived a dispute with the Italian Federation over the homologation of the 250LM, whilst at Lotus and BRM, the darkening cloud of reliability was threatening to overshadow previous successes — both becoming acutely aware of the potential cost of their failures.

* * *

JS: “Monza nearly didn’t happen for me. Just a week before, most of us had been at Goodwood for the TT. Early-on in the race, I was coming-up behind Innes Ireland at St Mary’s when all of a sudden he lost it. Trying to avoid him, I made contact with another car and ended-up rolling it and suffering concussion.”

“The next weekend, when I arrived at the Autodromo, Louis Stanley, who acted as the boss at BRM, protested me, saying that as I’d been involved in a heavy accident just a week before, I shouldn’t be eligible to race. Remarkably, for the first time since I’d joined Ferrari, Dragoni used his head and came on-side. He had a good contact at the Milan Institute, a professor who’d been attached to the US space programme and had been looking after the physical welfare of the participants – monitoring their reactions and performance under stressed conditions. So I went along and he plugged me into every machine under the sun in order that they could monitor me and assess my reaction times and everything else. Fortunately, they came-up with enough charts and paperwork that proved I was fit enough to safely drive a race car, which, of course, the stewards had no option but to accept. So I raced.”

* * *

It was Surtees who powered to pole, and despite an unsure start, he overhauled Gurney and McLaren to lead the Ferrari home in front of the jubilant Italian crowd. For Hill and Clark, the fears of failures came true, the clutch of Hill’s BRM breaking on the start line whilst Clark’s engine let go after just four laps. It was a disastrous end to the European campaign for the championship leaders and a long drive home for Stanley.

As teams and drivers crossed the Atlantic, all were aware that with just four points separating the top three, there was still everything to race for. Back then, the points-scoring system was very different to that of modern Formula One. Only the best six scores (from the ten races) would count towards the championship.

Hill had already scored in six grand prix, Surtees and Clark in just four each. This meant that Hill had to score well, otherwise the points wouldn’t count, whereas for Surtees and Clark, any points finish would increase their tally.

Adding to the drama, as cars were off-loaded into the Watkins Glen paddock, the Ferraris were now no longer liveried in the familiar Rosso Corsa but instead were painted in the white and blue of Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team (NART). Enzo’s spat with the Italian Federation had not been resolved and he had vowed to no longer race under the factory name, handing-back his licence in the process. Of course, despite Chinetti making the entry, the team was still very much ‘Ferrari’ and all were very much focussed on the racing to come.

Clark was fastest in practice. Chapman had brought the new Lotus 33 for him to try, the evolution of that year’s Type 25. But with little time to prepare and test the car, Clark opted to use the 25 anyway. He was joined on the front row by Surtees, a mere 0.13 seconds behind, and then on the second row were Gurney and Hill. Less than 3/10ths covered all four.

This time, Clark failed to capitalise on his position and Surtees charged into the lead. Clark and Hill would trade places before Clark finally broke-free and eventually took the lead. Then, after an hour, the familiar tone of a misfire stuttered through the Lotus’s trembling shell. With Clark now quickly falling back through the field, Chapman desperately signalled second-driver Mike Spence to pit. Chapman’s plan was simple – swap cars (the last time that this would happen in a Grand Prix), and send Clark back-out, in pursuit and hope that the luck of the Ferrari and BRM would fade too — but it didn’t.

Instead, Hill and Surtees battled on with Hill eventually gaining the upper hand and all nine points. Surtees finished second, Clark being forced to retire with a broken fuel pump just eight laps from the end.

* * *

JS: “Yes, America was disappointing. The new circuit at Watkins Glen was looking pretty good and I really liked it there, it was a real drivers’ track. There was a chance that I could have won. Graham was driving very hard that day but we were matching his pace. But then we had all sorts of trouble with backmarkers. Firstly by being held-up by the other BRM and then later, as I went to pass another car, he suddenly came onto the same piece of road that I was travelling on and put me on the grass. So that was it, Graham was able to escape whilst we had to settle for second.”

* * *

For Clark, the maths was straight forward. He had to win in Mexico, whilst Hill would have to fail to score and Surtees must not come second. It was still a three-way race but the Lotus was now very much the outsider.

Making History

It had been a long year. There had been highs and lows, good races and bad races, but now all that mattered was the finale and 325 km of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.

