BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - John Surtees has an infectious laugh and the broadest of grins but there is also sadness in his eyes as he prepares for a year of events marking the 50th anniversary of his Formula One championship win.
The former Ferrari driver’s past triumphs are entwined with personal tragedy as motorsport fetes Britain’s oldest surviving F1 champion and the only man to have won world titles on two wheels and four.
Surtees, who turns 80 next month after competing through some of the most dangerous years of grand prix racing, is using the attention to help promote a foundation set up after the death of his 18-year-old son Henry in a freak racing accident at Brands Hatch in 2009.
The foundation, whose motto is ‘finding hope in loss’, raises funds for accident care and community support and to help youngsters develop life skills through motorsport-related program.
“In a way I suppose I’m only involved in celebrating 50 years because of the fact that I’m using it also as a vehicle to assist in developing the foundation,” Surtees told Reuters in an interview at the Autosport International show, where several of the cars and bikes he raced with are displayed.
“Normally, I think I’d rather just drift around in the background.”
The Briton, always known for forthright opinions on motorsport and an equally direct glare, is hardly the shrinking violet or one to put his feet up but he has no need to shout about his achievements: They speak for themselves.
Between 1956 and 1960, he won seven motorcycling championships (three in 350cc and the others in the top 500cc category). In the 1960 season, he raced in grands prix on both two wheels and four and was also Isle of Man TT winner.
In recent years, Italian MotoGP great Valentino Rossi tested a Ferrari F1 car but never made the switch and the chances of anyone ever again emulating Surtees would appear remote. He disagrees, however.
“I don’t think it’s impossible by any means,” he said. “I still look upon it as quite a natural thing because certainly when I sat in the car for the first time I was immediately able to go quick. As quick as anyone else had driven those cars.
“Today the way one can ride a modern bike, with the tires and some of the controls which are available, the aids you have got... probably bike and car have come even closer in the relationship.
“So if someone achieves their goals in motorcycling at a certain time and says ‘Hmm, perhaps I will try new challenges’ it may happen. But obviously not if they are over the hill. When I changed I probably still had 10 years left in me which could have been at the top of motorcycling.”
In Surtees’ day, what mattered was what was shown on the stopwatch. He was given the opportunity to drive cars because of his speed on bikes and he delivered immediate and eye-opening results.
If motorcycling was his first love, part of him will always belong to Maranello and Ferrari - then as now the most glamorous team on the grid.
“We had a variety of life which the present Formula One driver doesn’t have, but we didn’t have the number of races they have,” he said, comparing the eras. “It has been turned into a major commercial operation.
“I still would enjoy the challenge of sitting in a modern day car, but I’d obviously need to knock a few years off. Take about 50 years away again,” laughed the man who went on to design, build and race his own cars as a constructor.
The biggest problem Surtees had in Formula One, having grown up in the world of motorcycles with father Jack, who was a national champion, was dealing with paddock politics and rivals who resented his sudden arrival in car racing.
If he has any regrets looking back, it is that he was perhaps too sensitive and too impetuous. Had he been more ruthless or more patient, he might have won more titles.
“Perhaps on two occasions,” he mused. “There was the Lotus situation where Colin Chapman at the end of 1960 placed all his faith in me and said ‘John, I want you to be number one. Choose your team mate.’.”
Surtees indicated compatriot Jim Clark, for some the greatest driver of all time, but that meant Innes Ireland would be dropped.
“Some of the press got very much in mind that I was stealing Innes’s drive,” he recalled. “I was perhaps a little too sensitive and walked away. I should perhaps have had a more focused attitude and thought... ‘frankly, let them get lost. I’ll just look after number one’.”
Clark would go on to win the championship in 1963 and 1965 while Surtees beat Graham Hill by a single point in 1964 thanks to a scoring system that counted only the best six results.
Of his six career Formula One wins, four were with Ferrari and the others for Cooper and Honda. In all, Surtees won 290 of the 621 races he entered on bikes and in cars with another 103 podium finishes.
In 1966, he came back from a big sportscar accident in Canada the previous year to lead the championship only to then walk away from Ferrari mid-season after a falling out.
“Mr Ferrari agreed with me at the end, just before he died actually, that we’d both made a bit of a mistake in that we’d lost probably championships together with the parting that we did in 1966. That again was a bit impetuous,” he smiled.
“I was so frustrated at not doing things that we could achieve at Ferrari because of political reasons and people pulling in a different direction.
“But I suppose it was all put right when Enzo said to me ‘John, we must remember the good times and not the mistakes’.”
Editing by John O'Brien