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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.

McLaren reveals much anticipated, orange MCL32 Honda

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Photo: McLaren
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McLaren has taken the wraps off the MCL32 Honda, its new chassis in the first year of the post-Ron Dennis era, with Zak Brown now at the helm of the team and after an offseason of excitement and teasing about the livery change.

The switch to an MCL32 chassis designation brings to an end the run of MP4-number chassis as part of the team’s effective relaunch, although the notation of “32” after MCL would in some respects keep that MP4-31 number streak continuing.

But the biggest change beyond the name is the livery color, which switches to the traditional McLaren orange along with black for 2017, and brings to an end the first two years of black, red and silver that adorned the McLarens when Honda came back.

McLaren last ran orange in testing 20 years ago in an interim livery before the unveil of the striking silver to coincide with West cigarettes in 1997. But in race competition, it’s been since the 1960s and early ’70s since the team founded by Bruce McLaren has had that distinctive orange flavor on a race car.

If the team can find an uptick in performance with the chassis and power unit enhancements to match, then two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso and one of Formula 1’s most exciting rookie prospects in years, Stoffel Vandoorne, could well have a year to remember here, befitting of the entire McLaren legacy.

“It’s awesome. It’s such a special place to be,” Brown said at the launch.

“It definitely wasn’t me!” he added of the livery design. “It was a collective group. Ultimately it was in response to input from the fans.

“If you’re not a McLaren fan, please leave! We’re highly frustrated were not winning races. It takes time putting the package together. But last year was forward progress and that’s what we need to see this year. Our driver lineup has two of the best guys.”

Naturally, the two drivers followed.

“It’s fantastic,” Alonso said. “The first time we saw it today. yesterday the last parts were coming together. We’ve got some orange and obviously with the new regulations it seems spectacular.

“I think it becomes sexy when they are fast! But it’s one of the most beautiful cars I will drive. It looks sexy from the outside.

“There are some hopes it will improve the show and will make things a little bit bigger. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But it’s a good change for Formula 1 to have faster, good looking cars.”

Vandoorne added, “It’s a very exciting time for me to be fully involved as a full-time race driver. I’ve been to many Grands Prix but finally in full-time, set to step in is great. For McLaren, the focus is to get back to winning.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Mercedes W08 Launch (VIDEO)

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Winter storm Doris hit the U.K. on Thursday but filming of Paddock Pass pressed on regardless, as the latest installment of the NBC Sports Group original digital series captured yet another video – this time the launch of the Mercedes F1 W08 EQ Power+, the latest challenger for the Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Mercedes’ launch differed from the first three this week, Sauber, Renault and Force India, in that it was both a filming day and launch at the Silverstone Circuit for drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Both drivers had time in the car.

NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton catches up with the key stakeholders in this edition of Paddock Pass.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned to more on NBCSports.com as the week continues in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona.

Scuderia Ferrari reveals its 2017 Formula 1 challenger

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Photos: Ferrari
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Scuderia Ferrari has taken the wraps off its 2017 chassis as the launch week continues for this year’s Formula 1 cars.

Despite the loss of technical director James Allison to Mercedes and after going through an underwhelming, winless 2016 season – at least by Ferrari standards – the team looks for a bounce back this year to coincide with the new regulations.

The renamed SF70H, which follows on last year’s SF16-H, was revealed online in a quick video without any buildup or dialogue from any of the key team stakeholders.

Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari

Noticeable on this car is the shark fin element, again with a winglet on the top of it. The team’s reveal of the chassis reveals the differences for this project, code named the 668 internally:

There are several differences between the 668 project and Ferraris from the recent past: the lengthened nose and the arrow-shaped wing are a consequence of the regulations, as is the obvious fin on the engine cover and the more complex aero appendages ahead of the air intakes on the sidepods, whose unusual shape was designed in harmony with the front crash structure. Visible at the front is a duct that has an aerodynamic role, while behind the driver, the roll-hoop, which incorporates the engine air intake has been completely redesigned. Also updated is the suspension layout, which still retains a push rod design at the front with pull rods at the rear. The hubs and wheel nuts have been redesigned to facilitate the work of the mechanics when changing wheels during the pit stops. Finally, also as a function of the expected increase in performance this year, the power-steering and braking systems have been upsized.

A couple screen caps from the launch video are below:

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Photo: Ferrari
Photos: Ferrari

The launch is the first of two today, with McLaren’s reveal of the MCL32 coming in a couple hours.

Ricky Taylor makes his IndyCar test debut today at Homestead

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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It seems to be the winter of all-stars from other racing disciplines testing in IndyCar.

Today Ricky Taylor joined the list of those stars from the closed-top sports car or touring car world on the winter IndyCar test list, with a one-off guest test for Team Penske in defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet.

The older of two Taylor brothers, who completed a star turn at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona en route to delivering the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R an overall win with brother Jordan, Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon, made his maiden laps at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Chevrolet and General Motors extended the test offer to Ricky Taylor for this opportunity. Fittingly for Pagenaud, it’s the second time in not even a year he’s given up his seat to another member of either the GM or Penske family; Brad Keselowski made a similar out-of-nowhere one-off test at Road America last year.

“Every driver dreams to be an Indy car driver,” Taylor said, via IndyCar.com. It can’t hurt to be involved with (Team Penske); there are no negatives to that. To get to know all the guys and get to drive the car and get an actual feel for it in a low-pressure environment is a great opportunity for me. Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, it’s a big learning opportunity.”

With Ricky Taylor completing this test and with Robert Wickens and Pipo Derani set to test next week at Sebring’s short course, there’s been a sudden series of additional interest in the final few runs before the IndyCar season opens on March 12.

And with Ricky Taylor in Homestead today, it was left to Jordan Taylor and the Konica Minolta team’s new third driver, Englishman Alex Lynn, to run solo today as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship February test at Sebring’s full course. Lynn will make his U.S. race debut in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be held March 18. Ricky Taylor will be back at Sebring for the second day of the IMSA test, held Friday.

Great to see @simonpagenaud and @rickytaylor_10 today good job both!!

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