* * *

JS: “Well you know, here we were, it was the last race of the season, and we weren’t racing for double points! . . . But yes, any of the three of us could have won it, Jimmy, me or Graham. And for all of us, we had the worst possible scenario – high altitude. But the fact is, in this type of situation, this is what makes Ferrari special; you’re not just a team, you’re a family, so despite Dragoni, everyone really came together that weekend, the lads looking after the cars, Forghieri and me, we just rolled-up our sleeves and got on with it.”

* * *

And he was right. Altitude and carburetted race engines don’t mix well. It’s not just a case of losing performance; everybody suffers that, but the thinner air requires a lot more attention to fine-tuning and set-up; get it wrong and the burden on already stressed machinery can easily tip the balance against you.

* * *

JS: “The altitude in Mexico posed a much bigger problem than any other we’d faced all year, principally because of our injection. There were doubts that we could get it weak-enough to work. One of the reasons being that some of the common equipment we were using, the pumps etc, was largely designed for 2.5 litre engines, and not specifically for the 1.5 litre that we were running.”

* * *

To complicate matters further, Ferrari had, by this time, split their engine programme. In addition to the V8, they’d also brought along the new flat-12-cylinder that Surtees had pushed for earlier in the year.

* * *

JS: “The Twelve, being on Lucas injection was easier to regulate, and Dragoni thought that this was the engine to use. BUT, Mexico has that big banked corner before the straight, the Peraltada, and there were serious questions with the flat engine that it might suffer from oil surge, and consumption. To be frank, we didn’t think that for this race, it would last the distance. In its later form, when I raced it the following year at Monza, it was probably the finest, most competitive Ferrari Formula 1 car I ever drove. But for Mexico, we decided to stay with the Eight as a safe-bet.”

* * *

Practice saw Clark take a commanding Pole, almost a second ahead of Gurney, and then Bandini and Surtees. Hill was adrift in 6th, yet still 1.4 seconds in front of fellow BRM man Ginther.

Lining-up for the race, Surtees knew that he would have to be patient. They’d worked hard on getting the engine right but they’d had to make some big compromises on the way.

* * *

JS: “During practice, we experimented a lot. We knew that we had to run incredibly lean which meant that whilst the engine was cold, we’d be way-off, and sure-enough, when I started the race, it wouldn’t fire on all cylinders. This left me slipping-back, I probably lost 9 or 10 places before it started to fire properly. But once the temperature came right-up, the engine came alive. That’s when my race started.”

* * *

Whilst Surtees battled his misfire, further up the road, team mate Bandini had been closing-in on Hill. On several occasions, he’d shown his nose at the hairpin, but it never got any further than that: Until lap 31. Emerging from the ‘Ese del Lago’, Bandini finally sensed his chance, pulling-out of the slip-stream in an attempt to secure the tight inside line ahead of him. With just 50 meters to go, Bandini was still half a meter behind, but by now it was too late, he was committed and had to make the turn. Hill was still straddling the painted white line marking the outer limit of the circuit. His approach was to go deeper-in, but faster out. He didn’t see Bandini. If he had, he would have surely stayed on the outside and cut back-in. Instead, he headed for the apex and the front wheel of the Ferrari. Avoiding actions were too late and contact was made. Bandini pushed the BRM around and damaged Hill’s exhaust.

Although both cars continued, Hill decided to pit and have the damaged assessed. Besides, Surtees had, by now, already passed.

* * *

JS: “Graham wasn’t one of those who took silly chances, and neither was Lorenzo. They were both pretty stable characters, and I can’t imagine either of them going into that corner thinking that they might not come out.”

“Once they touched, well, Graham had a background like mine – he’d worked on cars and he understood the engineering behind them, and also, he’d been around for a while and must have witnessed incidents brought about by mechanical damage. That might have influenced him, or he might easily have felt a change in the handling. He was a responsible driver, he didn’t take risks. He was in charge and it was his decision.”

* * *

As the race continued, Clark led comfortably from Gurney, then Bandini, then Surtees. Bandini’s flat-12 engine holding-up and using its power advantage to keep away from his team mate. For Clark, it seemed like the impossible might just happen. Hill was out of the scoring positions and Surtees, in 4th would still be two points behind. They were anxious moments in the Lotus camp. Then, with just seven laps remaining, Clark noticed a trail of oil as he approached the hairpin. Next time round, he took a different line, and as he came around again, his fears were confirmed, the oil was his.

