Fearless John Surtees drives his last race for Ferrari -- The 1966 Belgian Grand Prix
Henry Manney, wit, sage, and European Editor for ROAD & TRACK magazine in the 1960s, would stand behind a stone barn outside Burnenville curve, and listen as Formula Ones came roaring down the hill, flash beneath the BP Bridge, and enter this long, heart-stopper of a curve. A number of F-1 drivers clearly backed off at the BP Bridge, while a brave few stayed on the throttle and stormed around Burnenville. A moment later, they would back off for the Malmedy esse curve, then romp on across the long Masta Straight, where yet another horror awaited them--the Masta Kink.
That, in short, was what Spa-Francorchamps was all about--the original 8.7-mile Spa-Francorchamps--before it was tamed in the late-1970s. It was the kind of circuit that if you won two-years-in-a-row, the King of Belgium presented you with a special award--for bravery, as it were--The de Tornaco Challenge Cup. Only three drivers ever won it: Alberto Ascari, Juan Fangio, and the late Jim Clark. Clark won it four years-in-a-row, twice in a driving rainstorm, making him the all-time Spa master. Ironically, he hated the circuit. "I've lost too many good friends there," he said, ruefully.
No one could have dreamed up such a place. It just sort of evolved over the years--like Tyrannosaurus Rex. Back in the days of motor racing's infancy, when any linkup of public roads was a candidate for a circuit, a group of Belgian promoters staged a motorcycle race on a series of mountain roads in the Ardennes Region of Southeast Belgium, connecting the villages of Francorchamps, Malmedy, and Stavelot. The circuit snaked down one side of a wooded valley, crossed over an open plain, and wound back up the other side of the valley. Spa, the world-famous hot springs town, was not part of the circuit, but it was where the promoters were based, and since Francorchamps was nearest the pits, they named it Circuit National de Spa-Francorchamps. That was in 1921. In 1925, the first Belgian Grand Prix was held there, and the legend began.
The original circuit was comprised of narrow, rough country roads, and three hairpins. But as the years passed the public roads were repaved and made wider, resulting in faster speeds. In the 1940s, the promotors by-passed two of the hairpins, and the circuit became faster still. By 1960, Spa-Francorchamps was the fastest road racing circuit in the world. And the most dangerous. On one bloody weekend, two drivers were killed, and a third--Stirling Moss--was hospitalized with two broken legs, and three smashed vertebrae. There was some grumbling about safety afterwards, but nothing compared to the public outcry that followed a similar weekend 34 years later, at Imola, that took the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. In 1960, talk of driver safety and was considered unsportsmanlike and bad form. The attitude of the day was best expressed by none other than the great Stirling Moss, who said, "Of course, racing is dangerous. I like it that way. Without danger there wouldn't be any point to it, really."
This point of view was beginning to change, as the Formula One teams converged in Southeast Belgium, for the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix. It was the first year of a rule change that had resulted in a doubling of the horsepower output, and the F-1 world was at something of a crossroads. The cars were still painted in their national colors and advertising decals were not permitted, but that was being threatened by Firestone's and Goodyear's entry into the sport. Commercialism can't be far behind when these billion dollar corporations were spending millions to see Formula Ones race on their brand of tires. A byproduct of their involvement was a speedup in tire technology, with racing tires growing ever wider with each race. Wider tires, coupled with increased horsepower, meant faster speeds on circuits that had changed little over the previous 30 years, and nowhere was this more evident than at Spa-Francorchamps. Curves that once were taken at 120 m.p.h. were now routinely taken at 150 m.p.h.
For the first time, drivers joined together to debate boycotting the Belgian Grand Prix, should it rain, but failed to reach a consensus.
One of the drivers staunchly opposed to the boycott, was John Surtees. The blonde Englishman was distinctly old school, a throwback to the days when drivers took incredible risks, were sometimes badly hurt in accidents, recovered, and accepted it as being a part of the sport. Surtees was incredibly talented, and one of the few competitors to make the successful transition from racing motorcycles to racing cars. A seven-time motorcycle world champion, Surtees made the switch to four wheels in 1960, and finished second in only his second Formula One race. While his talent was obvious to one and all, he lacked what Stirling Moss described as "race winningness", in other words he lacked the killer instinct to shut out all distractions, close the deal, and win at all costs.
