John Surtees in 1979by Rob Widdows on 23rd February 2016
John Surtees. The name conjures up so many memories, so many images.
Leaning his MV Agusta into a corner, inch-perfect round Monaco in the Ferrari 158, supremely in charge of the Lola T70 CanAm car, joyous in his first win for the Honda Grand Prix team and taking charge of his own Surtees team in the last years of a quite extraordinary career on both two wheels and four.
Nobody, I venture to predict, will ever repeat his feat of winning the World Championship on a motorcycle and in a car. And now, finally, his amazing exploits have been recognised with a CBE.
“Il grande John”, as he was known both to Scuderia Ferrari and the adoring tifosi, is truly one of the great legends of the sport we love. Mechanic, engineer, driver, and rider he remains a man of unique achievement, still working hard to encourage young talent while running the Henry Surtees Foundation in memory of his son who so tragically lost his life in 2009.
My initial encounter with Surtees was at Goodwood in 1960 when took part in his first ever car race and I remember the intense speculation about this motorcycle racer who now dared to take on the top racing car drivers of the day. Having got his autograph, on a blue page in my little red book, I watched him finish a close second to Jim Clark. He had very firmly made his mark and later that year he came second in his second ever Formula 1 race, for Lotus at the British Grand Prix. And all this time he was still winning motorcycle races for MV Agusta. The rest, of course, is history and in our latest offering from the new Motor Sport audio archive we will hear a lot more about this quite exceptional career.
Surtees was one of the first ‘big name’ interviews we captured for our Track Torque radio programme, in March 1979, and, typically, he came to us in Portsmouth. ‘Big John’ was as keen as ever to “get it done properly” as he would say. I hope you will agree that this is a fascinating conversation with one of the real heroes of motor sport.
Nobody could hope to cover such a story in 50 minutes but hopefully this gives you a flavour of the man, an insight into what makes him tick, and some of his views on Formula 1 in 1979 ring as true today as they did then.
Many years after creating the Track Torque programmes, which we are repeating on the Motor Sport website each month, I went to work with Lord March at Goodwood to start the Festival of Speed and our first event patrons were John Surtees and Stirling Moss. We wanted the best possible motorcycle content (John hates them being called bikes) and who better than him to help us put it all together. On our first media day to launch the event he rode his Norton, and drove his Surtees F1 car up the hillclimb to show how it should be done. This is the thing about men like Surtees (and Moss), they have so much energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the sport that has made them household names across the world.
So, here he is, John Surtees with a snapshot of a unique career. In the months to come we will bring you interviews with Niki Lauda, Frank Williams, Nelson Piquet, John Cooper, Innes Ireland, Jackie Oliver, Derek Warwick, John Watson, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. So watch this space and we hope you enjoy taking a magical step back in time.