Spa 1966: John Surtees reflects on an epic race

John Surtees visits the Ferrari garage at Spa in 2011. Photo by Getty Images

John Surtees visits the Ferrari garage at Spa in 2011. Photo by Getty Images

45 years ago – though not to the very weekend, for in 1966 the Belgian Grand Prix was held in early June – John Surtees took his last win for Ferrari in the most dramatic circumstances. A sudden storm on the first lap eliminated eight cars and left Jackie Stewart nursing serious chemical burns; that, and the fact that no marshals were present at the scene of Stewart’s accident, proved to be a catalyst for major change in the sport.

But for Surtees it was not only his last win for Ferrari – it was his very last race for Enzo’s team. Two weeks later his fractious relationship with team manager Eugenio Dragoni reached a tipping point and he walked out, though he eventually reached a rapprochement with Enzo shortly before Enzo’s death in 1988. Last year I interviewed ‘Big John’ for my book Real Racers and, thanks to Shell, I spoke to him again at Spa this weekend in their suite overlooking Eau Rouge – a corner synonymous with bravery then and now.

Drivers' briefing, Spa 1966. Photo by Klemantaski Collection, featured in Real Racers

Drivers' briefing, Spa 1966. Photo by Klemantaski Collection, featured in Real Racers

In 1966 a lap of Spa-Francorchamps lasted for 14km, swerving left at Les Combes – where now there is a chicane followed by a sweep to the right – and a plunge down towards the village of Burnenville. Taken at around 150mph even then, on skinny tyres (Surtees describes it as a corner that you would take “at about nine tenths”), the ensuing right-hand bend spat you out in a westerly direction along the N62. It is here where Stirling Moss broke his back when a wheel came off his Lotus in 1960. After the infamous Masta Kink, where the road jinked left and right to pass between two farmhouses, the round turned before the village of Malmedy to strike north. It is shortly after here that the modern circuit intersects with the old route, at Blanchimont.

Surtees had already locked horns with Dragoni in his very first race for Ferrari, the 1963 Sebring 12-Hour sportscar enduro. Having tested the first models off the line and helped trace a design flaw that had caused exhaust gases to enter the cockpit, Surtees found himself racing a brand new chassis that had had no testing, and which had not received the extra sealing necessary to prevent the ingress of exhaust gases. Although he and his co-driver Ludovico Scarfiotti were made ill by the fumes Surtees won, only for the result to be protested… by Dragoni. Surtees won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1964 but he and Dragoni still did not see eye to eye, as Surtees relates:

Enzo liked to set people against one another – it was how he motivated people. But the problem was that he didn’t attend grands prix and people often told him what he wanted to hear. Dragoni thought that because Ferrari’s flagship road cars were V12s, the F1 cars should be as well. In those days, because Enzo had to juggle the money around, very little development was done on the F1 cars until after Le Mans. The V12 engine for 1966 was based on the road car unit, but with a shorter stroke to bring it down to three litres. It was just too heavy and around Monaco the car didn’t work. I wanted to use the 2.4-litre V6. He didn’t. I said, “Do you actually want to win this race?”

At Spa, Surtees made good use of the V12’s power to put his Ferrari on pole, while team-mate Lorenzo Bandini used the V6 car. As Surtees took the lead from the start ahead of Jochen Rindt in the Cooper-Maserati, he had no premonitions about the mayhem that was about to ensue:

The lap was so long that you could have three different types of weather as you went round. In those days the grid was on the hill, with Eau Rouge as the first corner, so that was really your focus at the start. I remember the relief that I was leading on that first lap – then as we turned left at Les Combes I saw the first rain on my goggles. Within a few seconds the heavens just opened.

Although cameras were filming some of the action there was no live TV broadcast. Fans elsewhere in Europe would have to wait days to digest the reports of writers who were almost equally in the dark. Peter Garnier, writing in Autocar, captured the confusion that followed in the moments after the field was flagged off:

There followed the usual long pause that occurs on such circuits as Spa and the Nürburgring, while the crowds sat with fingers crossed, praying that the appalling conditions would not take their toll of the drivers.

Suddenly, with his exhausts drowned by the din of the helicopters that flew in flocks round the pits area, Surtees’ head and shoulders, with an occasional glimpse of the red car, came into sight as he sped along towards the La Source hairpin before turning round the 30mph corner to pass the pits.

Round he came, through the pits area, followed after a gap by Brabham and Bandini, close together. Then, well spaced out, came Ginther, Rindt, and Ligier – then a very long gap and Gurney. We sat and waited… for cars and for news, but neither came.

To the chagrin of sub-editors everywhere (except, clearly, those working on his own publication), Garnier described the elimination of eight of the 15 starters as “decimation”. The events of lap one could only be pieced together later: Jim Clark was first out when his engine dropped a valve on the way up the hill; at Burnenville Jo Bonnier spun on the wet surface and was hit by Mike Spence. In taking evasive action Jo Siffert swerved into Denny Hulme.

