John Surtees believes the motor racing ladder has too many rungs, and high costs make it too slippery. Time for change, he argues, to promote real talent instead of drivers with the deepest pockets
By Damien Smith
John Surtees paid his dues on two wheels rather than four. He was the undisputed king on motorcycles, but there were years of hard graft before the torrent of seven World Championships in five years. In contrast, when he made the switch to cars in 1960, his rise to Grand Prix frontrunner was as rapid and natural as his speed behind the wheel. No one has made the grade so seamlessly and with such ease, which makes his preoccupation with the hard-slog junior single-seater scene of today all the more intriguing.
“In 1960, there wasn’t all this finance in motor sport,” he says. “The teams were working on very low margins, and were largely supported by the component manufacturers, particularly the tyre and fuel companies. If someone showed speed they’d get a chance. The only reason I got sat in cars was because I went as quick, if not quicker, than anybody who’d been in them before. Today that probably wouldn’t happen.”
John discovered this firsthand by going back to square one, as a racing dad with his son Henry. Three years on from Henry’s senseless death in a Formula 2 car at Brands Hatch, his father remains an avid champion of talent. No one would have blamed John if he’d turned his back on motor racing forever. Instead he’s channelled his grief into making a difference for other young racers, while raising funds and awareness for the charity he created in Henry’s honour. The prizes on offer to young racers in the forthcoming karting challenge at Buckmore Park (over the page) are simply astounding. He’s more than doing his bit for the next generation.
Surtees is motivated by his conviction, born from those years helping Henry from karting to cars, that the sport has lost sense of its priorities. He’s typically forthright on what’s gone wrong, but characteristically he’s not just content to air his beef. The 1964 F1 World Champion is keen to share his own blueprint for change.
“The greatest problem I see is that we have lost simplicity relative to the way motor sport is structured,” he says. “When I started in motorcycling, there was a 125 class, 250s, 350s and 500s. You went up the scale depending on your size and weight, and it was simple.
“Today you have this mass of classes whether it be in motorcycling, karting or junior formulas, right up to GP2. It has diluted the sport, and it all costs. It’s driven purely by commercial interests. What we must do is take out the need for finance first, and the need for ability second.”
Surtees knows better than most that for every Lewis Hamilton, tens of karting prodigies fall by the wayside every year, some before they even have a chance to step into a car. The opportunities are endless for the Pastor Maldonados of this world, but it’s a different story for the majority. “Mums, dads, uncles – and Venezuelans – have to come up with the money,” says John. “Somehow we have to create a better foundation for our sport, to bring these people through.”
His solution is quite simple: a performance-related incentive scheme that runs through the heart of junior motor sport. “When it comes to the final category of karting, the champion should be given the opportunity to move into the first stage of cars,” he explains. “So if you had a proper, viable British championship with a grand finale where a true British champion is crowned, then one of the awards should be that they get the opportunity in a starter formula.”
But which one? He believes each national body in each country should sanction a single starter formula to link karting to cars. “It could be debated whether it should be a closed-wheel car like the junior Ginetta, which Henry raced,” says John, “or the old BMW formula which is now InterSteps, or perhaps Jonathan Palmer’s new initiative [see ‘Motor Sport Month’]. Then from there you’d go to another common formula, an ‘x’ formula like BARC Formula Renault.” Again, Surtees advocates prize drives for champions to make each step up.
“What I would suggest is that for first place an offer of a drive is automatic,” he says. “For second place perhaps they get a subsidised drive, maybe a 50 per cent reduction. And this goes all the way up, from the entry level, to the ‘x’ formula, to Formula 3 – the first step on the international scene – to World Series by Renault and even into GP2. If you’ve got a performance reward of being guaranteed a drive in a good team by winning the league below you, then you get talent coming through, not necessarily people with the biggest money-bags.”
But who would pay for prize drives at each stage along the way? Not the teams, that’s for sure. And here we get to the nub.
“The governing bodies, both national and international, need to pool their resources.
“Within each country the national bodies must be responsible for this, but the directive must come from the FIA, which has to take a firm hand here, working in conjunction with the market forces. And those forces at the present time obviously are Bernie Ecclestone, CVC and so on. From the point of view of those people it is an investment in the future.
