John Surtees’ unique achievement

by Mat Oxley on 12th March 2013

In October 2011, just a few days before the end of the MotoGP season, I visited Giacomo Agostini at his home in Bergamo, Italy. Lunch was served (by the family butler and chef) and I asked him the question that had prompted the trip. Since the 1970s Ago has held the record for the number of motorcycle Grand Prix victories – a total of 122 wins across the 500 and 350 classes – and that record had never looked in danger until Valentino Rossi reached his century in 2009. But by the end of 2011 – Rossi’s disastrous first season with Ducati – It seemed once again that Ago’s record was safe.

How did he feel about that? Elated, surely?

“I’m very happy to have the most wins, and Valentino would be happy to beat my record,” said Ago. “Already I told him: Valentino, I enjoy when you win races, but please stop when you have two or three victories less than me. And he say: don’t worry Ago, of course I stop when I get near.”

In other words, Agostini had been sweating at the thought of losing his record.

There are so many numbers and records in motor racing that the sport is an anorak’s paradise. Most of them – lap records, race records and so on – are broken every year or two and matter little to all except those who break them. But some of the more meaningful records take decades to better, while some will never be matched or broken, like one of Barry Sheene’s claims to fame: he is the only rider to have won Grands Prix in the 50cc and 500cc World Championships. Since both of those series no longer exist, his record will always be safe.

John Surtees’ unique achievement of winning World Championships on both two and four wheels (and in the premier classes in both sports) was an astonishing feat that few believed would ever be emulated. At least until Rossi started talking about a switch to Formula 1 with Ferrari.

At the time Surtees suggested that Rossi was the man to match his exploit, but then the Italian gave up the idea of moving to F1.

Last week, when Surtees was awarded the coveted Segrave Trophy to mark his achievement, I got the chance to ask the great man whether he too allowed himself a smile when he realised that his record was safe.

A huge grin told me all I needed to know, then he added, “And if Valentino did do it, I was also aware that he couldn’t be first!”. Nicely put, Mr Surtees.

Many people presume that switching between bikes and cars would be more difficult now, due to technology adding so many layers of complexity compared to the good ol’ days when both sports were nothing more than a man, an engine and two – or four – wheels. Surtees disagrees.

“You have to remember that when Valentino tested the Ferrari Formula 1 car that Michael Schumacher had developed and driven to so many victories, he had all the data available so he could analyse completely what he was doing well and what he wasn’t doing so well,” said Surtees. “Whereas all those years ago everything was done by two things: by the feeling you conveyed to the engineer from your senses – from the seat of your pants and the tips of your hands – and the stopwatch. That’s all we had.”

Surtees believes that anyone who has the talent could make the move from bikes or cars – or vice versa, presumably – as long as they time their move correctly. As he did.

“As individuals, we all have performance curves and power curves. As you get older you lose a bit of your zest and that willingness to take chances, but you balance that with experience. The important thing is that you need to change when you’re on that part of the power curve where you are at your strongest so you can adapt. I still had a lot of years left in me on motorcycles and it so happened that I changed over to cars and I was able to adapt.”

It may be 49 years since he achieved his unique feat by adding the 1964 F1 crown to his motorcycling titles, but Surtees was delighted to receive the Segrave Trophy at the RAC Club in London. The only reason he didn’t get the award in 1964 was because Donald Campbell broke the Land and Water Speed Records that same year.

Surtees is the sixth motorcyclist to get the award, created in memory of Sir Henry Segrave who was a Word War One fighter pilot, car Grand Prix winner and World Speed Record holder on land and water. The others are Geoff Duke (1951), Barry Sheene (1977 and 1984), Mike Hailwood (1979), Carl Fogarty (1994) and Joey Dunlop (2000).

Surtees recently celebrated his 79th birthday and is as razor sharp as ever. On receiving the trophy he explained why the number 49 holds a special significance for him.

“When a bomb dropped in our back garden during the war I was evacuated to near my father, who had been enlisted by Graham Walker, father of Murray, to train despatch riders in Yorkshire. One of my father’s most treasured possessions at that time was an old tea chest full of motorcycle magazines. On the top of that pile was a magazine showing the 1939 TT. People often ask me ‘what inspired you to get involved?’ and as a nine-year-old it was a picture of Georg Meier on his number 49 BMW compressor flying through the air down Bray Hill, on his way to winning that year’s Senior TT.”

So now you know…

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