MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with John Surtees

Leave a comment

As he prepares to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his Formula One world championship win, British racing legend John Surtees took some time to speak to MotorSportsTalk about his life and career in motorsport as well as his views on the modern sport – and of course, that double points rule…

Let’s start off at the beginning of your career. What was it that sparked your love for motorsport and got you into racing in the first place? 

JOHN SURTEES: Well of course motorsport for me encompasses two, three and four wheels. My car racing career didn’t start until somewhat later in that I saw my first car race from the cockpit of a car in which I was competing in, which is going back to as far as 1960. My road racing career on motorcycles started in 1950 at Brands Hatch. My career then started and I became British champion and world champion on a number of occasions, right up until I retired at the end of 1960 from motorcycle racing. I had had the idea sewn in my head about possibly trying a car in 1958 when I met up with Mike Hawthorn who had just been crowned world champion in Formula One, and Tony Vandervell who won the championship with his Vanwall cars in the constructors, and they suggested it. My first drive in a race car came testing an Aston Martin DBR1 car which was a car that won Le Mans and also won at the Nurburgring and like Stirling [Moss] had driven and Tony Brooks. I tested that at Goodwood and they asked me to drive for them, I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist”, but then I decided at the end of 1960 to actually try cars, so that year I drove cars and motorcycles – different weekends obviously. My first drive was in a Formula Junior for Ken Tyrell, my second drive was in a Formula 2 car which I had bought. My third one was again Formula 2 and then Colin Chapman said “drive Formula One!”. I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist!” “Well drive Formula One when you’re not motorcycling.” And so that’s how my year developed!

After so many years on bikes, was the transition into a Formula One car easy or was it quite difficult?

JS: I had to obviously learn to deal with all sorts of different conditions and a bit of track craft was different, but the actual ability to relate to the car and communicate with it – which is what you have to do, it’s just as you’re racing a bike – that came along quite well. You have to get all those experiences about how you cope with different weather conditions with a car, which of course was somewhat different with a bike. And the biggest single thing of course was that you had to know the other competitors, because I had never seen any racing at all. I knew nothing about any of the other people who I was racing against, whereas in motorcycling I knew intimately how you would treat different riders etc. I had to build up all that data log on the environment in which I was racing.

How did you get into contact with Enzo Ferrari and end up driving for him in Formula One?

JS: They called me at the end of my first year in Formula One, and said “would you come to Maranello and have a look.” So I went there and had a look and everything else and I listened to their plans and thought that frankly I needed to have more experience, so I said no. I did a year then when I worked with the building of a Formula One car which was a Lola, and that gave me a lot of ground work. They asked me again at the end of that year. In fact, with our new car, we had beaten the Ferrari team in the world championship and finished fourth with the new car. They asked me again and I went out and I joined them.

It must have been very humbling. What was it like working with Enzo as a man?

JS: It was different times to nowadays of course. It was very much a situation where he ruled the whole thing, and so you were never quite sure what was happening necessarily. He tended to be changeable and he was trying to keep a lot of things going which was very difficult, because he didn’t concentrate just on Formula One like they do today. He had a big programme which held back the Formula One programme in sportscars. They were very good to drive, the prototype cars, and I had the job of doing the development work on them, because they introduced a new range in 1963 when I joined them. Very enjoyable working with them and racing them. But it did detract from the Formula One programme and made it that much difficult to win Formula One races.

Was it quite frustrating racing and knowing that you’re in a car that could be so much better if they concentrated solely on Formula One? 

JS: It was disconcerting at the beginning of the year. The first three races or so, you were struggling against teams who had been working strenuously all through the winter and doing all this testing and preparing themselves and frankly you didn’t do any of that work really until the Le Mans race.

Your association with Ferrari then came to an end in 1966. Could you talk us through your decision to quit?

JS: In the middle of the year when I was leading the world championship, a political scene all came up involved with Fiat and things which… if one looked back, just the same as he [Enzo] said to me some years later, we would have perhaps sorted it out other ways. As it was, I was quite impetuous in those days and also very targeted on trying to get things done and the rest of it. That time, this made me fall foul of certain elements within the Ferrari company and I changed sides. I was unfortunate not to still win the world championship, because we got the Cooper-Maserati which I transferred to be quite competitive, apart from a couple of silly incidents, we were there.

You raced in a golden era of Formula One against the likes of Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. Who would you say was your greatest competitor?

JS: Well basically when I first started of course in 1960, we had Stirling Moss around who was driving a similar car to what I was driving, so he was the yardstick. He was always a great competitor. You had my first teammate, Jimmy Clark, in Lotus, we were together there. In fact Colin Chapman offered me the number one position in the team, but again for political reasons and things like this, it didn’t come about. Jimmy was a great driver. You had Graham and you had Dan Gurney who you could never underestimate, and Jack Brabham. They were all there. The latter part we came across Stewart of course, but I look upon the others as being of my period.

