Friday, 2 September 2011


My blog feature “Fangio and Moss”, posted 9 May 2011 and comparing the two drivers’ratings, exposed the fact that Moss was actually faster than Fangio in the Argentinian’s last three seasons. My Ratings System now reveals a similar mis-perception of the sixties era when the media and posterity claimed Clark’s unrivalled superiority.

Jim Clark’s career is well-known and has been well-documented. He has received all the accolades his talent deserved. The first to score more wins than Fangio, his winning seemed almost effortless. But was he superior to all his peers?

What of Clark’s1960 debut season’s Lotus team-mate, John Surtees? John merits hardly a mention in commentaries or discussions on the ‘greatest drivers’. In six starts Clark managed phenomenal third, fifth and sixth places. In that same 1960 season, Surtees’ four starts yielded a second place in the British GP in his second appearance! John started his third race, the Portuguese GP, from pole and was leading for half the distance until he slid on tramlines and crashed out. The field included the experienced Moss and Ireland and fellow rookie Clark, all in identical Lotus-Climax 18s.

John Surtees was just as unlucky as Moss, concerning his cars and teams. Consequently he always was and remains under-rated. Bare race results do not necessarily tell the whole story, as is obvious from Moss’ career.

Consequently in the years 1962 to 1968, grand prix racing was denied the intense battles between two great, equally-matched drivers, Surtees and Clark, as were seen between Prost and Senna.

How Surtees rates against Clark, car-neutral, is shown in the Driver Ratings table. The figure 100.0 represents the ultimate, fastest speed; increments of 0.1 being slower. 100.0 can be a factor, a percentage or a lap time of 100.0 seconds, for easier reference:

Clark Rating

A multiple Champion on motorcycles, Surtees transferred to cars at age 25 in 1960. Due to his continuing motorcycling commitments, John raced in just four of the season’s nine events, driving for Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus. He finished second in his second race, the British GP! For his third outing in Portugal, he took the pole and led half the race! The field included identical Lotus-Climax 18s driven by Moss and team-mates Clark and Ireland, and Title holder Brabham in his Cooper-Climax. Unfortunately Surtees crashed; conflicting reports claim fuel leaked onto the pedals, his foot slipped and/or the car slid on tramlines and he over-corrected. To outshine Clark to this extent? Certainly one of the best debuts of all time.

Fate then intervened to adversely affect Surtees’career. An offer by Colin Chapman, which would have meant Innes Ireland being dropped from Team Lotus, led to Surtees turning down the Lotus drive for 1961. John would happily, have partnered Jim Clark, with whom he got on well. What a team they’d have made? Surtees-Clark would surely have rivalled prost-SEnna of 1988-9, Nuvolari-Varzi of 1930, Chiron-Varzi of 1931-2, Nuvolari-Caracciola of 1932 as one of the strongest pairings of all time.

John moved to a privately-funded team, being promised the latest Cooper-Climax. Coopers refused to sell their latest models, so Surtees had to make do and struggled throughout 1961 in a year-old Cooper-Climax, which was 1.8 seconds-a-lap off-pace driver-neutral! For 1962 John headed the new Lola-Climax team and managed two second places. But there were chassis problems and the Lola was, on season’s average, 1.5 seconds per lap off-pace. No matter how good the driver, such a car deficiency is impossible to overcome.

Admiring his talent, skill and technical abilities, Enzo Ferrari signed Surtees for 1963, where he remained until early 1966. Despite popular perception, the Ferraris of the mid-sixties were down on power! Irrespective of their use of V6, V8 and horizontally- opposed 12 cylinder engines 1963-1965, the Climax and BRM V8s were just too good. As Surtees once said: “I used to watch in frustration when coming out of corners, the BRMs and Climaxes just pulled away.” The best Ferrari of these years Rated at 100.6. Maranello grand prix cars suffered lack of development until after the Le Mans race every June, whereby Ferrari made his money to fund his F1 racing. Surtees managed just three wins in these three seasons. With his car giving away 0.6 seconds per lap to such opposition as Clark in the Lotus-Climax, Gurney in the Brabham-Climax and Graham Hill and Stewart in the BRMs, John could do little.

