10 Minutes with John Surtees

If Valentino Rossi jumps ship to Formula 1 he'll want to follow the example of John Surtees

The only motorcycling World Champion to have beaten F1, too.

This is the one we all want the answer to: can Rossi win the F1 championship?

He might do! He will have the advantage of all the facilities of Ferrari behind him, as well as a year's testing and development. That's the dream of any driver.
And it's a dream package for the Italians. Italian team, car and driver...
But the pressure if he doesn't win will be huge. Ferrari won't take him unless he's as fast or faster than the guy currently in the car. That's how I got the drive. I was as quick as Stirling Moss and so I got the job! Again, with a year's testing, he could do it.

What makes Valentino Rossi special?

His style on a bike and the fact that he gels with it. In F1 you have to gel with the car, too. Some riders are like a sack of coal on
a bike, but you need to find a rhythm on the bike. That's the difference between Rossi and the rest. In a car he will find it a little
different because there's not so much use of body language - there's so much more influence on a bike through body movement than in a car. A bike is so much more personal and getting 'feel' through the bike when it's on the edge is important.

Out of all the greats - you, Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, Mick Doohan - does Rossi have the best style?

It's impossible to say, since style is of the time and of the machine, so there's no one style that's the best. You also change the way you ride to suit the machine and its development. That's what Rossi excels at.
I was one of the first to start to climb off inwards because of the limitations the bike had relative to how far you could lean it over. As the tyres improved, so the lean angle improved. The MV was so wide and carried its weight so high up that I had to adapt my style still further to suit the Avon tyres we had. Corners were better then - quicker, more flowing, less stop-start. Today, tyres can take tremendous amounts of energy under braking and acceleration.

So developing a style is important then?

No, having a style that you're comfortable with is. About 10 years ago I was at a Brands Hatch test day and these lads
were steaming down the straights and then clambering off, which meant by that time I was past them into the corner. It must come naturally. Find comfort on the bike and then understand it. That's why Rossi is such a force. He's at one with the bike, meaning he's one step ahead most
of the time. It's a sensual thing, a bike.

Which were better - car or bike titles?

I always gained the satisfaction from doing something for the first time. So my first bike win, first TT win, first World Championship with bikes and the first win and championship with cars. Doing something for the first time always sets the scene for moving up.

So how did you start in racing?

I got stuffed into my father's sidecar at the tender age of 14 when his passenger didn't turn up! It wasn't a circuit event, it was just a speed trial. We got disqualified because I was underage. My father was a sidecar champion before and after the war.

And when was that first win?

My first road race was at Brands Hatch, just after it became Tarmac. My first win was in my second race at Aberdare Park, in Wales, on a Vincent Grey Flash.

You've a reputation for being a tough customer. Did that help your racing?

My family lost everything in the war, so things weren't easy. But I was fortunate
in having a very enthusiastic family who supported us. It was a good environment to grow up in. My father spent his money on us and his bikes. It was a touch and go affair when I started road racing, but if I didn't win then I didn't go to the next race.
I also worked at the Vincent factory for two pounds 10 shillings a week, and they let me use a bike to get around on. I loved what I was doing and was getting paid to do it.

We hear lots of talk about how dangerous racing was in your time. Is that true?

Yes, but cars were more dangerous than bikes at the time. I'm actually talking about the machines here. The race cars of the 1960s were made by 'emerging' factories, and great manufacturers such as Cooper and Lotus were 'back yard' companies. I remember sitting in the Ferrari after I'd won my first F1 race at the old NŸrburgring and realising I was covered in petrol with a battery between my legs. If I had come off the track I would have gone bang. Cars over the years have become so much safer. At the A1 GP race at Brands Hatch recently a car flipped over a few times and the lad walked away from it.

So all that development was for the better then?

Not all! Some development I was against, such as putting guard rails everywhere in F1. These were lethal for bike racers. The problem is that when things are 'for safety' it's hard to argue against. I sometimes feel that the Isle of Man has become more
dangerous as they've opened up areas and straightened things out, so it can mean the accident happens further down the track at higher speed. All danger cannot be taken out of racing - there has to be a balance.