Motor Racing / Books for Christmas: Surtees goes heel and toe among the heroes: Derick Allsop looks at an insider who has strong views on driving ambition

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FEW SPORTS provide better material for dewy nostalgia than the motoring varieties and, even in this, the year of Nigel Mansell, there is plenty to transport the reader to days of sepia heroics.

The Pirelli Album of Motor Racing Heroes by John Surtees (Boxtree, pounds 25) takes the commercially safe route, unashamedly skipping along the entire journey to give barely thumbnail sketches of the greats, from Nuvolari, Ascari and Fangio, to Prost, Mansell and Senna.

The biographies are flimsy, yet this book is a vehicle for magnificent photography, with some early archive gems, and is lavishly produced. It also has the unmistakable touch of Surtees, a man who distinguished himself by adding the world championship in cars to his seven on bikes.

Surtees can be pedantic, sometimes tedious, and manages to relate many happenings in the history of the sport to himself. With Surtees, it is a case of what you see is what you get.

He puts firmly on record his disdain for the much publicised controversies involving recent champions. He writes: 'With the ever-increasing attention paid by the media to Formula One racing, much has been made of what drivers have said in public. This unfortunate trend has perhaps distracted many of us from the unquestionable driving skills of my last three racing heroes - Prost, Senna and Mansell.

'But I have selected them for their achievements on the track - not for what they have said off it - and I cannot but wish that many of their utterances had been made in private.' Surtees contends Mansell's complaints about Honda lost Williams their engine supply and that his attitude lost him the initiative to Alain Prost at Ferrari. He goes on: 'I have often felt that he can be his own worst enemy. He has had both good and bad luck and has driven some brilliant and aggressive races. I just hope that he can now let his performances on the track speak for themselves.'

According to Surtees, Prost was culpable for his two collisions with Ayrton Senna in the decisive grands prix of 1989 and 1990. 'The incidents. . . were not, in my opinion, mistakes on the part of Senna. I believe that each one was compounded by grave errors of judgement on Prost's part, and by the sheer ability that he met at the hands of Senna.'

The first coming together was undeniably convenient for Prost but the second handed the title to Senna, who was generally held responsible at the time and has since admitted he drove the Frenchman off the road. Surtees is patently a Senna fan ('On the racing circuit he's very much a loner, which makes him a man after my own heart') and reveals that, after competing against the then 24- year-old Brazilian in a saloon car race, he recommended him to Ferrari.

Surtees, who won his Formula One title driving for Ferrari, also recalls that in his first car race he was second to Jim Clark and subsequently chose the Scot as his team-mate at Lotus.

There is rare warmth in Surtees's admiration for Juan Manuel Fangio, and a typically convoluted analysis. 'I've never heard a bad word said about him,' writes Surtees. 'His whole career exemplifies for me the difference between a good driver and a great driver.

'A good driver experiences the pace of the track with its competing cars as happening at speed. The truly great driver detaches himself from the speed factor and so gains the mental room in which to perform with enhanced elegance and precision. By gaining time in his mind, he wins time in the race.'

Peter Lewis, who told us the delightful story of Alf Frances - Racing Mechanic, features Fangio's greatest race, the 1957 German Grand Prix, in his highlights of a glorious decade.

Motor Racing Through the Fifties (Naval and Military Press, pounds 17.95) also includes Mike Hawthorn's victory in the Race of the Century, the 1953 French Grand Prix, Stirling Moss's extraordinary performance in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and the 1958 championship showdown between the two Britons. Above all, however, it is a reminder of the fun, sportsmanship and tragedies of those times.

Among the myriad books on Mansell is an inevitable offering from the ubiquitous Alan Henry, entitled, with staggering originality, Nigel Mansell World Champion (Hazleton Publishing, pounds 9.99). The dedicated racing fan has an insatiable appetite for statistics, and this year that need is admirably served by Trevor Griffiths's Grand Prix (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99).

A diligent study of sports car conflict on both sides of the Atlantic, Endurance Racing 1982-1991 (by Ian Briggs, Osprey) comes at a hefty pounds 40, especially as the photography is all black and white. The colour comes in another Osprey production, Le Mans Porsche (by John S Allen, pounds 10.99), a celebration of the marques' unrivalled success in the 24-hour classic.

A Man Called Mike by Christopher Hilton (Motoring Racing Publications, pounds 16.95) is a mesh of splendid anecdotes about Mike Hailwood, who followed Surtees from two wheels to four.