Surtees was an engineer at heart, and a decided fussbudget, which served him well while winning championships for the MV-Agusta motorcycle team, where he could tinker on his motorbike to his heart's content. Living near the MV-Agusta headquarters in Milan, Surtees learned to speak Italian, which would help him immensely when he signed with Ferrari, in 1963. At the time, Ferrari was coming off one its worst F-1 seasons ever, and needed an experienced test driver with a head for engineering. Something of a perfectionist, and fluent in Italian, Surtees fit the bill perfectly. He and Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari's young and gifted design engineer, hit it off immediately. Working together, they developed the latest 156 Ferrari F-1, which bore a striking resemblance to the highly-successful Lotus 24, and coupled with Surtees considerable driving skills, returned Ferrari to the forefront of F-1. One year later, In 1964, Surtees won the world championship for Ferrari.
As one of the few teams to have a fully developed F-1 machine to meet the rule change for the 1966 season, Ferrari was favored to reign supreme, with Surtees as the prohibitive favorite to win the 1966 drivers' world championship.
A SPECIAL AFFINITY FOR SPA
In practice, Surtees was three seconds faster than his closest rival. His new 312 Ferrari, was that superior, and the Englishman always had a special affinity for Spa, going back to his motorcycle days. Indeed, of all the drivers journalist Henry Manney observed rounding Burnenville, Surtees impressed him most. "Fearless John," Manney called him, didn't back off at Burnenville, or Malmedy. "Apparently," Manney wrote, "he used his bike line just so he wouldn't get confused at a critical moment, but even so it was thrilling to hear him come bellowing down the hill without lifting, scuttle through the curve all laid over with two wheels on the concrete marker strip on the outside, disappear around Malmedy and then reappear going down the Masta Straight--going on like that for as long as you could hear without the least change in the engine note having taken place until he was at Stavelot, I guess. Marvelous."
THE 1966 BELGIAN GRAND PRIX
On race day, Surtees' biggest concern was whether or not to switch to wet tires. With rain clouds pushing up the valley, he was not alone. Up and down pit row, tire engineers, team managers, and drivers, were all debating the same question. Should Surtees choose dry tires, he will race on Firestones. However, if he chooses wets, he will race on Dunlops, known for their superior wet-weather traction. Surtees opted for wets, which was a big disappointment to Firestone, which was hoping to win its first F-1 race that weekend. Most of the other teams switched to wets as well.
As the three o'clock starting time approached, crews began pushing cars out to the starting grid. Sharing the front row with Surtees, were Austrian Jochen Rindt in the inelegant Cooper-Maserati, and Jackie Stewart in the updated BRM P268 (basically last years BRM with last year's engine, increased from 1.5 liters to 2.0 liters). In Row Two were Australian Jack Brabham, in a car bearing his own name, and Surtees' teammate, Lorenzo Bandini. In Row Three were the bearded Swede, Jo Bonnier (Cooper-Masterati), Englishman Mike Spence (Lotus-Climax), and Rindt's teammate, American Richie Ginther.
At the drop of the green flag, Surtees got away smoothly, led the pack down over the the Eau Rouge bridge, and up the ridge on the far side, Behind him, battling for position were Rindt and Brabham.
After snaking around the Les Combs left-hander at the top of the hill, the field plunged downhill to the Burnenville curve. With double the horsepower of one year ago, all the drivers now lifted off for this truly frightening curve; the difference was in how much. Fearless John lifted just enough to settle his chassis.
Turning in, Surtees mades a series of quick, delicate corrections to the wheel, to hold his Ferrari just right of center. Nearing the apex, a small cafe and stone barn rolled into view, facing each other from opposite sides of the road. At 150 m.p.h., with tires on the very edge of adhesion, aiming for the gap between these two buildings, was like threading a needle. Tweaking the steering wheel ever so gently, Surtees maintained his fine line, and passed by the cafe so closely, the windows rattled.
It was here, just past the cafe, that Surtees took in a frightening sight--a wall of rain advancing toward him. He braked, but in an instant his tires were skimming over a sheet of water. Few behind him had time to brake, hit the rain and skidded wildly. Surtees and Rindt managed to get through unscathed, while Brabham got completely sideways, barely avoided hitting a house, then skidded in the direction of a row of hale bales. Miraculously, he regained control and got through safely. So did Bandini, Stewart, and his two BRM teammates, Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant. Others were not so lucky. The bearded Swede, Jo Bonnier, slid sideways for what seems like an eternity, smashed through a row of hay bales, and ended up parked on the brink of ditch, the nose and front wheels of his Cooper dangling over a ten-foot drop,. Englishman Mike Spence spun, mounted a bank, and landed his Lotus in the bottom of a ditch. Two others--Jo Siffert and Denny Hulme--managed to avoid the mayhem, but collided with each other, and ended up stalled at the side of the road. Getting through unscathed were Stewart, Hill, Bondurant, Ginther, Ligier, and Gurney.
