BLOG: John Surtees – an appreciation

CHRIS MANN: The son of a south London motor bike shop owner John Surtees grew up with petrol in his veins, competing with his father in grass-track events in the early post war years. He soon turned to circuit racing, winning his first race at the age of 17 on a self-prepared Vincent Grey Flash. By the mid-50s and clearly a star in the making, John Surtees was recruited to ride for the MV Agusta team, going on to win a string of 350cc and 500cc World Championships before turning to four wheels in 1960.

He was immediately successful, finishing second to Jim Clark in his very first race and by the following year he was driving for Team Lotus in F1. At the end of the season Lotus boss Colin Chapman asked him to lead Team Lotus in 1961, with fellow rising star Jim Clark as his number two.  Horrified at the discovery that Chapman already had a similar contract with Innes Ireland, which he intended to ‘pass on’ to another team, Surtees turned down Chapman’s offer.

Driving a Cooper Climax for the private Yeoman Credit Formula One team yielded Surtees little in the way of results, but his efforts prompted an invitation from Enzo Ferrari to drive for him in 1962. Remarkably John turned him down as he felt he did not yet have sufficient F1 experience, but joined the team the following year when Ferrari, even more remarkably, repeated his offer.

Now a fully-fledged works Ferrari driver Surtees won his first Grand Prix in Germany in 1963, and in 1964 he won both the German and Italian GPs, going on to become Formula One World Champion when, at the season closing Mexican GP, the title changed hands three times on the last few laps.

1965 yielded no Grand Prix wins for Surtees and in September he was critically injured in a major accident in a Lola Can-Am sports car. ‘My pelvis had been split in the middle and my left side had literally been pushed up by about four inches,’ Surtees explained post-accident. Despite this, Surtees was back in a Ferrari for the beginning of the 1966 Grand Prix season, winning the second race of the season, the Belgian GP. He looked on course to win a second world Championship in a car that was clearly the class of the field but everything went pear-shaped when Surtees, increasingly frustrated by team manager Eugenio Dragoni’s political machinations, left Ferrari after a flaming row at Le Mans.

At the peak of his career but without a drive, Surtees found a berth with the struggling Cooper F1 team. A marriage of convenience it may have been, but John’s sublime driving ability combined with his development skills made the heavy and unreliable Cooper-Maserati increasingly competitive, Surtees finishing the season with a dominant win in Mexico.

Having accepted an offer from Honda to take on both driving and chassis development duties for their ailing F1 operation, Surtees managed to win the 1967 Italian GP. He soldiered on with the Honda project for 1968 but, once again hamstrung by big company politics, was probably relieved when Honda’s management pulled the plug at the end of the season. A move to BRM in 1969 proved to be a case of ‘out of the frying pan’ and, fed up with being a cork in someone else’s stream, John Surtees decided to become master of his own destiny and set up his own F1 team, building on his existing experience of producing successful Formula Two and Formula 5000 machinery. Although Team Surtees was competitive and came close to winning a couple of Grands Prix, a lack of funds and a disastrous sponsorship deal eventually resulted in the team being wound up in 1979.

After many years out of the motor racing arena, John Surtees’ racing-bug was rekindled in the 1990s when his young son Henry developed an interest in karting. Surtees senior ‘became his mechanic, van driver, manager and sponsor all rolled into one’. By the age of 18 Henry had graduated to Formula Two, only to be killed in a freak accident when competing at Brands Hatch. John and his wife Jane agreed that Henry’s organs be donated for transplants and the knowledge that his death had saved the lives of others prompted the family to set up the Henry Surtees Foundation. This has since provided amazing support to young people with life-changing injuries.

Personal reflection

Despite having watched John Surtees race many times in the 1960s I did not get to know him personally until a couple of decades later. In 1993 I had bumped into him at the European GP at Donington Park (the race famous for Ayrton Senna’s mesmerising opening lap when he charged past the likes of Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Alain Prost as if they were amateurs). John had travelled up on his BMW motorbike and listened as I was bemoaning the fact that, despite having a ticket entitling me to access to a hospitality suite on the inside of the track, I was unable to get to it as the sole access tunnel was blocked of by the F1 paddock. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told me, ‘I’ve just been turned away too’ a typical reaction from an individual who, whilst not lacking in ego, was amused rather than outraged that his status as a former World Champion counted for nothing in the brave new world of Formula One.

A few years later, John kindly agreed to be the guest of honour at bodyshop magazine’s annual Industry Event, thoroughly enjoying himself providing guest rides in a road-going GT40 kindly loaned to us by Ford Motor Co. The following morning, John showed himself to be a wonderful interview subject taking time to consider my questions before giving thoughtful and insightful answers, rather than the usual ‘celebrity reminiscences’.

In 2014 the Guild of Motoring Writers asked if I would organise an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Surtees’ Formula One World Championship. This was held at the Celtic Manor and John helped us gather a truly amazing display of cars and bikes that had played a significant part in his career, including the Ferrari 156 in which he had won his World Championship, various Team Surtees race cars and a 250GTO Ferrari kindly loaned by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (another past bodyshop Event guest).

The event was used as a fundraiser for the Henry Surtees Foundation, generating an impressive £10,000 for the charity. One of the auction prizes was a ride in the Nick Mason GTO, chauffeured by ex-racer ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears, then well into his 80s. The latest Ferrari F12 was acting as pace-car but Sears in the Mason GTO soon decided that the F12’s pace was too pedestrian and shot off into the distance with the F12 now in hot pursuit, only to get pulled over by the Welsh Constabulary. I will draw a veil over the exact speeds at which the two cars were ‘apparently’ clocked but, fortunately, the boys in blue turned out to be petrol-heads and Pink Floyd fans so, after a series of selfies with Jack Sears and the GTO, let the miscreants off with a wigging!

John Surtees (who, of course, had won his penultimate GP victory in a Cooper-Maserati) had been very supportive of my efforts in publishing Maserati, the Family Silver and was guest of honour at the book’s launch last November. Once more he proved engaging, enthusiastic and inspiring, a hero with his feet firmly on the ground despite his extraordinary abilities, a giant amongst sporting legends.