“I’m convinced that for F1 it’s in their interests that there is a better foundation below it. At the moment you are relying on the likes of Red Bull and schemes such as the Racing Steps Foundation [of which Surtees is an ambassador] to come along and pick up talent. We probably wouldn’t have Sebastian Vettel if it hadn’t been for Red Bull, and there are certainly a number of drivers out there who wouldn’t have been able to show their potential without Racing Steps. At the moment the most exciting driver in GP2, or so I’m told, is James Calado [above], but the fact is he wouldn’t have got beyond karting without Racing Steps.”
Sanctioned young driver schemes do exist, but they often fall short of offering aces funding to progress further. For Surtees, this is fundamental. Below the international level of Formula 3, he believes national bodies should provide. Beyond that, it’s down to the FIA and the top series promoters.
“The BRDC has a programme, the MSA has a programme,” he points out. “Frankly they need to get together. It would be like a rebirth of the old Racing for Britain scheme that helped the likes of Jonathan Palmer and Martin Brundle in the 1980s. Somewhere along the line governing bodies have to govern and bring some common sense to the party, to stop this endless growth of the financial requirements to make progress. They have got to lead.”
He also believes that national federations represented on the FIA World Council should make a “surcharge for the development of growing talent”.
There is a caveat for drivers who benefit from this aid: Surtees believes they should put something back if they ‘make it’. “Those that actually succeed would be committed to paying back a prearranged percentage when they start getting paid for their motor sport,” he says. “That’s how Racing Steps runs.”
The final part of Surtees’ plan is what happens when an ace is ready for the leap from GP2 to the big time. “What you do each year is give the option for the World Champion team to run a third car for the GP2 champion, and if they don’t want to, it could be offered to the second- or third-best team,” he says. “To pay for it, the team gets full financial benefits from running the third car.”
So what reaction is Surtees likely to find to his ideas? Asking any organisations to find considerable amounts of money, especially during a recession, is hardly going to be welcomed.
“Relative to karting, a number of years ago I spoke to the MSA about having one British champion in a grand finale race with the full focus of TV coverage,” says John. “I even spoke to Bernie too, preferably to have it on a Grand Prix weekend. We even looked at a circuit that could be used. Nothing came of it. And I’ve spoken to [FIA president] Jean Todt about it. It is my intention to develop it a little further and then I will discuss it more with all of them.”
Simple? Sceptics will say too right it is, that there isn’t the money in the sport on a national level to support fully subsidised drives. As John admits, some of his ideas need fleshing out.
But as someone already trying to make a difference for the next generation, he deserves to be listened to. For real talent everywhere, it’s getting tougher to make the grade.
Incredible prizes on offer at Buckmore Park event
Who else could muster such prizes? Goodwill is clearly in great supply towards John Surtees as he strives to help young drivers make the next step in their careers.
The Henry Surtees Challenge is a karting event open to the best young motor sport talent and will take place at Buckmore Park in Kent on October 24. The entry fee of £500 sounds steep – until the young aces hear what they can win.
There’s simulator time and engineer evaluation at Red Bull Racing’s Milton Keynes base; Carlin Motorsport is offering a full GP3 test in Portugal; Manor Competition has put up a Formula Renault Eurocup test; there’s a Falcon Motorsport InterSteps test up for grabs; and Hillspeed Racing is offering track time in one of its BARC Formula Renaults. Genuine opportunities that could open doors for the 2013 season and beyond.
The event was held for the first time last year, with the highly rated Alexander Sims coming out on top. Sims will be back this October, finding himself up against other rising stars such as Oli Webb, Alex Brundle, Oliver Rowland and Scott Malvern. At the time of writing, the entry list was filling up fast with some of Britain’s best young talent.
All funds raised go to the Henry Surtees Foundation, which is supporting the introduction of a blood transfusion service into the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance service. To find out more about the event and to see the full list of prizes, visit www.henrysurteesfoundation.com. Call Buckmore Park on 01634 201562 to enter.