Incredibly, no one was hurt. But it was not over yet.
Crossing the valley, Surtees burst back into sunshine, upped his speed, and in his side-mirror, saw Rindt, Brabham, and Bandini follow him out of the rain cloud. Dead ahead lay the Masta Kink, an esse curve through an ancient farm village, that demanded even more nerve than Burnenville. Speed through here was in the neighborhood of 180 m.p.h., with virtually no margin for error. As Surtees set up for the esse curve, it happened again--a sudden downpour pelted his car and transformed the road into a skating rink. This time, he had slightly more time to brake, and reduced speed. He turned in, slid awkwardly, but got through without incident. Following close behind in his tail-heavy Cooper-Maserati, Rindt hit the water, and spun like a top, hit nothing, and rolled to a stop, still pointed in the right direction. Getting away, he stomped on the gas too vigorously, and comically, spun around yet again. Chastened, he got away safely, still in second place.
Meanwhile, Brabham, Bandini, Ginther, Ligier, and Gurney glided through unscathed, while BRM teammates, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, and Bob Bondurant were not as fortunate. The trio entered the curve, hit the slick road, and skidded in three directions at once--Stewart's BRM punching through two stone fences, caromed off a brick house, and came to rest in a ditch, with poor Stewart having been pinned inside by the folding of the steering wheel over his thighs. Meanwhile, Hill spun, bounced off a row of hay bales, and slid to a stop. He checked his car over--the wheels were straight, nothing was bent or broken--and he was about to get away, when he saw Stewart struggling to free himself from his crumpled machine. Hill leapt from his race car, and ran to help his teammate. As for Bondurant, his BRM flipped over and came to rest upside down. Several spectators ran to help, by righting the his machine, thus allowing Bondurant to escape. Having seen Stewart's desperate situation, he joined Hill's effort to free the Scot. Together they tried and failed to pry the bent steering wheel off Stewart's thigh, which was very bad news for the driver, because the fuel tank had ruptured and was filling the cockpit with gasoline. Compounding the problem, the car's electrical system could not be switched off because the dash board was destroyed in the crash, and they could hear the fuel pump ticking away like some time-bomb. Stewart was semi-conscious but very much aware that a single electrical spark could end his life horribly.
Out of the blue, a spectator arrived with a took kit from the trunk of his car. One of the wrenches fit the nut holding the steering wheel, thus allowing them to remove the wheel. Finally, after 35 minutes, Stewart was at last lifted from the cockpit. But there was no sign of an ambulance or, for that matter, a track marshal to radio ahead for help. So Hill and Bondurant carried their injured teammate to the shelter of a nearby barn where at least he would be out of the rain. Eventually, Stewart would be transported by ambulance to a hospital in nearby Verviers, where he would be treated for a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, mild concussion, and skin burns from prolonged exposure to raw gasoline.
Meanwhile, Surtees motored on in front, unaware that half the field had been eliminated in a series of accidents. By now, rain was falling everywhere, at least removing the element of surprise. Still, it's dicey business tiptoeing in the wet through all those tree-lined curves.
Surtees led the seven remaining cars back up the valley. At the top he braked for La Source--the only remaining hairpin on the circuit--rounded the sharp curve, and accelerated back down the valley, to begin lap two. In his mirror, he detected traces of red amidst the spray rolling off his rear tires. It was his teammate Lorenzo Bandini, driving the less potent V-6 Ferrari. The machine was lighter and more manageable in the wet. On the other hand, Surtees was splashing this way and that, near disaster at every turn, and waved Bandini past. However, to the Englishman's dismay, there was yet another car behind him, Jochen Rindt's unsteady Cooper-Maserati, the Austrian working very hard to pass him.
Surtees was having none of it, upped his speed, and retook Bandini. But Rindt gamely hung on, and passed Bandini, too. As hard as he tried, Surtees could not shake the relentless Austrian, and soon thereafter, Rindt blew passed him to take the lead.
After that, the two began lapping what few cars remained in the race. On lap three, in the approach to Burnenville, Rindt caught his teammate, Richie Ginther. Despite the rain, Rindt moved out and passed his teammate on the outside, as they entered the curve, proving that, perhaps, the Austrian was more fearless that Fearless John.
