John Surtees was possibly the most uncompromisingly competitive person I have ever known. And I have known quite a number. He was formidably determined, totally dedicated, a brilliant racing motor-cyclist, and one of the fastest racing drivers of his day – the only man ever to have become World Champion on both two wheels and four.
MAR 15th 2017
Doug Nye: The incredible John Surtees
His father, Jack Surtees, was an effective motor cyclist and a garage proprietor in Kent, and John was the proud owner of his first motorcycle aged only 11. On leaving school at 15 he went straight into the garage business as a mechanic, and in 1950 made his competition debut as sidecar passenger to his father. In 1951 he made his solo motorcycle debut on a grass track at Luton. He won his first race, at Brands Hatch, aged 17, and by 1955 he had beaten the great Geoff Duke, had won 68 out of 76 races in that season alone, and was offered a works MV Agusta ride for 1956. He ended that year as 500cc World Champion, and he would add six more two-wheeled World titles to his tally by the end of 1959.
The Italians absolutely doted on him. He became Il Grande John, and when he turned to four-wheeled racing in 1960 the English press mistranslated ‘John the Great’ into ‘Big John’ and the name stuck – even though he wasn’t a particularly big man, yet ‘John the Great’ really did sum up his contemporary sporting stature.
Early in 1960, though still contracted to MV, John was lapping Goodwood in a Vanwall Formula 1 car – provided by one of his most ardent fans, the ailing, often irascible Tony Vandervell. John was learning then how to handle a racing car – how to explore its cornering limits – and making his mistakes. He told me once, with a grin: “The big difference between a racing motor-cycle and a racing car is that if you leave it to itself, the car stands up on its own….”.
In between wild spins at Goodwood, he clipped nearly two seconds off the official lap record, and Ken Tyrrell offered him a new Formula Junior Cooper drive for his four-wheeled debut on the March 18th, 1960, opening Members’ Meeting of the Goodwood season. John instantly finished second to another budding – but more experienced – young driver named Jim Clark.
John and his father fielded a Formula 2 Cooper, taking an instant second place in the Oulton Park Spring meeting. At the Silverstone May Meeting Colin Chapman of Lotus gave him his Formula 1 debut – yes, so soon – and when his two-wheeled racing commitments allowed Lotus provided F1 drives for the rest of that season.
The hard-thrusting – some said “wild and woolly” – newcomer was still exploring the outermost limits of racing car adhesion, yet he finished a splendid second in that year’s British Grand Prix. In the Portuguese GP at Oporto he started from pole and led handsomely before crashing mildly.
In 1961 he finally abandoned motorcycle racing to build a new career in cars. His Yeoman Credit team Coopers were off the pace and after two minor wins he had a tough year. For 1962 he wanted his own car, which he himself could test and develop. Eric Broadley of Lola built it, the Bowmaker finance house backed it, and by mid-season Surtees was a Formula 1 front-runner. It fulfilled this often-suspicious, introspective man’s profound sense of independence, but after finishing fourth in the World Championship he was on the move again.
Mr Ferrari had always rated motorcycle riders and ‘Il Grande John’ was well known to him. In 1963 John joined Ferrari, taking with him a profound knowledge of the latest in British chassis technology. His input transformed La Ferrari, and he won them the German GP, and at Enna and Kyalami at non-Championship level, plus a string of sports car classics.
Sensitive, cool, determined, his driving matured enormously through that first season with Ferrari. When they gave him new equipment for 1964 he rose to the occasion, and stole the Championship title from Graham Hill and BRM – and Jim Clark and Lotus – in the deciding round of the series at Mexico City.
By this time he had a soaring reputation as a relentless test driver and self-taught development engineer. His total dedication both at the wheel and behind the scenes was paying rich dividends. But during 1965 pressures began to multiply at Ferrari, where sporting director Dragoni favoured the Milanese star Lorenzo Bandini at John’s expense. The English ace was working closely with Eric Broadley on development of the Lola T70 sports-racing car to be campaigned by his independent Team Surtees operation, and he was also campaigning Formula 2 Lolas. Despite his unusually close relationship with Mr Ferrari, these activities were frowned upon – Dragoni whispering constantly that Surtees was stealing Ferrari know-how. The truth was probably more vice versa…
But at Mosport in Canada his T70 broke and he suffered a terrible crash, but that winter saw him stage a near-miraculous recovery to race and immediately win again for Ferrari in the Monza 1,000Kms of April 1966.
