MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with John Surtees

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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.

Congratulations to IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand on marriage to Kristin Paine

Indianapolis 500 - Practice
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While he’s still in the market for a full-time IndyCar ride in 2017, JR Hildebrand is officially off the market when it comes to the single life.

The Sausalito, California native, who now lives in Colorado, tied the knot on Oct. 16 with long-time girlfriend Kristin Paine in Boulder.

We wish the new Mr. & Mrs. Hildebrand all the best.

In the meantime, now back from their honeymoon, JR posted a few photos from before and after the wedding (photos are via @JRHildebrand on Twitter):

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Perez: “This year’s Mexican GP will be even better than last year’s”

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 31, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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Sergio Perez is not expecting a sophomore slump for the second edition of the Mexican Grand Prix back on the calendar since 1992, in its second year at the refurbished, renovated and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

If anything, the Sahara Force India driver expects the race to build on what it did last year, when it came back to a Formula 1 calendar after a 23-year hiatus.

“I have no doubt this year’s event will be even better than last year – expectations are huge following the success of 2015,” he said in the team’s pre-race advance.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the passion of the fans: all the affection I received, all the messages and all the incredible moments I experienced are what really made an impression on me. I am so happy to go back there.”

This is very much a home race for Perez, who finished eighth in it last year, but who could be poised to end better this go-around.

He is from Guadalajara and not Mexico City proper, but still holds an affinity for his home country’s capital city.

“Mexico City may be quite far from my city of Guadalajara, but I go there very often for professional reasons,” he said. “It’s a city I love and there’s so much going on: the best restaurants, so many sights and so many things to do. It is a huge city and sometimes traffic makes going from one side of town to the other feel like an adventure!

“It is, not surprisingly, one of my favorite moments in the season and last year’s was special not just for me, but for my team and for anyone who came to the race.”

Perez currently sits seventh in the Driver’s Championship with 84 points, having moved ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas as “best of the rest” behind the top six drivers from Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari at last week’s United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas.

Gutierrez: “It’s a very special week for my whole career”

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Esteban Gutierrez announced as driver for Haas F1 Team on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Mexican driver Esteban Gutierrez will have his first chance to race on home soil in Formula 1, when the Haas F1 Team driver competes in this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix from the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Gutierrez, then a Ferrari reserve driver, was announced in Mexico City last year as Haas’ second driver for 2016, alongside Romain Grosjean. But while he was at the track, he hasn’t been in a car here and that will change this weekend.

With the new version of the Haas VF-16 front wing expected to return to his chassis this weekend, Gutierrez is looking for a big weekend on home soil.

“It’s a very special week for my whole career,” he said in the team’s advance release. “It’s probably one of the best two weeks of my career because it represents so much to racing, to motorsports in Mexico in general, and to me. It’s a kind of connection where I can share my passion for racing and what I do with all Mexicans. I feel grateful for their support.”

Gutierrez reflected on what last year in Mexico was like for him.

“Last year was great. I could live the event from a different perspective, but now it will be even better when I will be racing there. I’m very excited to enjoy that.

“The atmosphere was amazing. I enjoyed it so much. Obviously, I would have liked to have been racing, but that was my position and the reality is that I wanted to enjoy in that perspective. It was a very special weekend and I felt very proud to see all the fans having a huge interaction. It turned out to be one of the best events of the season.”

With the new front wing expected and the circuit’s long straights expected to suit the Haas, which doesn’t have a ton of downforce, it could play to his and the team’s benefit this weekend.

“Romain ran the new front wing all weekend. Esteban did 20 laps on Friday and then we discovered a problem with the front wing. We had to go back to the old version because we had no spare because that was damaged in Japan when Esteban had the contact with Carlos Sainz. These wings are very complicated to make and they take a long time, but we should have the new version of the wing again for Esteban in Mexico,” team principal Guenther Steiner said.

Gutierrez added, “It will be important to do the best we can with our car. It’s a track we believe can suit the style of our car, and we’re hoping that will be the case. It’s going to be important to have as much track time as possible to adapt to the circuit.”

