The name of John Surtees is not usually – or immediately – linked to the F1 history of McLaren and indeed many fans will remember him as one of the marque’s greatest rivals in the mid-1960s when his Team Surtees Lola T70 Group 7 sports cars squared up to Bruce and Chris Amon in ‘big banger’ sports car racing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Eventually Surtees set out to establish his team as an F1 constructor at the start of the 1970 season, but since it took much longer than expected to ready the first Surtees TS7 chassis, John invested in an ex-works McLaren M7C chassis which he gave a debut outing in the season-opening South African GP at Kyalami. He retired with engine failure after an impressively strong run, but this was generally a disappointing dalliance for Surtees. The M7C retired with a throttle problem in the Brands Hatch Race of Champions and then the gearbox broke in the SpanIsh GP at Jarama.
The trend continued depressingly through to the middle of the year when the TS7 made its debut in the British GP at Brands Hatch and all his efforts were concentrated on this new project from then on. It made many people wonder just how different things might have been had Surtees abandoned his obsession to engineer his own cars and simply thrown in his lot with a team like McLaren in order to concentrate on what he did best. Driving.
A deeply committed and very serious minded competitor, John Surtees moved into car racing after a glittering career on two wheels. The son of a well-known pre and post-war competitor and garage owner, Jack Surtees, John served an apprenticeship with Vincent-HRD at Stevenage before embarking on an international career which would yield seven motorcycle world championships for the Gallarete-based MV Agusta team. Having been invited to test an Aston Martin DBR1 sports car and a Vanwall Grand Prix machine at the end of 1959, Surtees made his car racing debut in a Formula Junior Cooper the following year largely because of Agusta’s reluctance to make available to John bikes on which he could contest some of the British domestic events.
The 1960 season also saw him make his F1 debut for Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus, posting a brilliant second place finish in the British GP. For 1961 he made the tactical mistake of switching to the Yeoman Credit Cooper team instead of accepting an offer from Chapman to line up as Jim Clark’s team-mate. It was a decision which set back Surtees’s F1™ career by a couple of seasons and he really only got back on track with competitive machinery when he joined Ferrari at the start of 1963.
Surtees won the F1 world championship in 1964, remaining to this day the only competitor to take top honours in both these disciplines. But when he quit Ferrari, after a spat with team manager Eugenio Dragoni just before the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour classic, with hindsight it may be that he made the wrong decision. His star never shone as brightly again right through to his retirement from driving in 1972. I wonder what would have happened if John Surtees had become a works McLaren F1™ driver.