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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.

Felipe Massa backtracks on F1 retirement, confirms Williams return for ’17

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams stands with a Brazilian flag for his last home Grand Prix with his son Felipinho on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Less than six weeks after making what was set to be his final start in Formula 1, Felipe Massa has confirmed his return to the grid for 2017 with Williams, on a one-year deal.

The news was announced by the team on Monday, completing its line-up for the 2017 campaign ahead of the season-opener in Australia on March 26.

“Firstly, I am very happy to have an opportunity to return to Williams. I always intended to race somewhere in 2017, but Williams is a team close to my heart and I have respect for everything it is trying to achieve,” Massa said. “Valtteri has a great opportunity, given the turn of events over the winter, and I wish him all the best at Mercedes.

“In turn, when I was offered the chance to help Williams with their 2017 Formula One campaign, it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly have not lost any of my enthusiasm for racing and I’m extremely motivated to be coming back to drive the FW40. The support from my fans over the last few weeks has been a huge boost and I’m grateful for that. I also look forward to working with Lance; I’ve known him for many years and seen his talent develop during that time, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”

Claire Williams, deputy team principal, added the experience Massa will bring should help the team this season.

“I’m delighted that Felipe has agreed to come out of retirement to be a part of our 2017 campaign. With Valtteri having a unique opportunity to join the current Constructors’ Champions, we have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to give Valtteri this fantastic opportunity,” she said.

“Valtteri has been part of the Williams family since 2010 and in that time has proved a huge talent, securing nine podium finishes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of the whole team, and wish him a successful season as he joins Mercedes.

“Felipe has always been a much-loved member of the Williams family, and having the opportunity to work with him again is something we all look forward to. He was always going to race somewhere in 2017, as he has not lost that competitive spirit, and it was important that we had a strong replacement in order for us to let Valtteri go. Felipe re-joining us provides stability, experience and talent to help lead us forward. He is a great asset for us.

Massa, 35, announced in September that he would be retiring from F1 racing at the end of the 2016 season, making way for 18-year-old Lance Stroll to take his seat alongside Valtteri Bottas at Williams.

Massa made what would have been his final start in Abu Dhabi, having said an emotional farewell to his home fans in Brazil two weeks earlier in some of the most powerful scenes of the 2016 season.

However, following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title, Mercedes identified Bottas as its primary target to replace the German.

Williams was offered a discount on power units and the services of Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein in return for releasing Bottas from his contract for 2017, but rejected the proposal.

Williams stressed it wanted a racer more experienced that Wehrlein – an F1 sophomore for the coming season – to aid the development of its new car through the change in technical regulations for 2017. The team also requires at least one driver over the age of 25 to satisfy sponsor Martini, an alcohol brand.

Williams instead turned to Massa and put together a deal to bring the Brazilian out of retirement for 2017 that was accepted in the lead up to the holiday season.

Following Jenson Button’s decision to step back from an F1 seat for 2017, Massa will be the third-most experienced driver on the grid for the forthcoming season, with Australia due to be his 251st race start.

Of the active drivers racing in F1, only Fernando Alonso (278) and Kimi Raikkonen (251) have made more appearances than Massa.

Wehrlein’s 2017 shift is from Manor to Sauber, not Mercedes

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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With Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement shifting the 2017 Formula 1 silly season into a final kick of overdrive, Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein appeared well-positioned to replace the outgoing and newly crowned World Champion. He also said as much after winning rookie-of-the-year honors at the year-end Autosport Awards.

However, with Wehrlein short on overall experience after his first season at Manor and with Mercedes set to snatch Valtteri Bottas away from Williams Martini Racing, the German was passed over for the vacant seat at the three-time defending World Championship outfit.

Wehrlein will be on the move anyway for 2017 nonetheless, with Sauber F1 Team confirming his arrival there next year alongside Marcus Ericsson, who returns for his third season with the team.

“I am very delighted at being a part of the Sauber F1 Team for the upcoming Formula One Season,” Wehrlein said in a release.

