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John Surtees


Fast lap time leave impressive traces

"Big John," as Surtees liked to be called, was a regular at the Nürburgring from the late 1950s until well into the 1970s.

Author: Udo Klinkel -  And he was successful, very successful indeed. To this day, he is the only one who has managed to win world championship titles on two and four wheels. He once told me that the Nordschleife is one of his absolute favorite circuits, and he has impressively underlined this with his successes there. As early as 1958, he won the 350 and 500 cubic centimeter motorcycle classes at the German Grand Prix. Two Formula 1 victories (1963 and 1964), as well as a second place (1966), made him one of the most successful drivers on the Eifel circuit in the mid-1960s.

From May 17 to 19, 1963, the 1000 kilometer race is on Surtees' calendar. It will be his first Nürburgring start in a Ferrari prototype. Belgian Willy Mairesse will contest the race as co-driver. Ferrari has brought three 250P cars to the Eifel, Ludovico Scarfiotti/Mike Parkes and Lorenzo Bandini/Nino Vaccarella are the other driver pairings of the Italians. Already during Friday practice Surtees sets a new absolute lap record: at 9'13.1 the timekeepers' clocks stop. That is enough for pole position. In the race, too, Surtees/Mairesse are ahead in the end, even though their drive is delayed for a few minutes by a slow puncture. 

For John Surtees, it was the first victory in a 1000 kilometer race, followed two years later by the second. This time, it was not only against the competition from his own company, but also from America, because Ford, under the direction of Carroll Shelby, sent a large contingent to the Nürburgring. 

In the Ferrari 250P during training for the 1963 race. Photo: Christian Höfer

The great duel of those years, Ford versus Ferrari, was in full swing. The Nürburgring, as so often, took its toll on this race and decimated the Ford squad considerably. Only one car reached the finish line in eighth place after a rather adventurous drive. Not so at Ferrari, where everything runs like clockwork. In the end, John Surtees and Ludovico Scarfiotti were the overall winners on the somewhat rickety wooden podium next to the start-and-finish building. A well-deserved success, especially after the victory in the previous year, which was thought to be secure and only prevented by the loss of a wheel.

Disappointment after the failure in 1964. Photo: Archive Völker-Richarz

In 1967, "Big John" is once again the fastest man on the Nordschleife. Best practice time and fastest lap in the race with an 8'37 time. A defective suspension on the 330P3, however, dashes all hopes of a third victory. To the delight of Phil Hill and his American friends from Texas. But that is another story. John Surtees is less likely to have fond memories of the 1967 race.

In his massive Lola-Aston Martin, which can only be made to start with a delay at the start, he has a nasty "moment" while chasing the Porsche pack. The rear suspension breaks in the Fuchsröhre, of all places. And next to the track is Rico Steinemann's Porsche, which is out of action due to a defect.

The lurching Lola narrowly misses the Porsche at still "high speed," and Surtees fortunately brings it to a halt quickly. That could have gone wrong.

Three years will pass before we see the Brit again in the 1000 kilometer race. And he's back in a Ferrari. For the 1970 season, Enzo Ferrari needs a driver who can competently contribute to the development of the 512S sports car. And the first thing that comes to mind is his former works driver John Surtees. 

In 1966, the two had parted ways due to disagreements that primarily involved Ferrari's racing director Eugenio Dragoni. Surtees agrees to contest a few races with the 512 against the Porsche 917, including the 1000 kilometer race at the Nürburgring. Here, however, Porsche does not use the heavy 917, but the ultra-light and agile 908.03, which is far better suited for the Eifel roller coaster and proves to be a lot faster. Surtees and Nino Vaccarella had no chance against the speedsters from Stuttgart. At least they managed third place and a class win.

John and wife Pat anxiously awaiting the Ferrari brought into the pits by Mike Parkes with a faulty suspension during the 1965 race. Photo: Jacques Bellemans

So John Surtees starts six times in a 1000 kilometer race in the Eifel. He finished two of them as the winner. A third place and many a fast lap time leave impressive traces in the results lists. For me, "Big John" is one of the most likeable characters of those Nürburgring years.