Surtees leads in the rain, Spa 1966. Photo by Klemantaski Collection, featured in Real Racers

Surtees leads in the rain, Spa 1966. Photo by Klemantaski Collection, featured in Real Racers

Five drivers down. Then, at the Masta Kink, Stewart hit a stream of water and aquaplaned off, bulldozing a telegraph pole before coming to rest well off the road, trapped in his car and unconscious, with fuel from the ruptured tank leaking over him. Serendipitously, the slow-starting Graham Hill hit the same patch of water but his car spun around without leaving the track. He was about to drive off again when he noticed the wreckage of Stewart’s car. Together with Bob Bondurant, who also crashed his car at the same spot, he came to Stewart’s aid.

As he relates in Real Racers, Stewart regained consciousness on the floor of the “so-called Medical Centre”, which was dirty and strewn with cigarette ends. He was transferred to Verviers, where Clark and BRM team spokesman Louis Stanley had to help wash the fuel off his body, strap his shoulder up and position the X-ray apparatus. Stanley was moved to write a letter to AUTOSPORT denouncing the inadequate marshalling at grands prix in general and the woeful aftermath of this Belgian GP in particular:

The doctor [at Verviers] was efficient, but there appeared to be a nursing shortage. The drive to Liege was in a vintage ambulance. The driver lost his way three times. The stretcher provided for the flight was hopeless. Had it been used Stewart’s spine would have been corrugated. Instead, we had to commandeer the ambulance equipment.

Although some of Stanley’s sentiments were a touch Daily Mail – he was dismissive of what he calls “these small foreign hospitals” – his conclusion was prescient:

At the moment every driver is vulnerable. In the event of a crash causing injury the emergency services and general standard of organisation leaves much to be desired. It seems pointless to wait for further crashes, maybe deaths, before the system is streamlined.

In spite of the chaos the rain continued and Rindt was the man on the move, as Surtees relates:

We didn’t have a specific rain tyre – you just had to make do with what you had – so I let Jochen past, figuring that if I went in his wheeltracks there would be less water for my tyres to displace. I realised that if I wanted to win this race I’d have to do it at the slowest possible speed.

Rindt led for 20 of the 28 laps with Surtees and Bandini in pursuit, though Bandini eventually dropped a lap. As the track dried Surtees saw his opportunity and moved past, building a clear lead as Rindt fell back with gear selection problems.

With three laps to go Surtees had a scare when his engine cut out on the run to La Source. He coasted around the hairpin and down the hill past the pits, selected second gear, let the clutch back out… and the engine burst into life. There had been an air lock in the fuel system. He crossed the line 42 seconds before Rindt.

Dragoni was the only person in the team who didn’t congratulate me. The next race was Le Mans. Ford were turning up with all these American drivers and after the test day [where Surtees had set the fastest time, but only just] we knew that we couldn’t afford to let them settle down into a rhythm. One of our cars would have to be the ‘hare’ [to lure the Fords into a car-breaking pursuit]. But then, at the 24 Hours, Dragoni told me I wouldn’t be starting the car – [Fiat boss] Mr Agnelli’s son would, because Mr Agnelli wasn’t going to be staying long. We had the same conversation again: “Do you actually want to win this race?”

So Surtees walked, and the story put about in the aftermath was that he wasn’t fit enough to drive the car as a legacy of his CanAm shunt in Canada the previous year.

That was rubbish. When I was injured, Enzo was tremendously supportive. My body was basically shorter on one side than it was at the other. I had all the therapy and then had a couple of convalescent tests in the car – they even laid on a crane so I could be lifted into the car.

After Le Mans [’66] I drove to Maranello. I won’t tell anyone about the conversation I had with Enzo – that’s between me and him. But we met again shortly before he passed away and he said to me, “John, you must remember all the good times and forget about the mistakes.”

Surtees recently visited Maranello again to see a modern Ferrari F1 car and to share his experiences of Spa with Fernando Alonso. Courtesy of Shell V-Power, I have a four-minute video edit of that interview here, along with some fascinating contemporary footage of Spa in 1966.

John Surtees meets Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, Spa 2011. Photo by Getty Images

John Surtees meets Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, Spa 2011. Photo by Getty Images

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  • Comments (3)
    • antoine
    • August 28th, 2011

    Loving the blog, as ever, but the pics don’t show up in Safari 5.1 on Lion. Time you upgraded?

    • Matt
    • August 28th, 2011

    Great post as usual. Interesting video too. Whenever I read quotes from John Surtees I get the impression that he was quite an imposing character, someone not to be trifled with. I’d never heard about the fallout with the team manager in such detail before though. Thanks!

    • JZ
    • August 29th, 2011

    Brilliant post!

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