“It is a new challenge in a new team, and I am really excited and looking forward to this new adventure. Our objective is to establish ourselves in the mid-field and to score points on a regular basis.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season. I want to say a big thank you to Sauber for trusting in me and giving me this great chance. And surely, a huge thanks also goes to Mercedes for the support.”

It’s rather ironic Wehrlein will shift to Sauber, a team Manor was ahead of all season until the penultimate race at Brazil. Wehrlein delivered Manor’s second points finish in its seven-year history with 10th place at the Austrian Grand Prix, which was enough to slot them ahead of scoreless Sauber for most of the year.

But when Felipe Nasr came ninth in Brazil, thanks to an excellent strategy in the mixed condition race, that was enough to deliver two points and move Sauber back up to 10th in the Constructor’s Championship ahead of Manor.

Now, it’s Wehrlein who has Nasr’s old seat at the team that doesn’t have Mercedes engines, but does have the financial windfall that Manor, which has Mercedes engines, does not after coming 10th.

For Wehrlein, the shift is something of a lateral move. But if Sauber can produce a good chassis, armed with year-old Ferrari engines, the goal for Wehrlein must be to produce a Carlos Sainz-at-Toro Rosso type of campaign, punching above his weight in the midfield and breaking into double digits of points scored.

He’ll also have to be motivated knowing he was passed over not just for the Mercedes seat, but also the Sahara Force India seat taken by fellow Mercedes youngster and his second half Manor teammate, Esteban Ocon.

Williams expecting to make announcement on Bottas’ future in next week

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 deputy boss Claire Williams expects the team to make an announcement regarding the future of Valtteri Bottas in the next week.

Bottas is poised to join Mercedes for the 2017 season following the shock retirement of World Champion Nico Rosberg, announced just five days after clinching his maiden title in Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes decided against promoting junior driver Pascal Wehrlein into Rosberg’s vacant seat, and instead targeted Bottas as its first choice to team up with Lewis Hamilton this year.

Bottas had already agreed to race for Williams in 2017, but will be released from his contract after the team managed to persuade Felipe Massa to postpone his retirement.

The Brazilian made what was planned to be his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi, but is due to partner 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll at Williams.

Speaking to Sky Sports News at Autosport International on Sunday, Claire Williams said that she expected news to come in the next seven days, setting the wheels in motion to complete the grid for 2017.

“It has been dragging on and I think everyone wants to know. It is a great opportunity for Valtteri, and he has given a lot to Williams,” Williams said.

“We’ve always said if we can make this happen on terms that are positive for Williams then it is probably the right thing to do.

“No one needs or wants a driver in your team that really wants to be somewhere else. It is not nice either to stop a driver who has such a great opportunity, particularly at this point of Valtteri’s career.

“But it has to work for Williams and that is what we’ve been working hard on over the past six weeks.

“We are nearly there. We are at the tail-end of it and hope we’ll be able to make an announcement this coming week.”

With Bottas set to join Mercedes and Massa to return to Williams, Wehrlein is expected to take the final secure seat on the grid for 2017 by joining Sauber.

Manor is yet to confirm any of its plans for 2017 after entering administration last week, raising concerns about whether the team will race at all this year.

Lifelong dream comes true: Christopher Bell wins Chili Bowl in native Oklahoma

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As they might say in Oklahoma, “That Sooner kid done good.”

Less than a month after turning 22 years old, Norman, Oklahoma native Christopher Bell earned the biggest victory of his young racing career, capturing the 31st Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals Saturday night at the indoor Tulsa Expo Raceway.

It has been Bell’s lifelong dream to win the Chili Bowl in his home state, and he did so Saturday in commanding fashion.

Starting from the outside of the front row, Bell – who drives fulltime in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (finished third in 2016) for Kyle Busch Motorsports – stayed near the front of the field for much of the 55 laps to capture the prestigious Golden Driller trophy.

“I’m speechless right now,” Bell told ChiliBowl.com. “I’ve been coming to this building for so long trying to win one of these things, and I thought I was really close to one at the Shootout a couple weeks ago, but we had a lot of bad luck but I’ll trade all that bad luck in for this Driller right here. This means the world to me.”

