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

Sixty years on…

July 14, 2011 is the 60th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s first Formula 1 World Championship victory. Against a background of absolute domination by Alfa Romeo, Enzo Ferrari’s eponymous team finally prevailed in an epic battle of attrition at Silverstone. As you can see in the picture below, taken from my book Real Racers, José Froilan Gonzalez had to drive the wheels off his car to break Alfa’s 26-race winning streak.

Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Silverstone, 1951. Image (c) The Klemantaski Collection

Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Silverstone, 1951. Image (c) The Klemantaski Collection

27-year-old Gonzalez was racing at Silverstone for the first time and very much a junior in his team’s pecking order. Two weeks earlier, at Reims, he had been permitted to drive the 4.5-litre V12 Ferrari 375 (albeit in a lower spec, with a single spark plug per cylinder), but in the race he had been prevailed upon to hand his car over to Alberto Ascari, the more senior driver, after Ascari’s gearbox failed. Such was the convention at the time.

Alfa Romeo’s all-conquering car, the 158, was rather long in the tooth – the design had first been commissioned by Enzo Ferrari when he worked for Alfa before World War II. Over the winter of 1950 the existing cars had been modified and redesignated 159. Giuseppe Farina, as world champion and team leader, had the pick of the machinery and drove the sole car which had De Dion tube rear suspension rather than swing axles. But by and large, Alfa’s solution to the car’s increasing age had been to add power. Like Ferrari, Alfa used Shell petrol, but whereas in modern F1 fuel suppliers operate trackside labs to create an optimum fuel mix for each circuit, in the early 1950s individual teams would add aviation fuel and whatever octane boosters they could lay their hands on.

Blown by twin superchargers and hopped up with all manner of fuel additives, the 159’s 1.5-litre straight-eight was good for over 400bhp at 9600rpm (and, foreshadowing the most recent technical controversy of 2011, each cylinder required a dose of unburned fuel on every unfired stroke in order to provide extra cooling). The concomitant disadvantages came in the form of an outrageous thirst – less than 2mpg – and a predisposition to shred its rear tyres. Mid-race pitstops became a necessity.

To cope with the 159’s thirst, Alfa added auxillary fuel tanks wherever they would fit – including under the exhaust manifold. But Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio usually raced without, figuring that they would have to stop anyway and that the extra weight would slow them down. The more frugal and less mechanically stressed Ferraris were seldom as quick as the Alfas, but they spent less time in the pits. The Alfa drivers therefore had to go flat out at every opportunity so as to build a gap.

The stage was set for a race that The Autocar would describe thus:

…the best motor race seen in this country since the palmy days of 1938 and the last struggle at Donington Park between the Mercedes and Auto-Union teams.

At Silverstone, Gonzalez drew first blood by putting his second-string Ferrari on pole from Fangio, with Farina and Ascari making up the rest of the four-car front row.

From the second row, Alfa’s Felice Bonetto was quickest away from the start and ran almost side-by-side with Gonzalez into the first corner, until Farina’s 159 spooled up and he shot between both of them, practically scraping their hubs.

Farina’s lead did not last long. Bonetto and Gonzalez came past on the first lap, then Gonzalez moved to the front as the extra weight of Bonetto’s auxiliary fuel tanks took its toll.

The Motor magazine describes the opening laps:

From the start the speed increased from 93mph average to nearly 97mph half way through the race. Fangio and Farina were driving like masters, demonstrating the famous slide technique of cornering with studied precision, Gonzalez out in front, rather more untidy, holding his car to the arc by main force but pressing on with utter determination.

Gonzalez stretched his lead out to six seconds but Fangio, mindful of the need to pass and establish enough of a lead to cushion his imminent pitstop, began to close in. On lap 10 he edged past and on lap 13 he shattered the existing lap record, edging close to the magic 100mph average speed mark. They had left the others far behind but still Gonzalez loomed in his mirrors, even after losing it at Becketts and bouncing off one of the straw bales marking the outside of the course.

In third place, Farina was almost a minute behind. Although he would reset the lap record with a 99.99mph average (1m44s), he ultimately fell out of contention with a lengthy pitstop.

Alfa's Giuseppe Farina is grounded in the pits. Image (c) The Klemantaski Collection

Alfa's Giuseppe Farina is grounded in the pits. Image (c) The Klemantaski Collection

Gonzalez may have briefly exceeded his limits but he was far from spent. As The Motor relates:

After the 25th lap Gonzalez, perhaps exhilarated by his excursion into the straw, began to close down on Fangio, cut down his six-second lead lap by lap and, on the 39th, slammed past him back into the lead, and from then on he never let it go.

On lap 45 Fangio broke for the pits and was stationary for the best part of a minute, for his car required new rear tyres – a lengthy and laborious operation in this era. By lap 50, when Farina made the time-consuming stop that dropped him off the lead lap, Gonzalez was 72.8s ahead of Fangio.