It was just as Jim Clark embarked on his final tour that the Lotus signalled it could take no more. The Coventry Climax engine seized and accompanied by a bellow of blue smoke, it ended its and Clark’s hopes. Gurney soon passed and would continue on his way to victory number two. Bandini, meanwhile, had crossed the line to start the last lap in second place, with Surtees closing quickly in third. There were just two minutes of the season remaining. Clark was out and now Hill seemed set to regain his crown, despite the fact that the BRM would fail to score, as Surtees, lying in 3rd, would still only collect 4 points; it would not be enough.

Now it’s time to set the record straight.

For far too long, the story has been told that Dragoni, having seen the smoke from Clark’s Lotus, realised that Surtees could still win the championship if Bandini slowed and let him through. At this point, the Ferrari man is said to have signalled Bandini, who willingly obliged, allowing Surtees to pass him, take 2nd place in the race, and thereby eclipse Hill by a single point.

This might be the Hollywood script, but the reality was very different.

* * *

JS: “Lorenzo was his own man. He was there because of all the pressures for Ferrari to run with Italian drivers and quite frankly he was there because he was best Italian driver. If Dragoni had had his way, I’m sure that he would have opted for Scarfiotti, particularly because of his relationship to Mr Agnelli.

Dragoni was.. largely his own man too. I don’t think he was behind much else really. He was there because of his contacts at Turin and at this time, we were all unsure whether Ford would take over or whether Fiat would step-in. Dragoni was there to keep Ferrari Italian. But Lorenzo, he was a pure racer. He’d shown his ability with BRM when he drove so well at the Nürburgring so he was in the team on merit and like me, he raced to win.”

* * *

So might Bandini have heeded a signal from Dragoni on that last lap?

* * *

JS: “There were no signals, no team orders. And you have to remember, there were no radios in those days. We had no team meeting beforehand, and there was no plan as to how we might run the race within different scenarios; . . it was literally a case of get-on and do it!

No the thing is, it all came down to engine choice. We knew that with the Twelve, maintaining pace for the duration of the race was going to be difficult, that’s why I went for the consistency of the less powerful Eight-cylinder instead, and it paid-off.”

* * *

I’m feeling uncomfortable now. In front of me is one of the greatest racing drivers ever, and I’m questioning the moment that took him into history, but I have to ask. It’s not as though the answer will make a difference, but it can help to tell the real story:

So could there have been a situation where, having seen the rapidly closing Surtees in his mirrors, Bandini decided to ease-up and allow the pass?

* * *

JS: “Well if he did decide to do that, he certainly didn’t tell me about it afterwards! No, in fact all he did was to congratulate me and say “ben fatto!” (“well done”). So no, I think it all came down to the fact that he was getting (oil) surge and having to drop his revs, which is what we were concerned about. We knew that this was likely to happen with the Twelve which is why I chose not to use it.

My main concern was to look ahead and to push all the way. I would have loved to have gone out and won the championship by winning the race but that wasn’t feasible; we had to compromise the start to get to the end, and we were up against the Lotus and the Brabham who both had the Climax engine, and that was the one to have.”

* * *

And that’s how it ended. That’s how John Surtees won his place in history. No man before, or since, has won the major world championship for both two and four-wheeled machines.

Before we part, I have to know what it was like? That feeling of being the very best in the world.

* * *

JS: “You know, I hadn’t even thought about the championship – I wasn’t actually sure about the other positions; it wasn’t until I came in and Borsari (his mechanic) jumped onto the car that it all came home.

Then it became all rather special. The President, Snr Mateos was there, as was Prince Phillip, it was one of the few races he’d been to.. and Dan (Gurney) was very supportive. It was, after all, his race, but he said ‘come-on’ and hauled me up onto the top-step; it was a very special day. And do you know? I still have the gold Rolex that the President gave me afterwards. There were no trophies in those days for being champion, so that watch means everything.”

* * *

For a moment, the conversation moves away from racing and onto Mexico itself. There’s a glint in the champion’s eye as he tells me fondly about the brilliance of the silver smiths, the marvels of the pyramids and his trip to the Palace. And then, rather unexpectedly, he laughs out loud as he remembers the difficulties that the altitude posed, not just with the engines but with the consumption of hard liquor afterwards!