One of the races you never entered was the Indy 500. Was this through choice or was it something you wanted to win?

JS: I did all the testing on the Indianapolis car for the 1966 season, and then I had a very bad accident at the end of ’65 in a Lola sportscar in which I broke part of my back and a number of other injuries which were touch and go for a while. So I wasn’t able to commit myself, I didn’t know whether I would be fit. And in any case, I had to commit myself first and foremost to Ferrari who I was contracted to and who had been very supportive during my accident. So I had to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to race the Indy car which I had tested. They said “well who do you pass it over to?” So I arranged with them that they would pass it over to Graham Hill, and of course he actually won with that car!

So what racing did you do in North America?

JS: Racing in America I enjoyed very much. We went with our own team and went with the Lola cars and fitted Chevrolet engines into them and won the first Can-Am Series which was very prestigious. That was very heartening and very good, with very good competitors. Those big sportscars were very enjoyable cars. Different, but again enjoyable. The prototype cars, like your racing Ferrari, were good, the circuits you did, the 1000km etc, and the out and out sportscar races using the five litre and seven litre engines were also different but nice.

You spoke earlier about your junior career and getting into Formula One. Nowadays, funding is such an important thing. You do work with Racing Steps, so how important do you think it is that this group helps fund young drivers and how difficult do you think it is for young drivers to get into the sport? 

JS: Well I think it’s vital, things like Racing Steps. Racing Steps is fairly unique. You know it doesn’t have a race team like Red Bull. Red Bull have also been fantastic for developing drivers and giving opportunities, but Racing Steps has certainly on the British scene gone along and given the drivers the ability to display their skills etc. Unfortunately, you come to a scene where that’s not necessarily enough if you’re going to follow a Formula One career. Nowadays, that dreaded thing of ‘bought drives’ comes in and they’re highly financed. I think the structure of motorsport is wrong, and there needs to be a system that allows talent to be able to progress without having mega bucks to support it. So I think that in many ways, like Racing Steps is doing at this moment, they’ve got to look at perhaps feeding drivers perhaps into the American scene. One of our drivers will in fact be in America next year, and that is good from a point of view of taking the British challenge over there. But it’s sad that in a way Formula One does not necessarily, except in rare examples, take the very best drivers.

For next season, there’s the idea of introducing the double points round for the final race. What do you make of this idea?

JS: (sighs) It must be purely a commercial gimmick. I think it’s totally and utterly wrong. This means of trying to artificially change the results of championships or races is something which is not in the true spirit of what we should be trying to achieve.

Finally, would you be willing to make a prediction for this year’s world championship?

JS: Very difficult to say. It would depend largely how the engine side develops. When you go along and see the complete way that the Red Bull team is operated and its structure, and you have a driver like Sebastian Vettel who has been superb in every area and the way he attacks his racing is something which is an example to all these young drivers I think, they must have a chance to be right at the top. Ferrari, with the opportunity to develop the new engines and going back to V6s, there’s a chance for them. I’m not quite so sure how the relationship with Alonso and Raikkonen will work. It’s not the one I would necessarily have chosen, but just the same, they’ll be there. Mercedes, also. I don’t like what I’ve seen happening at Mercedes, this juggle that’s taking place and people like Ross Brawn going. But just the same, they have immense resources and some very good people, and two very capable drivers. McLaren’s last year with Mercedes will be trying to lift up their game. It’s going to be very interesting, and the first race everyone will eagerly watch how things develop.

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.

MRTI: Barber weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

Here’s some thoughts following the second weekend of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this season, at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend (additional notes from Tony DiZinno in his post-weekend column here).

Askew-se me While I Play Through?

It was not a perfect weekend for Oliver Askew. Calvin Ming did pip him for fastest lap during practice.

Okay, that line was entirely sarcastic. Simply put: Askew crushed the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda field at Barber Motorsports Park. He claimed pole in both races, led every lap in both races, and won both races.

Askew was dominant at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In the grand scheme of things, it is not surprising that Askew swept the weekend and has claimed three victories in a row, dating back to Race 2 in St. Petersburg (for reference he was second in Race 1 that weekend, making his average finishing position a staggering 1.25 through four races). Cape Motorsports has won every USF2000 championship since 2011. With Askew, a 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipient and winner of the inaugural USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in December at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, joining the fray, everything on paper indicated another championship run was likely.

But, a new chassis, in this case the Tatuus USF-17, often provides a reset button, allowing other teams a chance to close the gap. And while the likes of Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing Services, and Exclusive Autosport have all been featured on the podium, Cape Motorsports and Askew have distinguished themselves as title favorites four races into the season.

My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno called the weekend’s performance an “Ask-kicking,” and there can be no arguing the dominance of Askew and Cape Motorsports at the moment.

Kaylen Frederick a “Baby Face” on the Rise

Outside of Askew, 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the youngest driver on the circuit, was the shining star at Barber Motorsports Park. The young Frederick pushed Askew in the final laps of Race 1 to finish second and backed it up with a consistent Race 2 to again finish second.

