The Count and the Commendatore

It was with MV Agusta and Ferrari that John Surtees scored his famous world titles on two wheels and four. But working with these two great Italian teams was no easy ride…
By Nigel Roebuck

Big John’ we called him, didn’t we? And in Italy, where it started, ‘Il Grande John’.

John Surtees has had a love affair with Italy for most of his life, and it began in 1955, when a 21-year-old motorcycle racing prodigy accepted that if his career were going to progress he would, as he put it, have to “go foreign”.

Surtees had that year joined the Norton works team, and with considerable success, but he was frustrated by the company’s refusal to enter for the World Championships, and pleaded his case with its MD, Gilbert Smith. It was not impossible, he suggested, that he and Norton could win a title or two.

“‘Well, Surtees,’ said Smith – he always called me ‘Surtees’ – ‘I think you’re right, but… no. I mean, d’you realise that if you won the World Championship you would earn more than a director of this company?’”

Fortunately for John, that summer he had been asked to ride a BMW at the Nürburgring. It was the first time he had ever seen the Nordschleife, and he proved virtually a match for Walter Zeller, BMW’s star.

“More importantly,” says Surtees, “I was ahead of the MV Agustas. Their team manager was Nello Pagani, who’d been World Champion in 1949, and he went back and said, ‘We need Surtees’.

“I wanted to go to Gilera, but that got vetoed – the current riders didn’t want me there. I also had a call from Moto Guzzi, but they weren’t sure what they were going to do with their eight-cylinder. Then MV said, ‘We’d like you to come here’, and I said I’d go and try the bike.

“In retrospect, my whole career was a matter of getting enthusiastic about making this or that work, rather than getting myself the best machinery available. But the fact is, MV Agusta played a very important role in my life, and I think I did in theirs. At the time they needed me – and I needed them.”

Thus, while Surtees was at Monza he took the opportunity to go to Gallarate, to meet Count Domenico Agusta. “He loved his title,” John smilingly says. “It’d come out of Sicily or somewhere. Italy was pretty feudal in those days – still is, in some ways!

“Agusta wanted to put himself on the map, and he chose motorcycles – he wanted to rival the families of Gilera and Parodi (Moto Guzzi). It was different, though, because for Agusta the bikes were a hobby. What was important was helicopter development, and there was also a transport aeroplane, a development project that just sat there – bringing in government money!

“By contrast, the Gilera family were racers – Gilera’s son was a great friend of Dino Ferrari, and it was a terrible tragedy that both died young, before they could play their part in their companies’ racing activities.”

In 1950 Count Agusta had taken his company Meccanica Verghera into motorcycle racing, at the time poaching several people from Gilera, including designer Piero Remor, whose ideas, according to Surtees, were already out of date.

“When Remor left Gilera, Piero Taruffi went in there, and they made a slimmer, smaller, bike. Unfortunately, Remor recreated for MV what had been the old Gilera – a much bigger bike.”

Surtees went to test at Monza, but it rained incessantly, and the track was covered in leaves. Lethal. Off they went to Modena, and more rain. “They said, ‘We don’t normally test in the wet’. I pointed out that sometimes it was wet on race days…”

Afterwards Surtees was taken to Count Agusta’s office, in company with Pagani and Arturo Magni, the chief mechanic who was to become John’s lifelong friend. “It was a rather dark office, and there was the Count, wearing dark glasses. After some bartering, he said, ‘OK, here’s the contract’. It was somewhat better than the one I’d had at Nortons…

“Then they said, ‘One moment – there’s a formality. Please stay…’ And in came this lady, dressed in black, veiled and everything. She studied me, walked round me, then started jabbering away to the Count, who spoke to Callatroni, the interpreter, who said to me, ‘John, you are accepted into the family…’ This was the Countess, of course, the matriarch. And that was my introduction to Italy!”

Surtees swiftly warmed to the country and its people, establishing a good rapport with the mechanics (as he was to do throughout his career), and staying in a local hotel.

“I picked the language up as I went along. I’d go and see these dreadful cowboy films, with subtitles, and relate the words to the action – I learned a lot of my Italian that way.”

The Count is remembered by Surtees as fundamentally an austere individual. “These people were a type, you know – whether it was Agusta or Ferrari or Honda. They had a certain aloofness. I’d wait outside the Count’s office for hours, just for an opportunity to ask if we could try something different.