For John Surtees and Ferrari, this should have been the start of a golden age. They had taken-on Lotus and BRM, Brabham and Cooper, and they had won. But in Maranello, the ever nearing threat from Ford and the GT40 meant that once again, for 1965, all thoughts of Formula One were put to one side. The renaissance was over.

* * *

JS: “At times, it was as if we lived in different worlds. You had the teams in England who only ever thought about, and concentrated on Formula One. And then there was Ferrari. We were almost always behind because we started late, and that was a shame.

But I think at that time, and I didn’t really appreciate this until I became a team owner, I think that there was such a preoccupation with trying to make ends-meet and keep projects alive that they failed to really focus. And actually, it wasn’t until much later, when FIAT really started to get involved and they had some stability that things changed.”

* * *

Later that year, Surtees would endure a near fatal crash in a Lola T70 at Mosport Park in Canada. When not racing for Ferrari, Enzo had given his blessing for him to work with Eric Broadley with the hope of bringing new ideas back to Italy. It took months for him to recover, and whilst Enzo offered every possible assistance, Dragoni saw an opportunity to drive an irreversible wedge.

By 1966, just as England were preparing to take-on the best of the footballing world, John Surtees and Ferrari parted company.

* * *

JS: “I love Italy, and I thought that having spent all that time at MV Agusta, I knew all about the Italian ways. But I didn’t. And it’s such a shame that I allowed one man to upset me, because I really thought that I would finish my career there, at least that’s what I’d hoped.”

* * *

The ‘divorce’, as he puts it, came to a head at Le Mans. By now, the GT40 was winning handsomely and Ford was in France, in force; it had a score to settle.

The only way that Ferrari could see that they would meet the challenge was if they ran the race as a series of Grand Prix. Surtees would need to qualify well, and then force the pace from the outset, building enough of a cushion so that when his team mate, Scarfiotti, took over, even though he had less natural speed, he would be able to hold the lead until handing back to the Englishman. But then on the eve of the race, Dragoni informed Surtees that the plan must change. Scarfiotti would start, he was now “Number 1”.

For Surtees, this was it. He’d had enough. He’d endured years of mistrust and hostility from Dragoni; now he was being asked to be a party to the sacrifice of the Scuderia’s reputation. He jumped straight into his car and drove into the night so as to deliver his resignation to Enzo in person.

* * *

JS: “Looking back, it’s easy to see different ways, better ways, that I might have responded. In Formula One, we were leading the championship and there was everything to race for. So perhaps I could have handled it differently. I could have taken the time to sit down with Ferrari himself and talked things through.”

* * *

In a Pinteresque-way, the pauses say everything. Here’s a man who knows what he lost; what he gave-up by giving-in. He was denied a win in Monaco by being forced to use the wrong car, yet had delivered spectacularly at Spa. Now he was being told to make way for someone slower and less able.

You can understand why he went, why he felt forced to choose his principles. But it’s clear to see that had he stood back for just a moment, there might have been another way, one that would have allowed he and Ferrari to build on their victories and achieve so very much more.

* * *

JS: I was a fairly confident person, and I’d just come back from nearly losing my life, a recovery which, had been personally supported by Enzo himself, so to find that there were certain elements fighting against not only me but also the team’s interests . . . these were things that I just couldn’t accept. So, yes, as I said before, I could have dealt with it differently, but I didn’t, and because of that, I lost out and Ferrari lost out. We should have won championships in ’66 and’67. And it would have been special.

But what happened, happened. And I’m pleased that later, I was able to sit and talk to the old man and we set our differences aside. ‘John’, he said to me, ‘we must only remember the good times.. let us forget our mistakes’.”

* * *

* Later that year, John Surtees would return to Mexico and win the Grand Prix outright in a Maserati-powered Cooper

* In addition to his Formula One campaign, John Surtees also spent 1966 competing in the inaugural Can-Am Challenge, beating drivers such as Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill and Mark Donohue to the title.

* At the end of 1966, Eugenio Dragoni was discretely removed from his position at Ferrari.

PHOTO CREDITS: Alice Craig Membrey, Honda, Scuderia Ferrari, various.

Written By

Steve Hindle
Steve Hindle

Steve has lived his life with motor sport; from childhood years as a fan, to racing around the greatest tracks in Europe, first as a driver and later as a team principal. Today he's a familiar sight trackside and in the pit lane, notebook in one hand, camera in another, capturing moments and contributing to some of the leading titles in motor sport and automotive media.

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