Bell becomes the second Oklahoma native to win the Chili Bowl in its 31-year existence. Andy Hillenburg was the first, in 1994.

In an ironic twist, Hillenburg won the first Chili Bowl title for Keith Kunz Motorsports. Since then, KKM has recorded five additional Chili Bowl wins, with Bell being the sixth and most recent to do so.

“You know, I’ve been in this position before,” Bell said. “I think this is the third time I’ve started on the front row and I would run into trouble because I was pushing too hard.

“Every time I’ve come here, it’s been attack, attack, attack and in this 55 lap race, you don’t need to do that so I just ran as hard as I needed too.”

This was Bell’s fourth appearance in the A-Feature to decide the Chili Bowl’s championship.

Pole sitter Justin Grant led the first 25 laps in the Clauson-Marshal No. 39BC (in memory of 2014 Chili Bowl champion, the late Bryan Clauson).

But from that point on, it was Bell’s race.

Fellow Sooner Daryn Pittman, from Owasso, Oklahoma, finished second. Pittman experienced engine problems late in the race that kept him from making a late surge and challenge of Bell. Still, it was Pittman’s first podium finish in seven Chili Bowl starts.

“We don’t have a spare engine, so we weren’t able to change it,” Pittman told ChiliBowl.com. “… It lasted for 54 and three-quarter laps.”

Grant finished third in his second A-Feature appearance.

“It’s just a thrill to be driving for Clauson-Marshall Racing,” Grant told ChiliBowl.com. “Obviously, I wanted to win for him (Bryan Clauson) really bad, but I’m on the podium at Chili Bowl so I should be happy about that.”

Rounding out the top-10 were Tanner Thorson (fourth), Jake Swanson (fifth), Tyler Courtney (sixth), Zach Daum (seventh), Jerry Coons Jr. (eighth), Ronnie Gardner (ninth) and Damion Gardner (10th).

Competing in his first Chili Bowl, veteran sprint car driver Donny Schatz, earned 2017 Rookie of the Year honors, finishing seventh in the B-Feature.

Rico Abreu, who won the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Chili Bowl, finished 11th. Abreu announced last week he would not be returning to NASCAR in 2017.

Although there were six NASCAR drivers entered in the record 365-driver overall Chili Bowl field, only two made the championship race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 16th, and K&N Pro Series driver Chase Briscoe, who finished 22nd (DNF).

Other NASCAR drivers Kyle Larson, J.J. Yeley and Justin Allgaier fell short in their efforts to reach the main event.

The 32nd Chili Bowl will be held January 9-13, 2018, again at the River Spirit Expo Center (also known as Tulsa Expo Raceway).

RESULTS:

Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire
Tulsa Expo Raceway – Tulsa, Okla.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Lucas Oil/General Tire Championship Night

Event Count: 365 (New Record)

A-FEATURE (car number, driver name, starting position):

A Feature (55 Laps): 1. 71W-Christopher Bell[2]; 2. 21-Daryn Pittman[8]; 3. 39BC-Justin Grant[1]; 4. 67-Tanner Thorson[20]; 5. 68W-Jake Swanson[5]; 6. 7BC-Tyler Courtney[3]; 7. 5D-Zach Daum[11]; 8. 5-Jerry Coons Jr.[15]; 9. 68-Ronnie Gardner[9]; 10. 71G-Damion Gardner[16]; 11. 97-Rico Abreu[25]; 12. 31-Travis Berryhill[4]; 13. 99W-Larry Wight[7]; 14. 25C-C.J. Leary[10]; 15. 17W-Shane Golobic[13]; 16. 17BC-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.[14]; 17. 91T-Tyler Thomas[18]; 18. 35F-Michael Faccinto[23]; 19. 51X-Colby Copeland[12]; 20. (DNF) 8J-Jonathan Beason[19]; 21. (DNF) 47-Danny Stratton[6]; 22. (DNF) 5CB-Chase Briscoe[22]; 23. (DNF) 1R-Thomas Meseraull[21]; 24. (DNF) 5X-Justin Peck[24]; 25. (DNF) 05T-Gary Taylor[17].

 

 

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