Frederick (right) finished second in both USF2000 races at Barber. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

While winning is the ultimate goal, Frederick was more than happy with the weekend’s results. “I took advantage of what I could today – the Cooper tires wore well so I could just keep my head down and focus,” he said following Race 1. “It took a while to get comfortable with all the high-speed corners and the compressions. It was hard for me to get the confidence to go into those corners with that much speed but it’s all clicked now.”

Along with Rinus Van Kalmthout, with whom Frederick is currently tied for second in the championship, Frederick may be emerging as the biggest threat to Askew in the championship chase. It’s early days for the season, but Frederick is beginning to establish himself as a title contender.

Hertamania 2.0 Weathers the Barber Storms

The rain wasn’t the only storm the drivers of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series had to weather at Barber. A chaotic start to Race 1 saw officials wave it off, and carnage ensued. Perhaps the most notable driver impacted was points leader Colton Herta.

The 17-year-old clipped the left-rear of polesitter Kyle Kaiser after the aborted start, damaging his front wing and forcing an emergency pit stop. He then suffered a penalty after failing to maintain pace car speed, which put him at the back of the field when the race restarted.

However, his quiet though impressive charge to tenth helped limit the damage. Further, he caught a lucky break when Race 2 qualifying was rained out on Sunday morning. The rule book dictates the field is set by points in such circumstances, which put championship leader Herta on the pole. He immediately rocketed away when the race started and led all 35 laps on his way to winning by more than nine seconds.

What’s more, his win was marked with historic significance, as it was the 400th event in Indy Lights history. “I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” Herta said following his Sunday triumph.

All told, he took a weekend that looked to be going badly and completely turned it around. He now leads Kyle Kaiser by 16 points ahead of another double-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

The Unlucky Pato O’Ward

The 2017 season got off to a dream start for the soon-to-be 18-year-old Pato O’Ward. Class wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring were buoyed by a strong opening Indy Lights weekend at St. Petersburg, where he recorded finishes of fifth and third.

However, Lady Luck was not on his side at Barber. O’Ward was one of several drivers to suffer damage after the Race 1 start was aborted, as he actually drove over the back of Santi Urrutia’s machine. O’Ward pitted to replace the front wing, but was able to climb back up to eighth at race’s end.

Sunday’s Race 2, however, was a different story. A first-lap collision with Zachary Claman De Melo sent him spinning into the gravel. Though he was able to return to the pits, damage was too severe to continue, relegating to a 15th-place finish.

For a driver who has enjoyed a memorable 2017 so far, O’Ward’s weekend at Barber Motorsports Park was one to forget.

The Mazda Road to Indy now takes a three-week break before all three series resume action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on May 12-13.

Pippa Mann adds Lamborghini ST to schedule in all-female entry

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pippa Mann, who will seek to make her sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 a little over one month from now with Dale Coyne Racing, will have additional races on her plate this year in an all-female driver entry in this year’s Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America championship.

Mann and Jackie Heinricher, herself a sports car veteran with some Lamborghini ST experience, are among a four-car entry for the Prestige Performance team in the IMSA-sanctioned series, which is operationally run with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship powerhouse team Wayne Taylor Racing.  They’ll share the team’s No. 57 Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in the pro/am division.

“I am thrilled to be joining Prestige Performance and Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2017 Super Trofeo season. Learning a new car, a new team, a new series, and new tracks will be a big learning experience for me, and I’m extremely excited not only to have this opportunity, but to have this opportunity with such a great team,” said Mann, who’s already had a couple tests in the car.

Heinricher added, “I am excited to be involved with Prestige and Wayne Taylor Racing in the season effort and for the incredible opportunity in joining a professional team for long-term growth in sports car racing.”

The other lineups see rising sports car star and a couple-time IMSA series champion Trent Hindman (in both Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Lamborghini) with Riccardo Agostini in the No. 1 car, and Alex Popow and Michele Beretta in the No. 10 car – both of those are pro/pro entries.

A fourth car, the No. 11 entry, has a lineup still to be determined and not yet confirmed. However, sports car aces Dion von Moltke and Stevan McAleer were posted on the No. 11 car for the Circuit of The Americas entry list.

“Wayne Taylor Racing is excited to step into the 2017 season with such a great list of drivers and to have David Wagener returning on our engineering side,” said Travis Houge, Team Manager, Wayne Taylor Racing.

“We are looking forward to continuing the success of last season. Similar to our other racing endeavors, we have worked hard to build a program that not only wins races but also builds lasting and successful partnerships. We feel we have found that with the Lamborghini Group.”

The Lamborghini ST season begins next weekend at COTA in Austin. The 12-race calendar is spread over six venues: COTA, Watkins Glen International in early July, Road America and VIR in August and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, before the season finale and World Final run in Imola, Italy (former site of the San Marino Grand Prix) in November.