Several finishes of 11th have left Gutierrez on the fringes of scoring a point this season, but not yet having cracked the top-10 in any race this season.

Q&A: PFC ready for return as IndyCar’s brake partner

A look at PFC Brakes. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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Announced back at the Watkins Glen weekend in September, Performance Friction Corporation, or PFC, was announced as INDYCAR’s new brake partner for 2017 and beyond, replacing Brembo.

Darrick Dong, Director of Motorsports, Performance Friction Brakes, explained some – but not all – of the “bells and whistles” PFC has coming down the line for INDYCAR, and how they were chosen to be the new partner to begin with.

MotorSportsTalk: For those that may not be familiar with PFC, its reach and its background, can you summarize all that PFC has been involved in?

Darrick Dong: “Don Burgoon was the owner of the company that passed away on Sept. 12, 2015 in a road car accident in Italy. He really was a true visionary about this particular technology we’re using carbon for IndyCar – and it’s unique. It’s made from a single strand and what this does for us is it’s not a laminate that’s needled together or a constructed matrix like the current supplier is. Also, most of the carbon that’s being sold into racing is actually demilitarized carbon. That’s one of the reasons why they can talk about it, whereas we cannot talk about a lot of the details from a technical standpoint because it’s actually a current used material. It’s proprietary.

“So the key to a single strand carbon matrix is it has a very uniform crystalline structure where the temperature goes through the PFC carbon almost as quickly as it’s introduced. Whereas, with the other materials out there, there’s always thermal banding and there’s a lot of differentials in the temperature profiles of those materials. Because, truth be told, they’re 12 plus year-old technologies.

“As you know, the IndyCar community have been fighting some torque variation, erratic wear and erratic behavior, just inconsistencies. So, we did that blind test and essentially there were three suppliers that supplied car sets to three or four different drivers at Mid-Ohio. All the drivers chose us over the other guys.

“We’ve been continuing testing with the series with the two car sets we gave them at Mid-Ohio. We tested at Road America, Watkins Glen and Sears Point (Sonoma). It’s the same two-car sets that we’ve done that. I think we’re up to 11 or 12 drivers now that have actually had chances to put miles on the stuff.

“For all the miles we’ve put on it with all the different drivers, it didn’t pull or do anything unexpected. It may not have as much bite as some would have liked, but then I don’t know any driver that didn’t ask for more bite. But we were working primarily on the premise that they wanted something that was consistent and had better control. These cars are capable of pulling over a 5g stop now and have over 6,000 pounds of downforce when they’re in full aero. So you’re going from high downforce to mechanical grip in really less than two seconds.”

MST: How different is INDYCAR now versus the last time PFC was involved? Certainly the cornering speeds are significantly higher…

DD: “It’s been awhile since I’ve been playing with the IndyCar guys. We have been a primary source for CART, Champ Car and the IRL series when they were on iron brakes. In fact, in those days when it was open, when they could choose anybody from 1986 through 2011, we had won all the championships and I think we won all the races on our products – with the exception of one or two – through all those years. So it’s not like they didn’t know who we were.

Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When they came up with the DW12, we were the last of the two guys standing on supplier for that car, but the (ICONIC) group decided to go with Brembo. So for the last six years, I still have been keeping my ear to the ground and because we’re the supplier to the (Mazda) Road to Indy, I’ve got all the USF2000 cars, the Pro Mazda cars, Indy Lights and the new Tatuus USF-17, so it’s not like we don’t have a footprint in the garage area.

“It can truly been said that the Road to Indy has been a road to us, for us in getting the confidence of the series! They were pretty gun-shy, as you can imagine, with the problems they had with the current supplier and apparently the same problems in IndyCar has gone to other markets, other series and championships. So, this is rapidly turning into a unique opportunity for us and we’ll be able to bring some new technologies and some new ways of thinking on how a braking system can work on an IndyCar.”

MST: What do you expect the support system/operations side to look like at the track?