“It was all part of keeping you in your place. It wasn’t unusual for people to behave like that in those days – I mean, even if you were a king, Ferrari would do that to you! These people all had their little ways…

“In fact, Ferrari never treated me like that – normally you’d get grabbed to have lunch with him at the Cavallino. And unless he was having one of his pompous days, that was the best opportunity of having a proper talk with him.

“At MV, though, it was more difficult, and the biggest step forward we made – to where I got the bike handling, despite its weight, to a point that I could get it on the edge – came after quite a saga. I’d got so frustrated at not being able to talk to the Count that, instead of driving, I booked on the same train as him coming back from the Belgian Grand Prix. Finally I had him captive! And by the time we got back it had been agreed that we would make an entirely new frame – essentially a version of the Norton frame. That transformed the bike.”

It was not, though, until 1958 that John got what he wanted, and, given that Agusta must have wished his bikes to succeed, it’s not easy to understand a dilatory, not to say obstructive, way of behaving towards his star rider.

“Well, at least the Count came to all the races – always with his handkerchief tied round his head! The saddest thing in my time with Ferrari was that the Old Man never went to races. I would have loved him to see first-hand his cars racing – and it would also have helped in getting him to appreciate what needed to be done. Instead of that, he stayed at home, listening to what people thought he wanted to hear, rather than the truth.

“The Count was a bit removed from what was happening. At times he had a few airs and graces, but of course it was ‘old money’. Yes, you had meals with him, but it was mainly at race meetings that you got together. He had a sense of humour, and you could have an enjoyable time with him – but at other times it was all very correct, and you had to go through the formalities…”

Surtees duly became World Champion in 1956, the one dud in his five seasons with MV coming the following year, when the bikes were plagued with unreliability. Thereafter, though, he was essentially unbeatable, 350 and 500 World Champion for three years.

As time went by, however, frustrations set in. Although John rode for MV in the World Championships, a dozen or so race weekends a year were hardly enough to satisfy one such as he, and initially he was free to race his own Norton in other events – predictably with great success. By the end of 1957 this had begun to upset MV – “They started showing me cuttings in the Italian press, saying ‘Surtees doesn’t need MV to win’.” When John signed a new three-year contract with the Count, he was precluded from riding anything but an MV.

“I could understand it to some extent, but at the same time I thought, ‘I love racing! I can’t be happy to do only 12 or 14 races a year’. There was, however, nothing in the contract that said I couldn’t race other things…”

What started Surtees thinking about cars was MV’s decision to do World Championship events only in 1960. In his first couple of car races, he finished second to Jimmy Clark and Innes Ireland, both in Lotuses, and not long after there came a call from Colin Chapman. “‘You’re doing F1’, he said. I said, ‘I can’t – I’m a motorcyclist, and I’ve got a World Championship to do…’ He said, ‘Well, when you haven’t got a bike race, drive a car’, so that’s how that happened.”

In only his second Grand Prix, at Silverstone, Surtees finished second. In his third, at Oporto, he took pole. “When I look back now, probably the Lotus 18 was the most competitive F1 car, relative to its opposition, that I ever drove…”

By now John had concluded that his future lay with cars. It was at Monza, appropriately, that he raced a bike for the last time, and of course he won. Taking his leave of motorcycle racing, Surtees’s record read thus: 348 races, 255 victories. Statistics to make you blink.

“Agusta were good about my racing cars – they could have kicked up about it. When I said I was stopping racing bikes at the end of 1960, the Count said, ‘Well, I’ll build you a Grand Prix car!’”

As one Italian chapter of John’s life closed, so another became tentatively ajar. But when he got the first call from Ferrari, at the end of 1960, he said no: “I thought, ‘I’ve to learn my trade first…’

There followed a season with the Bowmaker team, run by Reg Parnell, and using uncompetitive ‘customer’ Coopers. Come the autumn, there was another call from Maranello.

“Again,” says Surtees, “I concluded, ‘No, if I come here, it’s got to be with more clout than I’ve got now’. They had a long list of drivers, and I could see myself getting lost in the crowd – that wasn’t my scene at all.”