At the midpoint of the race, the rain stopped. As the circuit dried, Surtees moved up, and with four laps to go, retook Rindt. However, under braking for the La Source, Surtees' V-12 went silent. Exiting the hairpin, he pressed the starter button anxiously, and, to his relief, the V-12 roared back to life. A number of questions flooded his mind--was he running out of gas? Or was it something else, say, a problem with the injectors? Should he pit? (the pits were immediately ahead). Deciding the problem was not low fuel, but likely something deeper, that his mechanics could not readily detect, and certainly could not fix quickly, Surtees elected to continue on. Whatever the problem was, it did not effect his performance any where else on the circuit.
However, Surtees was confronted with the same problem each time he braked for La Source--the engine stalled, only to come back to life as he exited. Each time, he passed the pits without stopping. The good news was his closest pursuer--Jochen Rindt--had disappeared from his mirror. That, and, the fact, only a few laps remained, gave him hope.
After 28 laps, Surtees crossed the finish line to win the race, moving him one step closer to the drivers' world championship. Jochen Rindt, meanwhile, having been slowed by a failing differential, hung on gamely to finish in second. Surtees' teammate, Lorenzo Bandini, wound up in third; two laps down, Jack Brabham finished in fourth, and Rindt's teammate, Ritchie Ginther, finished in fifth. The only other car still circulating at the finish--Dan Gurney's Eagle--having dropped four laps behind, was classified as having finished in sixth.
After the race, Ferrari's mechanics made an investigation of what had caused the stall-out at La Source, and determined the cause to be one of the two onboard fuel pumps had failed and was no longer drawing fuel. Around the rest of the circuit, this was not a problem as one pump was more than adequate to draw enough fuel to power the engine. But as the fuel tanks drew down, braking for La Source, the remaining fuel surged forward, away from the one functioning pump, thus starving the engine, causing it to stall. As Surtees exited the hairpin, the fuel would surge back to the functioning pump, allowing Surtees to restart the engine and motor on.
STEWART'S RECOVERY AND PROTEST
After the race, Stewart was flown to St. Thomas Hospital in London. Those 35 minuets trapped inside the cockpit, had been an awakening for him. No longer would he shrug off motor racing's inherent dangers, like so many others before him. Going forward, he would campaign tirelessly for driver safety--and against circuits like Spa-Francorchamps, which, he said, were too long to be adequately controlled. With its insanely fast curves, like Burnenville and the Masta Kink--Stewart would argue the 8.7-mile circuit was too long to ever be made truly safe. At first, Stewart's protest would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but in time others would join in, and after 1972, Spa would be dropped from the Grand Prix calendar.
But not forever.
In 1979, like Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Ardennes circuit would be given a facelift, including being cut in half. In 1983, minus Burnenville and the Masta Kink, Spa-Francorchamps would again host the Belgian Grand Prix.
For Fearless John Sturtees, standing proudly on the victory podium in Belgium, holding a bouquet of roses, and hearing the British National Anthem, played in his honor, the drivers' world championship was nearly within his grasp. Unfortunately, like Alberto Ascari, Juan Fangio, and Phil Hill before him, Surtees had worn out his welcome in Modena, and when you fall out of favor with Il Commendatore, it isn't long before even the lowliest mechanic grants you little respect. A week after the Belgian Grand Prix, at Le Mans, Surtees found himself demoted to an alternate, and in a huff quit the team. No one in Modena even tried to talk him out of it. It's shabby treatment for a driver of the Englishman's dedication, talent, and contribution, but he's in very good company.
Ironically, the Belgian Grand Prix would be Surtees' last victory for Ferrari, and perhaps his greatest race ever, as he judged the deploring rain conditions perfectly, and decided--correctly--that his engine's stall-out at La Source was not so serious as to warrant a pit stop, which in all likelihood would have cost him the race.
Despite having the fastest car in F-1, Ferrari did not win the championship that year, or any year for the next decade. Surtees did not win it either, although he tried very hard in a difficult machine, and won once more, in Mexico City. He did finish the 1966 racing season on a high note, however, by winning the inaugural Can-Am championship driving a Lola-Chevrolet sports car. After that, he would drive two seasons for Honda, one for BRM, and, in the 1970s, design and build his own F-1 cars. But 1966 would be his last year as a front-rank F-1 driver. In a fair world, he would have been world champion again, but motorsports is seldom fair.