Surtees on Clark

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John Surtees says that ‘team-mate’ is a misnomer. Mateyness simply isn’t part of the relationship between drivers in a team, but he and exact contemporary Jimmy Clark came close to it

This is a difficult choice for John Surtees. He has raced alongside so many of the great names. He sits behind his desk, surrounded by books and papers, and thinks long and hard. He’s looking at me. I think I know what’s coming.

“Look, you’ve got the wrong title for this Team-mates thing,” he says. “I mean, it’s not about team-mates, it’s about the other driver in the team. He’s not your mate.

“But if we want to talk about the one I was ‘matiest’ with, then it’s going to be Jimmy Clark.”

This is what I like about John Surtees. He didn’t get up this morning to give you an easy ride. The man has done it all and, let’s get this out of the way, he is still the only man to have won world titles on motorcycles and in cars.

“We have to start this at the beginning,” he says, relishing the task now. “1960 was a momentous year for me. It was my induction into cars from motorcycles, the last year of my contract with MV Agusta. I went to see Charles and John Cooper, and while I was there Ken Tyrrell came out of the shadows and the Coopers told me that this man would be running their Formula Junior cars, the Cooper-Austins.” He pauses, smiling. “And then Ken tells me that he’s already arranged for me to race at Goodwood, that he’s organised my licence. Well, I wasn’t racing a motorcycle that weekend so I went to Goodwood, which is when I first came across Jimmy Clark. There was a mutual respect between us. We both disliked the madding crowds, we both loved the countryside and neither of us were big party-goers. There was a certain bond between us from the start.”

That March day in 1960 was a sensational beginning to a memorable year. In his first car race, Surtees started on pole and had a race-long dice with Clark’s Lotus 18. 

“He passed me, I passed him, and so it went on. Then I had a moment at St Mary’s, used a lot of grass – I think I forgot I was on four wheels,” he grins, “and came second to Jimmy. Later, Colin Chapman called and asked me to test the Lotus at Silverstone, said he wanted me to drive his F1 car. But I was already flat out, winning two motorcycle championships and the Senior TT.”

Surtees did the test, of course, and was immediately quick.

“Me and Jimmy, we were the new boys,” he says, “and Innes Ireland had a big tantrum when I crashed the car at Stowe. He said they shouldn’t be letting boys loose in these cars. But I shook hands with Chapman on a deal to drive. No contract, just an agreement.”

The season just kept getting better. Surtees raced for Lotus, alongside Clark, in grands prix and non-championship F1 races that didn’t clash with his bike commitments. He came second in the British GP at Silverstone, having done only half a dozen car races. A remarkable feat.

“We were from very different backgrounds. I’d been tinkering with bikes for 11 years already, won five world championships. But Jimmy respected the motorcycle racers, whereas most of the other drivers thought I was a bit of a nuisance, coming into their world like that.

“We weren’t buddy boys, but we were close and we always talked about the cars, what changes we were making. I always kept a slight distance, I think, because I grew up a loner. But we pulled together away from the track. 

“You never took anything for granted with Jimmy. There was never any suggestion of favouritism towards him from Chapman – I never saw that – and you had to like Colin, even if he was a bit of a rogue. He was a bubbly character, always full of enthusiasm, and clever.” And both rookies revelled in his boxy Lotus 18. 

“You had to be precise with that car. That was an important factor. You needed to be very correct and economical.” A style that suited a motorbike racer. “But it suited Jimmy, too. He was a very smooth driver. 

“At Oporto for the Portuguese GP, I had the edge on him for out and out speed and started from pole. In the race I had a big lead, got fastest lap – but made a mistake where I needed to be very smooth with the car. Stirling Moss had just come out of the pits and I pulled out to pass him, got a wheel stuck in the tramlines on the street, lost it and clipped a kerb. Jimmy came home third.”

The two men had also become closer after the death of fellow Lotus driver Alan Stacey at Spa. It was a bleak weekend in the Ardennes: Moss crashed heavily in practice; Stacey and Chris Bristow were killed in the race.

“I didn’t do the Spa race but, yes, that weekend changed all our lives,” says Surtees. “I was closer to Jimmy after that. It was one of the most dangerous periods in the history of motor racing but we never talked much about the dangers. We worried when things broke on the car, yes, but we were youngsters just starting out, and the cars were, you know, state of the art for the time. To think, you had a battery almost in your lap, the fuel tank was right next to you and the cars were made of aluminium and utilised components from road cars.” He pauses, thinking back. “When we did the Tasman series at the end of the year, those rough tracks in New Zealand shook the cars apart. Jimmy and I were frightened by that, we talked about the dangers then.”

Chapman wanted Surtees as his number one for the 1961 season, and he asked John to suggest a team-mate.

“I said I wanted Jimmy: we were the same age, we got on well and, of course, he was good. It was far better to have him in the team than racing for someone else. If you’re not sure of your own ability you shouldn’t be out there anyway.” He pauses for another slug of cranberry juice. “But Innes Ireland wasn’t happy at all. He said I’d kicked him out of his seat at Lotus and there was a lot of ranting and raving. So I walked away, just couldn’t stand the pressure. I was upset by the whole situation and I’d had enough of all that kind of stress in my motorcycle career, but at least I knew who to steer clear of in that world. I spoke to Jimmy about it, and we stayed in touch over the years.”

On a lighter note, John remembers the time, later in their careers, when he met his first wife for the first time. And it was all thanks to Mr Clark. 

“We were in the same hotel at Spa-Francorchamps and it was the night before the race. There was loud music coming from downstairs and I couldn’t sleep, so I went to sort it out. I found Jimmy dancing with this girl and I went face to face with them, told them to turn it off. A year later Jimmy was the best man at my wedding to Pat, the girl he’d been dancing with that night,” he smiles. “I don’t think Jimmy thought it was a big deal.”

Surtees moved to Ferrari in 1963 and became somewhat isolated from the British contingent. 

“I wasn’t surprised when Jimmy won the title [that year]. He was one of the greats. And I had a lot of respect for Colin Chapman. He made the fastest cars on the track at the time and did a damn good job for Jimmy. I should have made sure I got my bottom in the best cars and maybe should have thought more of myself [purely] as a driver as opposed to all the rest of it. But I’d made my bed and had to lie on it.”

Clark’s death in a minor Formula Two encounter at Hockenheim in 1968 rocked the motor racing world, the shockwaves going far beyond the GP paddock. Surtees, like most drivers, says it was not a driving error. 

“When you go off at a place like that, in a race like that, something has to have gone wrong, some fault with the car or the tyres. Jimmy always did everything that was asked of him in a car. Just like Michael Schumacher for Ferrari, he did a better job than anyone else in the same car, all the way through. He had no false pretences, he stayed largely the same Jimmy he always was. He had his worries, his concerns, like we all do, but what he enjoyed most of all was coming together with the racing car.”

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