DD: “That’s a great question. The series wants us to deal directly with the teams; that’s what we’ll do. Depending on how the logistics work out, in fact, I’ve been talking to Haas Auto here about renting a couple cabinets for them – because there’s always going to be somebody that needs something. Either way, we’re going to have it. What’s nice is most of the team managers and engineers they know who PFC is, so we’ve been part of the canvas now for quite some time.”

Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar
Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar

MST: Has the driver feedback you’ve received thus far – Tony Kanaan being a good example of a driver since he’s been around and did the test – been a step in the right direction?

DD: “Particularly with TK, he’s very sensitive to this torque variation. One of the things they were able to do, a lot of drivers with the current brake configuration, they have to use the largest master cylinder made to help reduce the locking. With our product, they’re able to drop a size down, which gives them a lot more feel for the threshold of grip between the tire and braking capacity. The difference is, that particular change, because they’ve done it twice now, it stays with the car. The drivers prefer that because now the way the brake pedal is, they have to jump on it as hard they can and then trail off immediately to keep the thing from locking.”

MST: How much more difficult is it to engineer now than when there were higher braking rates?

DD: “One of the things that’s unique about the PFC Carbon is it’s not as sensitive to temperature as most carbon is. So, its sweet spot is about from 100C (100 degrees Celsius) to about 650C. It’ll easily go up to 800C or greater. It never fades. The only difference is you’ll have higher oxidation or greater wear. But at 100C, it acts very much like an iron brake, so it has more cold bite characteristics, which is one of the reasons the why series liked that characteristic, particularly after they did a dyno simulation between all the different brands, and they realized ours had a smoother, cold, predictable bite.

“So with these high downforce cars, you usually use the brakes primarily to balance the cars. You need to have more drivability, not less, so it’s not like an on-off switch like they’ve got now. Everybody who said it’s modulation, that the cold bite – particularly at an oval – is something that will be a benefit to these guys.”

MST: The longer-term viewpoint is looking ahead to 2018 and the new aero then. Will you be part of that development process?

DD: “Yeah, in 2018, we’ll have calipers on the cars. So we’re not only producing the brake pads, the carbon discs and the brake bells and attachment system for the current caliper. And then in 2018, we’ll be supplying the teams with new hardware and calipers. Also, we hope to have the design approvals for the series on or before the Indy 500 in 2017. So after the Indy 500, we can concentrate on making sure we get the hardware right for them.”

PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno
PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno

MST: Will you get extra test days?

DD: “I don’t know how that’s going to work, that’s still down the road. Obviously, one thing that’s been about PFC is we’re one of the few companies that manufacture 100 percent of the hot-end components for the car, including friction components. Because of the complexity, there’s not too many companies that recognize what the braking event really is. We have to understand the tire and the interface between the tire, ground and brake torque better than most.

“So most of these other guys, brake pad suppliers, they typically will design the architecture for the caliper, they go buy a disc from somebody else and then they have three or four pad guys build a brake pad for them. With us, we work from the friction out. So, it’s a whole different philosophy and makes us in a unique position because we understand the grip model or try to understand the grip model as best as anybody out there.

“Our relationship with the teams have been very, very close. They’ve freely talked to us because they know we’re always working on improvements. That traction circle, particularly with the amount of downforce, goes from here to here in a very short period of time. It’s a very small, narrow window.”

MST: You had a funny line when you and I chatted at Watkins Glen, that it’s taken eight years to become an overnight success…

DD: “For us, our motivation is and always has been that open-wheel racing is in our DNA. It’s one of the truest forms of being able to apply all the little nuances that we work on in terms of getting not only the performance and the consistency. We bring quite a bit to the table because even the attachment system for the Indy car will be very unique. I can’t talk about all the little bells and whistles that we’re going to be throwing at this thing, but I can tell you that when the teams have the opportunity to implement the new program, it’ll be a significant moving of the bar.

“For instance, although not too many people know this, PFC is the only North American supplier to Porsche Motorsports. So, going through that Porsche-perfect quality assurance protocols, it’s a big deal. And we’re putting the same philosophies of what we have incorporated over the years into the IndyCar thing, so the only thing they have to worry about is how to make the car better, not chase the brake ghosts.”