This was the occasion of John’s first meeting with Enzo Ferrari, and when he turned down the offer Ferrari said, ‘You know we won’t ask again…’

“I didn’t really believe Ferrari when he said that – I’d been around Italians enough by then! To be honest, what I actually thought was, ‘You’re going to need me at some time…’

“I didn’t have many choices for ’62. I’d blown it with Lotus by not staying with them in ’61, and that was a shame because I liked Colin and his cavalier attitude. He made the quickest cars, and if they’d been built to the engineering standards of Ferrari, no one else would have had a look-in. Mind you, if I’d stayed there I might not be sitting here, talking to you now…”

In the end Surtees stayed with the Bowmaker team, this time – at his instigation – running cars from Lola. He finished fourth in the championship – in front of all the Ferrari drivers. “Then I got the call again…”

Twelve months earlier John had detected arrogance and complacency at Ferrari, who had won everything in 1961, and clearly anticipated more of the same in ’62. In point of fact, the team didn’t win a single Grand Prix, and by now was in a state of upheaval. Oddly, for Surtees, this was not without its attractions.

“The situation, compared with that on my previous visit, could hardly have been more different. [Carlo] Chiti had gone, which was probably a good thing – he’d always ridden on [Franco] Rocchi’s back. Rocchi was a wonderful man, so quiet and modest. Fortunately, when so many engineers left at the end of ’62, he stayed.

“The other thing was, all the drivers had gone, too! Ferrari said, ‘We want you to be our number one’, but I said, ‘No, no, treat me as number one as long as I’m the quickest.’

“The Old Man said, ‘We don’t have that much money – but there are other advantages’, one of which was that I could stay at the Real Fini for 1800 lire a day, full board! That was the equivalent of one pound!

“It was just like going back to MV – a team in the doldrums, but looking for a new horizon and determined to get there. It was super. Some days they’d say, ‘Go and test a road car’. Other days I’d be out in the sports cars, pounding round Modena…”

The young Mauro Forghieri joined Ferrari at the same time, he and Surtees getting along fine – but new on the scene, too, was Eugenio Dragoni, who was to become a blight on John’s life.

Dragoni had been involved with Scuderia Sant Ambroeus, the private team which fielded a Ferrari for Giancarlo Baghetti in 1961. He was a wealthy man, and a well-connected one too, but none could understand why Ferrari appointed him team manager a year or so later. Where, after all, lay his credentials for the job?

“You know,” Surtees sighs, “I can’t answer that. He was a perfume manufacturer! Somehow within Ferrari he had more influence than his position warranted – certainly I believe there were connections into the Agnelli family, for example. He would manipulate things in a way I knew the Old Man didn’t approve of – but the fact is that he got away with it.”

Happy as he was to be at Ferrari, John was taken aback by the emphasis on sports car racing, on Le Mans. “You’d go out in the F1 car – and then you didn’t see it again for ages.

“My first race for Ferrari was Sebring – and Dragoni immediately tried to bring me to heel. I’d tested all the cars, and was allocated the one I liked best, but when I got there I found that the last one they’d made – which I hadn’t tested fully – had my number on it.

“I was driving with [Ludovico] Scarfiotti, and we suffered because fumes got sucked into the cockpit – all the other cars had been modified to ease this problem. We were getting gassed out, but we got through, and headed a Ferrari one-two, only to have the result protested – by our own team!

“Luckily Pat, my first wife, was probably the finest timekeeper-cum-lap charter in the business, and her chart precisely matched the organisers’ – although not the team’s! It was a question of ‘keep the new boy in his place’, and very much at Dragoni’s instigation.”

Although Surtees enjoyed the sports cars and understood their commercial significance to Ferrari, he was irked by the way they took precedence over F1. Through that ’63 season he was rarely in contention to win – save at the Nürburgring, where he took his first GP victory.

The next year, on the last lap of the last race, in Mexico, he took over the championship lead when Clark’s Lotus faltered, and thus became – eternal cliché – ‘The first man to become World Champion on two and four wheels’. It’s a title he will likely hold for evermore.

Throughout his time at Ferrari, John was uncomfortably aware of the company’s insularity. “I think I was a bit before my time! OK, it was an Italian team – but all Italians? We needed to capitalise on what was happening elsewhere – our bodywork, for example, was aluminium, whereas the British teams were using fibreglass. I wanted us to build proper monocoques, and said that Lola could help. My feeling was that if Ferrari were set on doing things one way, and everyone else was doing it another way, then we had to move.