The new 3-litre Formula 1 Ferrari was a hefty, unwieldy, under-powered V12 but Surtees won in it at Spa in a rain-swept Belgian GP. Trouble was brewing, however, and after a final detonation with Dragoni at Le Mans he had a hastily-convened meeting with Mr Ferrari at Maranello, and walked out of the team.
He was snapped up by Cooper-Maserati and BP. He helped develop their heavy F1 cars into competitive front-runners and won the Mexican GP at year’s end. For 1967 he moved to Honda whom he had seen rise to total dominance within the motor-cycling world. He confidently expected them to do the same in Formula 1, but his hopes were to be dashed. It was only by using an adopted – and adapted – Lola Indy chassis that he equipped himself with the ‘Hondola’ car in which he was able to win a memorable 1967 Italian GP (by a whisker) at Monza.
Honda Racing was very much a Surtees team, run totally by the man himself. He could never delegate happily and his commitment to all aspects of administration as well as engineering and driving took the edge off his on-track performances.
When Honda withdrew at the end of 1968, John signed for BRM, seeking to remodel the old team around himself and his own vision of the way forward. That made him intensely unpopular with the BRM staff, it led to chief engineer Tony Rudd’s departure, and ultimately he walked away from a shambles at year’s end, convinced that the team had been a basket case and looking forward to build his contemporary Formula 5000 Surtees team into a Formula 1 force.
Based at Edenbridge, in Kent, Team Surtees would see him as proprietor, manager, driver, design-consultant, developer, and even mechanic and decorator if he felt like it. He was at last content, and in 1970 introduced his own TS7 F1 car, later using it and its successors – which all exquisitely well-made – to win two successive Oulton Park Gold Cup races although World Championship-level success eluded him. By 1972 ‘Il Grande John’ had phased himself out of driving, and he made a lone appearance in the Italian GP just to race-develop his latest Surtees TS14 car.
By this time he had others driving for him. Some rose to the challenges he posed. Some did not. But fellow motor-cycle World Champion Mike Hailwood won the Formula 2 Championship in Surtees cars. By 1975 – after ‘Mike the Bike’ had moved elsewhere – Surtees fortunes declined, and eventually in the 1978 Italian GP Vittorio Brambilla was badly injured in a team car in the multiple collision which claimed Ronnie Peterson’s life. John himself was in some difficulty with the lingering after-effects of his Mosport crash, and when sponsorship deals collapsed in November that year John made a dignified announcement that team Surtees was withdrawing from Formula 1.
Still based in Edenbridge near the gorgeous mediaeval country house in which he lived and which he had painstakingly restored over many years, John ran his business group for many years, and happily raised his family of three with his second wife, Jane. But their evident happiness was to be riven by the tragic death of aspiring racing driver son Henry – only 18 – in that freak accident at Brands Hatch in 2009.
When I was given the job of interviewing John on the Goodwood grid during our heartfelt subsequent tribute to him and his achievements at the 2010 Revival Meeting, I asked him beforehand about mentioning his Henry Surtees Foundation head injury charity. “Yes please do” he said, “But leave it until the end because I might have difficulty keeping it together”.
I did exactly as he had requested, and left the subject to the end of our time “on air”. With enormous dignity he then promoted the charity, with great eloquence, and then spoke movingly of poor Henry, before it all became too much for him. Sensing what he was going through – and as a terrible old softie myself – I also welled up.
So two grown men – one the hero – one the entirely unashamed fan – stood there on the Goodwood grid, so public, with tears rolling down our cheeks. And all I could do was croak “Ladies and gentlemen – the great John Surtees!” – and the applause and ovation from our wonderful Goodwood crowd proved simply thunderous.
John Surtees was – indeed – a truly great British sporting hero, of a calibre I doubt we shall ever see again. He was, indeed, the most competitive man I have ever encountered – but one who mellowed into an open, friendly, caring, accessible, gentleman whose capabilities and achievements graced this noble sport, on not just four wheels but also on two – those mischievous darned machines which will not stand up on their own.
‘Il Grande John’ indeed.
Images courtesy of The GP Library
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