Obituary: John Surtees

Obituary: John Surtees

Sensitive yet stubborn master of speed during the golden age of British racing who took world titles on both two wheels and four

THE 1960s were the golden age of British motor racing, and the final grand prix of the 1964 Formula One season in Mexico City was a three-way showdown between Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees, each of whom had the world title in his grasp. The Duke of Edinburgh was in the country with the Queen, and representations were made to Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office to get him to the track.

The duke, who was due to spend the afternoon on a rancho, seemed reluctant, but a compromise was reached: he would be there for the closing stages and would place the laurels on the victor’s shoulders.

With Hill back down the field, the world title was decided on the final lap, when Clark’s engine blew up. Dan Gurney, an American, was the winner, but when Ferrari ordered Lorenzo Bandini to let his team-mate, Surtees, through to take second place, history was made: Surtees was the first man — and so far the only man — to take world titles on two wheels and four. Reluctant or not, the duke was one of the first to congratulate him; Surtees’s main prize, he recalled, was a watch given to him by President Ordaz of Mexico.

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John Surtees was born in Tatsfield, Surrey, in 1934. His father, Jack, ran a motorbike shop in south London, and he and John’s mother, Dorothy, were involved in motorcycle racing. Each rode their own bikes, while Dorothy was also passenger in the couple’s sidecar races.

A nervous child, John found that when making things with his hands, he had plenty of confidence. He spent hours after school fitting his bicycle with a sprung suspension inspired by his father’s motorbikes. He made his competition debut in his father’s sidecar and they won their first speed trial, only to be disqualified when it was noted that Surtees Jr was under 16.

After working for his father he became an apprentice to Vincents, the motorbike manufacturer. “I’d travel back and forth every day to the factory at Stevenage, and then work on my bikes all night,” he recalled. He started out in grass-track racing, swiftly moving on to road riding.

He won his first race at Aberdare at 17. “Of all the races I did in my life, that was probably the one that had the most effect on me,” he said. “For the first time I was no longer just a mechanic who rode a bike. The bike and I became one. We spoke to each other, we were exchanging messages through the seat of my pants.”

His rise was rapid, and the Italian MV Agusta team signed him in 1956. Agusta had been founded by Count Giovanni Agusta, whose sons, Domenico and Vincenzo, had a passion for bike racing. But nothing was signed until Surtees was given the once-over. “The door opens, and in comes a black-clad lady in a veil — it was the countess, the mother,” he recalled. “Walks around me once, walks around me twice, and walks out of the room. The interpreter says, ‘Well done.’ ”

He became 500cc world champion in his first season and was soon known as figlio del vento — “son of the wind”. He added 350cc and 500cc titles in 1958, 1959 and 1960, and won the Isle of Man Senior TT four times.

Domenico Agusta, however, was infuriated by suggestions in the Italian press that Surtees would be a winner on any bike, and he banned him from races outside the world championship. Surtees began to look beyond his own sport: “I looked at my contract, and it didn’t say anything about four wheels.”

“Mr Ferrari agreed with me, just before he died, that we’d both made a bit of a mistake”

He made his motor racing debut in 1960 at Goodwood in a borrowed car, finishing runner-up to Jim Clark, and spent much of the year juggling two wheels and four. He finished the season as 500cc and 350cc world champion for Agusta, but they looked askance at his new pursuit, and he quit.

Appointed MBE in 1961, he raced on four wheels for the Yeoman Credit team, taking time off to marry Patricia Burke on Valentine’s Day 1962, with Clark as best man,then joined Ferrari, taking the world title in his second season. He was a sensitive yet stubborn man who did not take criticism easily, and he was said by some to have been too vocal with the engineers. “I didn’t try to design the car for them,” he insisted, “but I tried to convert the message that the car gave me. I wanted to be forceful because if you believe in something you should express it.”

There were no victories in 1965, and there was worse: Surtees crashed while testing in Ontario when a faulty hub casting sent him into a barrier. He was thrown out of the car, which landed on him, fracturing his pelvis, damaging his left leg and spine and rupturing his kidneys. “Because of the damaged pelvis, I was four inches shorter on one side than the other,” he recalled. “So my surgeon took one end and the senior registrar, a beefy lad, took the other, and they pulled like hell. They got the difference down to about half an inch.”

Returning to action, he found the politicking to be exasperating. Enzo Ferrari never attended races, relying on information from his lieutenants, who often supplied him with politically edited versions of the truth — particularly from Eugenio Dragoni, the team director. Yet Surtees could hold his own. “I had to exert a bit of muscle to get things right, and I put in the occasional critical report about his decisions to the Old Man.”

Dragoni resented Surtees’s closeness to Ferrari, whom the driver recalled fondly. “He had a little house down on the Adriatic coast, and sometimes he’d say to me, ‘Mare’, and we’d go off to the seaside.”

Relations with Dragoni worsened, though, and matters came to a head at the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Surtees was told that he would not be starting. Infuriated, he drove to Maranello to meet the Old Man. “I told him I’d joined Ferrari to win races, not to get involved in politics. That was our divorce.”

More world titles would surely have followed. “Mr Ferrari agreed with me, just before he died, that we’d both made a bit of a mistake,” he said in 2014.

Surtees built and operated his own cars at Edenbridge in Surrey, close to his manorial home, but Team Surtees was eventually scuppered by a disastrous sponsorship deal, and he sought support from the London Rubber Company, the manufacturer of Durex condoms. “They ran an ad campaign which showed our Surtees TS19 with the tag line ‘The small family car’.”

Business pressures piled on the stress and he was admitted to St Thomas’ hospital in London in 1978. He had divorced Patricia, and while in hospital he met Jane, the ward sister, who became his second wife. They had three children; their son Henry followed in his father’s tyre tracks, starting out in karts.

“I became his mechanic, van driver, manager and sponsor all rolled into one,” Surtees recalled. “I can’t say his mother was thrilled, but I was excited about it.” In July 2008, his exams just over, Henry recorded his best finish in Formula Two, coming third at Brands Hatch. The next day another driver hit a tree and a wheel bounced back on to the track, striking Henry, who suffered brain damage and died. Devastated, Surtees was on the point of giving up motor racing altogether.

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“Two things happened that changed my attitude,” he said. “First of all, Jane persuaded me that Henry’s organs should be donated for transplants, even though my instincts were to keep his body whole. His heart valves, liver, kidneys and pancreas saved five lives, including that of a six-month-old baby. The second influence was Henry’s funeral. Donations amounted to £31,000 and it made me think Henry could continue to achieve things in death.”

The family set up the Henry Surtees Foundation to help victims of accidents. Surtees bought the Buckmore Park circuit in Kent where Henry had caught the karting bug, and set about assisting promising young racers. Henry’s sister Leonora is business development manager at Buckmore Park and event manager of the foundation, while Edwina, a management and tax consultant, is a foundation director.

Surtees, who was advanced to OBE in 2008, was asked if the foundation had helped him to deal with the loss of Henry. “Nothing can heal that,” he replied. “No, nothing.”

John Surtees, OBE, motorcyclist and racing driver, was born on February 11, 1934. He died of respiratory failure on March 10, 2017, aged 83


This article first appeared in The Times