“I wanted to make Ferrari a more international team, and in a way the Old Man had already given his blessing, because he’d agreed I could work with Lola, as long as it wasn’t a ‘works’ effort, and as long as it was in a series in which Ferrari weren’t involved.”

The other frustration was the company’s convoluted policy on engines, which to this day Surtees doesn’t understand. “I think they were largely flying kites, quite honestly…”

In 1965 he invariably had a V8 in his car, whereas Lorenzo Bandini had a flat-12, which John felt inherently better. In ’66, the first year of the 3-litre F1, he had a V12, while Bandini started the year with the older, but superior, V6.

In the autumn of 1965 Surtees had the worst accident of his life, driving his own Lola T70 at Mosport Park. Severely injured, he was nevertheless fit enough to begin testing the following spring, and spent days flogging round Modena in the little 2.4-litre V6 – his ‘convalescence car’, as he called it.

“There was this ‘new’ V12 for ’66 – but in reality it was a just a short-stroke sports car engine, giving less than 300bhp. Because the engines always sounded wonderful, they’d fool themselves that there was power to match…”

When he came back to Maranello after his accident, Surtees was moved by his reception, notably from the mechanics. Even though he had been injured in a car other than a Ferrari, the Old Man had said from the outset that no other driver would be signed, and Surtees committed himself even more tightly to Ferrari, moving into a flat in Modena. He was expecting, he said, to see out his career with the team – but still there loomed the spectre of Dragoni.

“Part of the problem was that Dragoni – and some of his assistants in the conspiracy, like Michael Parkes – were jealous of the good, relaxed relationship I had with the Old Man…”

John evidently remembers Enzo Ferrari with affection, and loves to reminisce about him. “Oh, I thought of him as a likeable old rogue! I never had any doubts that he had hauled himself up by hook or by crook, and I don’t think he was very particular about how he did it. Above all, what he wanted to do was stamp the name ‘Ferrari’ on the world – and it just happened that he did it with motor cars.

“Modena was one thing, but when you got out to Maranello he reigned – he literally reigned. He had his little nucleus of friends, and I used to love it, for example, when old Vittorio Jano would turn up. It was wonderful to be able to chat with a man like that. Pinin Farina, too. These were people who’d been part of Ferrari’s life, and there was always an added sparkle about him when they were around.

“He loved his whisky, and one day we had the sales director of Glen Grant at Maranello – I went out for lunch with the two of them, and afterwards had to give this bloke a drive through the hills. He produced a bottle of malt – which was clear – and the Old Man was thrilled: ‘Ah, whisky bianco!’ And thereafter, every time I was going back to England, he would whisper, ‘Whisky bianco’, and I’d take some out for him.

“Another thing I remember was that he was absolutely fascinated by [Alec] Issigonis. When he arrived with a Mini, everything else was forgotten! We’d go off in it sometimes down to his house on the coast, with Pepino the chauffeur driving, Ferrari in the passenger seat and me in the back. He absolutely loved the Mini.

“As for his own cars, he had very… particular views. The Lusso, for example, wasn’t an out-and-out sports car, but it was a nice car – and beautiful to look at. But the Old Man said it was too beautiful, and not a proper Ferrari, and so he got Pininfarina to make something more brutal! That was the first of the GTBs – which was a dreadful car. I got into trouble for saying that, actually, and that was the start of the problems with Parkes, because he’d done the development on it.

“The first cars, with the very short nose, looked horrible. Even the Old Man had his doubts – but the problem was that he had to make loads of them, because it was the first car Pininfarina had set up tooling for! Because of that, they couldn’t change it too quickly – and so people got stuck with these ugly bloody GTBs…”

Given his close relationship with Ferrari, it seems unfathomable that the Old Man was so often influenced by the word of Dragoni, but, as Surtees points out, the world was very different back then.

“In a way he’d lost touch – there wasn’t TV coverage of all the races in those days, and so he was reliant on hearsay being fed back to him. Having said that, he very much ran the team so that we were all puppets on a string. There was a bit of the devil in him, in that he always felt he had to set people against each other in order to get the best out of them.”

