My greatest race - John Surtees

1966 Belgian Grand Prix

John Surtees’ finest hour came in his final race for Ferrari. By allowing himself to be overtaken in the rain, he set the scene for an historic victory for himself and the marque for whom he had been made world champion

It’s hard to name my greatest race, but if I qualify it by saying it was among my most satisfying, then winning at Spa in 1966 was very memorable.

I look upon that period as being a fairly major part of my life, because the events which happened then and immediately afterwards, with my divorce from Ferrari, probably cost both Ferrari and myself a couple of World Championships.

What we had in the pipeline stood us in good stead, but in the best traditions we all fell out and they shot themselves in the foot. It cost them dearly and it cost me dearly, which is what I suppose Spa signifies, in that it was the last of what could have been… It had been a traumatic period for me, returning to racing after my Canadian accident the previous year. Unfortunately the programme which had originally been projected for ’66 didn’t happen. I think that the old firm was short of money and trying to do the deal with Fiat.

The new V12 car was too heavy, and didn’t have the power. When I came back I had the frustration of going round on convalescence while driving in my 2.4-litre V6 Tasman car, and being over 2secs faster round places like Modena than I was when the new car was wheeled out.

I was damning about them saying that the V12 had 320bhp, when in fact we only had 285. Particularly after we’d travelled to the Silverstone Daily Express meeting, where Jack Brabham with his Repco had passed me down the straight.

It certainly wasn’t any good for me not being able to drive what I considered to be a real race winning car in Monaco, the first GP of the season. I led it in the car I was forced to drive, the V12, but Lorenzo Bandini nearly won it with the 2.4, which was the car I wanted to drive. It seemed to me illogical not to use a car that you could have had an easier and faster race in, which the little car was.

I told them “OK, I’m going to go there to be competitive, but I will wind it up and I will keep it going until it breaks.” Because it was bound to break the transmission, as it had shown those tendencies already. And of course it broke.

So the tensions had been building and building up, particularly with Eugenio Dragoni. He’d been in the midst of the negotiations with Fiat, trying to sell them all sorts of ideas about the future, and talking about the new engine, and how it will make it all so much easier…

At the time Franco Rocchi was the unsung hero of virtually all the designs. He was a behind-the-scenes man who’d done the V6s, the V8 and went on to the boxer 3-litre. He told me, “I think we can do a few tweaks on the cylinder head and find a few more horsepower.”

So we came to Spa, and at last it started to work. We had gained about another 15bhp out of the cylinder head mods, and for the first time the V12 became competitive with the 2.4 on power-to-weight ratio. It was feeling bloody good in practice, which in some ways didn’t please Dragoni. The last thing he wanted was for me to be on pole! But the gearbox was still a little bit of a questionable factor.

Like the Nürburgring, Spa was a circuit which really kept you on your toes. Obviously you needed a bit of performance, but also with so much quick stuff there were places where you could always scratch something back. The difference between drivers would always show up where you had faster corners. I’d had good successes there on the bikes, and in fact the line round there was virtually identical, apart from the hairpin. It’s where bikes and cars came very much closer together. It was frightening, but at the same time very pleasing and extremely satisfying when you did it well.

I made a reasonably good start, went over the top and dived down into Bumenville for the first time. And I started feeling the odd rain spots come down fairly heavily on my face. At Spa you had this situation where you have one corner where it’s pouring, and another corner where it’s dry. And a bit further round, the heavens opened up. Then it was a question of staying on the road. It was had because you didn’t know what was coming, and I was in the lead so I was the one who had to find out what was happening. This was one of the most terrifying factors about the circuit, when you encountered those sort of conditions. I just concentrated on keeping it all pointing in the right direction. Of course, I had no idea about the carnage which went on behind me. I think the main thing I was aware of on the next lap was where Stewart was – it was very obvious as you came down the hill that there was a BRM sticking out of a ditch! But at the sort of speeds you were doing round Spa, even in the wet, you were fully attentive. It was only later that the full scale of what had happened on the first lap came home to me…

I was aware of someone else around me, and it turned out to be Jochen Rindt. I was getting quite a lot of aquaplaning after Bumenville, for whatever reason. Jochen was on the more open tread Dunlops, and he wasn’t getting quite so much. I thought I’d do my own thing, as we’d got a fairly long race to run, so he went past and I settled then for a bit of tactical race. I thought we’ll see, and I ran in his wheeltracks. It was in a fact much safer to sit behind him; if you got the distance just right you didn’t get too much spray, and at the same time you’d got the benefit of running in the wheeltracks. So through the worst of it, that’s what I did.

As the race settled down I got the messages from the pitlane about the positions, and I realised it was only us who were in the race. In those sort of circumstances you obviously want to win the race as slowly as you can. I thought Jochen was fairly well on the limit, and then, typically of Spa, the water became less of a problem. He wasn’t getting any quicker, so it appeared to be the time to pass and pull out a bit of a margin. Coming clown into Bumenville with about five laps to go I kept a wide line and then went back onto a more traditional line, and took the lead. And that was it.

Afterwards the mechanics were all very enthusiastic, and there was a very glum Dragoni over in the corner, all upset. His main criticism was that I’d allowed a Maserati-powered car to stay in front of a Ferrari for a few laps! Of course, little did I know that at the next race Jochen was going to be my team partner, because I was to leave Ferrari and join Cooper…