The racing circuit will not see the likes of John Surtees again. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever repeat his feat of winning world championships on two wheels and four.
He had just won his fourth 500cc world motorbike championship for MV Augusta in 1959 when he accepted an invitation to try out that years Le Mans-winning Aston Martin. An opportunity to test an F1 Vanwall followed. At Goodwood he lapped both cars faster than they’d ever been before, and his switch to F1 gathered an unstoppable momentum. It culminated in him winning the 1964 world championship with Ferrari. It was sometimes difficult to reconcile the beaming, good-natured Surtees with the stubborn firebrand who walked out on Lotus and Ferrari on matters of principle, robbing himself of further glory. But when you come to understand the depths of passion and determination, you realised it was impossible for him to be any other way. “Everything was from the heart with me”, he said when asked if he regretted some of his career choices in F1. “But I could have benefited from a more hard-headed approach. I should have concentrated more on being ‘John Surtees racing driver’ than trying to take on projects”.
Pulling things into shape had been part of his success at MV Augusta, a pattern that would be repeated at Ferrari before internal politics got in the way. He was a straight talker who gave his all, and assumed everyone else would do the same. He was not in the least interested in being glamorous or creating an image. Brave, combative and devastatingly fast behind the wheel, he enjoyed in his own words, “a personal conversation with the machine”. The sort of conversation that was priceless in understanding the nuances of F1 cars.
In September 1965 a suspension failure on the Lola sports car he was testing at Mosport in Canada flipped him over the barrier at high speed and the car rolled. His life lay in the balance for a few days. The impact had left him four inches shorter on one side than the other until doctors stretched his shattered body back into some sort of alignment. With ruptured kidneys and broken bones not yet mended, he was still in a delicate state as the Ferrari mechanics craned him into the car with an engine hoist for a pre-season test in 1966. He drove like he had never been away. Small in physical stature, his depths of fortitude and will of steel led the Italian fans to forever refer to him as II Grande John.
If anything , he was more of a hero in Italy than in Britain. His rapport with the autocratic Enzo Ferrari paralleled that of a few years earlier with the similarly patrician Count Augusta: two men from opposite ends of the social scale but similarly straight-talking, tough old pros who recognised in Surtees the steel that needed to go with the talent.
In retirement, the resentments and frustrations faded, leaving just the warm-hearted, generous soul beneath. He mingled in the karting paddocks of Britain as he shared his passion and passed on his experience to his son Henry. Just a few months after Henry’s death in an F2 race, aged 18, Surtees recalled with great pride how together they had rebuilt an old Surtees F2 car from the 70’s and how Henry had tested it up Goodwood’s hill circuit. “We had put some data gathering on it. I can still look at his steering and throttle inputs on the graph – and know they were his.” It would have been natural, having suffered so at 75 years old to curl up into a ball and surrender. But this was John Surtees. Instead he devoted himself to setting up the Henry Surtees Foundation, to support and inspire young people who had suffered life-changing accidents.
What an amazing man and in tribute to such a unique talent, he will be the subject of my next charcoal study.
Excerpts taken from an article by Mark Huges.