In the spring of ’66 Surtees won the Syracuse GP in the V12 car, but the opposition was negligible, and he stressed that it simply wasn’t quick enough. “We ran it in the International Trophy at Silverstone, but I couldn’t stay with Brabham – and Jack’s car had no horsepower.”

All the while the Dragoni situation worsened. At the Monza 1000Kms John won, partnered by Parkes, but it was an edgy afternoon, given that the rain was unceasing – and the new 330P3’s wipers quickly became inoperative.

“In effect,” says Surtees, “you had to go faster to be able to see – faster than you wanted to go, quite honestly. But Dragoni even tried to turn that round with the Old Man, saying that, ‘It was only because of Michael that the car continued – John would have retired it…’”

On to Monte Carlo. “At Modena the little V6 car was three seconds a lap faster than the V12, and I said to the Old Man, ‘I’ll win you Monte Carlo with this’. But then I was told by Dragoni, ‘Ferrari produce 12-cylinder cars – it would be bad for their lead driver not to be in the 12-cylinder car’. I said, ‘But we want to win the race, don’t we?’ I rowed the V12 car into the lead, but it broke – and Bandini was second in the V6…”

At Spa, though, Surtees was supreme. By now Rocchi had done a cylinder head redesign, and the V12 was giving a more respectable 320bhp. In torrential rain John sat behind Jochen Rindt’s Cooper-Maserati, then took the lead with half a dozen laps to go, and won conclusively.

“Afterwards everyone was really happy, but Dragoni never said a word to me. Not a word. I reckon I drove a heady race that day, but he moaned to the press that, ‘Surtees let a Maserati-engined car stay in front’. I said, ‘Yes – but I was in the right place when the bloody race finished’.

The situation was becoming ridiculous. Here was Surtees, driving with consistent brilliance – and here was the team manager, seeking to undermine him at every opportunity. At Le Mans it went past the point of no return.

“The strategy we’d worked out was a tortoise-and-hare thing, and rely on the Ferrari not stopping for some stupid reason. Mechanically, it was unlikely to break – you could drive it virtually like a Grand Prix car. We reckoned, though, that the 7-litre Fords, driven by racers like Gurney, might well break if you pushed them hard enough.

“The plan was for me to go like hell from the beginning – but then Dragoni said, no, Scarfiotti was going to do the first stint. And why? Because Gianni Agnelli was attending the start of the race – and it would be nice for him to see his cousin, Ludovico, drive the car!

“I thought, ‘Oh, what’s the point? I don’t feel part of this family any more’. Bit of a short fuse, I admit, but it was just too much. I’ve always believed that Dragoni – and, to some extent, Parkes – created a conspiracy designed to get me out of Ferrari. I think it came about because of people who were stupid and vindictive – it had nothing to do with Scarfiotti or, particularly, Bandini. I got on fine with Ludovico, and as for Lorenzo… he almost cried when I said I was leaving. He was such a good lad – I remember him with great fondness.”

And Parkes? “Well, we were both Ferrari drivers, and both British, but… he did what he had to do, and so did I. The only time we ever came together was when we went to a race. He was, of course, desperate to be in F1…”

Thus, Surtees went straight to Maranello, and there it was agreed with Ferrari that there should be a parting of the ways. “I knew what I was I leaving,” John says. “I think I would have won at least one more championship with Ferrari, and I was very sad. In a way, I staked two large sections of my life to two families…

“What I’d tried to do was to get a ‘Schumacher movement’ going, to make Ferrari much more international in its outlook. But, you know, even in the Schumacher era there was always a strong nucleus of ‘the best of Italia’.

“The Italians have wonderful abilities… there’s this strong artistic sense, this appreciation of beauty, be it in architecture or art or the beautiful lines of a motor car. It was vital that these things played a major part in everything they did. What was wrong was that this was the only ingredient – and you were competing against people who had more ingredients.”

Surtees and Enzo Ferrari parted well, and stayed in touch to the end of the Old Man’s life. “I last saw him at the launch of the F40, not long before he died, and that day he said to me, ‘We must remember the good times, and not the mistakes…’

“After his death, I said that Ferrari would see their best days from now on, and they have indeed gone on to greater and bigger things. There was no way that the Old Man, with his way of controlling everything, could have moved into the 21st century, but the foundation of it all came from him – from one man.

“Part of me is still out there in Modena, and always will be.”