Gregor Grant takes up the tale in AUTOSPORT:

All Alfa hopes appeared to rest once again on Fangio. Never has such driving been seen in this country. On a circuit totally unsuited to the potential performance characteristics of the Type 159, Juan Manuel drove the race of his life. He couldn’t use the maximum power available. It was a case of virtuosity versus the inspired driving of Gonzalez in a car with seemingly better road-holding, and more usable acceleration out of bends.

Ferrari’s more fancied drivers, Ascari and team leader Luigi Villoresi, were third and fifth. Villoresi was not even on the same lap. Ascari ceded third place to the delayed Farina when he pitted on lap 54 for fuel and new rear tyres; roaring out of the pits, determined to make up the 10-second gap to Farina, he got no further than Becketts before his gearbox expired with a loud clang.

Gonzalez’s tyres were in good shape, but when he made his own stop for two churns of Shell fuel on lap 60 he knew he would be called upon to hand over his car. As the 375 came to a halt he jumped out, only for Ascari himself to wave him back into the driving seat. Gonzalez emerged still in the lead.

Fangio continued his assault, to the extent that his team manager ceased to give the ‘go faster’ signal from the pit wall and simply displayed the gap from the Ferrari to the Alfa. But the day belonged to Gonzalez, who took the chequered flag after 90 laps (that’s two and three quarter hours of racing) 52 seconds ahead. Villoresi inherited third after Farina retired, but was two laps down.

There was perhaps one small disappointment for the victorious Argentine, as The Autocar relates:

The vocal supporters from the Argentine were beside themselves with joy (but although they possessed a banner with Fangio on it, they had not got one for the winner!).

If you’d like to see more classic images like the ones above, visit the excellent Klemantaski Collection website – you’ll also find them in my critically acclaimed (ie not just by my mum) book Real Racers, which features first-person accounts from the likes of Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham and John Surtees about what life was like in the F1 paddock in the 1950s and 1960s..

It’s an anniversary (sort of)

Jim Clark after the 1965 Indy 500

Jim Clark after the 1965 Indy 500

In 1965 the peerless Jim Clark became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula 1 World Championship in the same season. In fact, he’s still the only person to have done that, though others have gone on to win both (and, in the case of Graham Hill, the Le Mans 24 Hours as well) in different years.
While all this took place 46 years ago, and you may be excused for wondering why it’s being brought up all of a sudden, Indy is celebrating its centenary this year and Ford Racing is marking its 110th year of competition. To that end, Al Unser Snr is going to drive Clark’s number 82 Lotus-Ford during a parade of historic indycars before this weekend’s Indy 500. Ford has also released these rather marvellous photos.
As well as being the first victory at Indy for a rear-engined car, 1965 was also notable in that Ford recruited a crack pit crew – the Wood Brothers – from NASCAR because they recognised the increasing importance of fast pitstops. Thus began a trend that has led to Red Bull Racing’s lightning-quick laser-guided stops in F1…

The Wood Brothers start a revolution at Indy, 1965

The Wood Brothers start a revolution at Indy, 1965

How to get the best out of Nick Heidfeld

Amid much speculation as to who may replace the injured Robert Kubica at Renult/Lotus for at least part of the 2011 season, the driver often inexplicably known as “Quick Nick” threw his hat into the ring with a brisk performance during testing at Jerez over the weekend.

Heidfeld has always been a bit of an enigma to me: a tricky interviewee, on account of being rather shy, and on track a somewhat hot-and-cold performer in the Fisichella mould.

Given a sub-standard car Heidfeld, like Fisichella, could turn on the style. I was watching at the Esses during the truncated Sunday-morning qualifying session at Suzuka in 2004 (Saturday’s activities having been cancelled on account of an impending typhoon) and Heidfeld was remarkable in the Jordan. The car was pretty awful; Heidfeld seemed to be cajoling it into changing direction through sheer force of will alone. He was a second and a half quicker than Timo Glock, who was driving the other car.

I saw very little of this determination once he got his foot in the door at Sauber, where the general feeling was that he had a tremendous ability to work with the engineers to develop the car, but that this capacity was almost completely offset by his lack of a killer instinct while racing. He just seemed to be happy enough to be driving a quick car.

Should this factor in Renault’s decision-making process? Perhaps it should. At Sauber the driving arrangement worked because Mario Theissen hit on the perfect way to get the best out of Heidfeld: structure his salary according to results, so he was on a low flat fee but with a considerable points bonus. Heidfeld, therefore, delivered a succession of solid points-scoring finishes in strict accordance with the timetable Theissen had laid out for the team – that is, get in the points occasionally in the first year, get on the podium in the second, then start winning in the third.

At Sauber, though, the other seat was occupied by someone who genuinely did want to win races: Robert Kubica. Indeed, when Kubica replaced Jacques Villeneuve in 2006 Heidfeld immediately upped his game. This won’t happen at Lotus/Renault with Vitaly Petrov driving the other car…