• Rewind to … the 1964 Mexican Grand Prix

A British three-way fight

Chris Medland January 15, 2014
Graham Hill arrived in Mexico as the title favourite © Getty Images
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The dominance of Sebastian Vettel - and before him Michael Schumacher - leaves Germany second in the list of drivers' champions by nationality. With 11 titles between them, only Great Britain (14) has more, and incredibly there had been 11 British championship wins before Germany even had one.

The most successful decade for British drivers was the 1960s, with six titles being won during that time. And on one of those occasions - in 1964 - the champion was guaranteed to be British even before the three-way title fight at the season finale, with Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jim Clark all in the running.

Victory for Hill ahead of Surtees at Watkins Glen had left him in a strong position, leading the Ferrari driver by five points. Clark had been robbed of a potential victory when he retired from the lead in the States, but he too still had a chance as only the best six results from the ten races of the season would count.

British interest was understandably high for a showdown which would take place in Mexico City, but the build-up focused on the presence - or planned lack of it - of royalty. The Duke of Edinburgh would be in Mexico on a state visit, but his schedule did not include a trip to the grand prix as the Daily Mirror reported at the time that "his Sunday engagements [include] an afternoon spent at a rancho.

"So hurried representations on behalf of the British racing drivers were made to Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office. It was pointed out that his absence would cause great disappointment in British motor-racing circles, and that his presence would be of great prestige value to Britain at a time when her drivers lead the world field."

Ultimately, a compromise was reached and Prince Phillip would be present for the closing stages of the race and it was requested that he would place the laurels around the eventual champion's shoulders.

Qualifying set the race up beautifully. Clark - the outsider who had to win to stand any chance - took pole in his Lotus by almost a second ahead of Dan Gurney's Brabham and Surtees' Ferrari team-mate Lorenzo Bandini. Surtees had been battling the flu but still lined up fourth while Hill could only qualify his BRM sixth.

Despite the hype surrounding the race, in his position as title favourite Hill wrote of the camaraderie among the drivers on the day before the grand prix.

John Surtees was running in a blue and white Ferrari due to a dispute with the Italian National Automobile Club © Motorsport
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"I have known and raced against Jim Clark and John Surtees for five years," he wrote in the Daily Express. "Although we may give the appearance of being deadly enemies once the flag has dropped, we are in fact good friends.

"There is a very high sporting code in grand prix racing. We, all of us, at some time or another, put our lives in the other chap's hands: In any tight situation our life will depend on the other man's skill and this knowledge means there has to be a rigid code of chivalry among us."

That said, Hill admitted that: "The world championship is worth far more than money: to win it is the ambition of every grand prix driver."

A shock appeared to be on the cards as Clark turned pole position in to a dominant lead, while Hill dropped back to tenth place after the elastic on his goggles broke just before the start. A misfire for Surtees dropped him well back early on, but he started to make progress in his Ferrari once the V8 engine had sorted itself out.

The sight of Surtees charging through the field was an unfamiliar one, with the car running in the blue and white of Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team after Enzo Ferrari refused to run in traditional red due to a dispute with the Italian National Automobile Club. Still, his progress seemed in vain when Hill recovered to the all-important third place which would give him the title.

However, there was to be a twist around the mid-way point. Battling with Bandini, Hill's BRM came in to contact with the Ferrari and damaged Hill's exhaust. Multiple pit stops dropped him out of contention and left Clark - comfortably leading - an apparent free run to the title. But in the closing laps, misfortune struck Clark once again as his Lotus began to lose oil and eventually gave up on the penultimate lap.

Gurney swept past to take victory and Bandini moved over for team-mate Surtees, giving him the second place he required to snatch the title from Hill by just one point. Prince Phillip was one of the first to congratulate Surtees before consoling Clark, who he told: "You need a lot of luck in this business".

Surtees' triumph saw him become the first man to win the world title on both two wheels and four, but it wasn't only viewed as a personal success. Patrick Mennem wrote in the Daily Mirror that it could have saved the future of Ferrari in Formula One following the row with the Italian National Automobile Club.

"Enzo Ferrari, fiery dictator of the Ferrari team, has been growing disenchanted with motor racing," he wrote. "Ferrari, who has been having a sorry time in grand prix racing, has been threatening to retire. Now that Surtees has brought Ferrari to the top again, Enzo Ferrari will probably view things in a happier light."

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