The first year of the 3-litre formula in 1966 gave Surtees his best chance. For the first time since 1961 Ferrari had the fastest car: the V12-engined Tipo 312. But there were political problems at Maranello: some personnel wanted the Surtees out: one wanted his F1 drive, the team manager disliked him! For the season-opener at Monaco, John wanted to drive the more wieldy 2.4 litre Tasman Ferrari V6. The team manager refused, giving the smaller car to team-mate Bandini, who finished second! Clark’s wieldy 2-litre Lotus-Climax was on pole, but Surtees led from the start in the big 312 until the rear axle failed after 13 of 100 laps. To prove the point about the smaller cars at Monaco, Stewart won in a 2-litre BRM. This was a win Surtees would undoubtedly have managed.

Three weeks later at a rain-soaked Spa, John won in the 3-litre Ferrari. He was promptly sacked on politico-commercial grounds! What a loss for Ferrari and for Surtees.

Surtees joined the Cooper-Maserati team. His outstanding technical abilities in car developmentand set-up improved the big, heavy machines, to claim a second and a third place, with fastest laps each time, before winning the 1966 season finale in Mexico City.

For 1967 and 1968 Surtees drove for the Honda Team, but the cars were over a second a lap too slow. He managed to win once at Monza, but as he shouldered more and more of the development and design decisions, his energy and driver rating levels diminished. A year with BRM in 1969 yielded a best finish of third place. For 1970 John purchased and raced an old McLaren-Cosworth that was 1.5 secs/lap slow. Launching his own Surtees-Cosworth car, for 1970 and 1971 the Surtees-Cosworths were also about 1.5 secs off-pace. John never finished higher than fifth. In 1972 the new Surtees model was far faster, but JS only raced once and retired in the race and for good.

Surtees was faster than Clark for the first three seasons! This has to be down to sheer talent, but also to John’s superior, race-hardened experience. Albeit at World Championship motorcycling level. This must have counted. In addition, John became known for his abilities at setting-up cars which could already have benefitted him.. Surtees and Clark started in F1 in 1960 at ages 26 and 25. Clark was very cautious, rating at 102.2, about the same as Nigel Mansell’s first part-season. For 1960 and in same-cars Moss raced at the ultimate 100.0, team-mates Ireland and Surtees at 100.7. Jim overcame his ‘hesitance’ and got to ultimate pace within four years. Surtees managed this in his second season! He did however start slipping slightly from 1965, due to the unhappy atmosphere at Maranello. In contrast Clark enjoyed his entire eight-year career in harmony and great friendship with Lotus team patron, Colin Chapman. Due to increasing team responsibilities and poor cars, by 1969 Surtees’ Driver Rating had dropped to 100.6, which was enough for Jack Brabham and Phil Hill in top-rated cars, to win their driver titles.

Good driver-manager relationships have always produced outstanding results: Nuvolari with Alfa Romeo’s Vittorio Jano 1930-1936, Caracciola with Alfred Neubauer at Mercedes- Benz 1926-1939; Stewart with Ken Tyrrell 1969-1973, Prost with Ron Dennis of McLaren 1984-1989, followed by Hakkinen 1993-2001, Michael Schumacher with Ferrari’s Jean Todt 1996-2006 and Alonso with Benetton’s Flavio Briatore 2003-2006.. Surtees seldom had the benefits of such good, personal intra-team relationships for long. When he did, as with Lola’s Eric Broadley in 1962, the car was off-pace.

Given good enough machinery, there is no doubt John Surtees would have remained the greatest threat to Clark until the Scot’s untimely fatal crash early in 1968. Surtees’ sheer driver talent and technical abilities were outstanding. His two great wins at that real driver’s circuit, the old Nurburgring, in underpowered-Ferraris in 1963 and 1964 and an outstanding second place in the more off-pace Lola-Climax in 1962 were glimpses of what might have been. John’s meagre six wins compared with Clark’s then-record of twenty-five is in no way a reflection of their relative abilities. What a difference the cars make! Surtees, the most under-rated great driver of all?

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of the author, Patrick E. O’Brien.

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