John Surtees – an appreciation

13th March 2017
Henry Hope-Frost

John Surtees was extremely kind to me. Unswervingly kind. There was always a cheery enthusiasm – be it on camera mid-interview, during a phone call to thank me for my ‘looking after him’ in said interview or an email expressing gratitude for my helping at one of his charity fundraisers. It was always my greatest pleasure to talk to him and work for him, yet he treated it as though I’d done him a favour. 


Above all the success, the hard graft and the world-beating fame that brought plenty of well-deserved adoration and adulation, it was that kindness and appreciation of my appreciation that stands out for me, journalist and broadcaster some of the time, starstruck superfan all of the time.

Sure, he had that aura, that presence – he was, after all, a ballistically brave and brilliant, gritty, no-nonsense and outspoken world champion in the saddle and in the cockpit – but he also possessed a disarming warm-heartedness and encouraging nature that put all those unsure of his approachability entirely at ease.

And that included me. To get that (in)famous, point-blank-range grip on the shoulder and that steely stare when there was a point to be made, or that full-face mischievous smile once he realised you were on message, was classic Surtees, daunting though it felt in the early days.  

As a lad, I hunted that generously swirly, yet totally legible Surtees scrawl, always delivered with eye contact and a smile, whenever and wherever I could. ‘Is that actually him?’ I asked my Dad the first time the opportunity arose. ‘Is that really the guy who won all those motorcycle titles before cleaning up in cars, too? Wow!’


Many years later, once accepted into the inner circle, I regularly experienced the Surtees handshake. It blended the deft touch needed to fire a 500cc MV Agusta down narrow Bray Hill on the Isle of Man with the vice-like brawn required to keep a wild Can-Am power sledge out of the trees at Mont Tremblant. And it got me every time. If you were ever lucky enough to encounter it, you’ll know what I mean. 

I first got to know John professionally during Autosport International at Birmingham’s NEC in 2006 when he joined me on stage during my first year as compere. It was the first of dozens of surreal one-to-ones, some witnessed by a big crowd, others by just the family pets around the kitchen table of his idyllic Surrey countryside home. But the occasion didn’t matter; each one had all the hallmarks of a Surtees production: thorough, forthright and principled – just as had been his approach to bike and car preparation, racing, running a team and, latterly, charity campaigning.

There was an alluring and admirable straightforwardness to John. He told you what he thought, with not a hint of arrogance. He was black or white, never grey, and he never came across as though it had been, or was, all about him. 

During that January weekend 11 years ago, I joined John at a dinner to celebrate the 100th anniversary of grand prix racing. He brought along his 14-year-old son Henry, who was about to embark on his first season in cars in the Ginetta Junior Championship, and plonked him next to me. His father had relished helping and encouraging his young charge during their dad-and-lad karting jaunts, just as his father Jack had done in the late-1940s/early-1950s bike-racing paddocks, and he was proud of what he’d done while inevitably bearing the cross of being a Surtees. Theirs was a special bond.

What happened to this friendly and articulate young man, who’d been imbued with plenty of The Right Stuff – in and out of the car – as you’d expect with that surname, was unfathomably cruel. Watching the pain etched on John’s face as he discussed the freak accident at Brands Hatch in July 2009 and the Henry Surtees Foundation charitable work he undertook in his honour was heart-wrenching. The irony of Surtees having survived such a lethal era of motorsport only to witness his son’s death in the relatively super-safe modern era only compounds the tragedy.

As a father of boys myself, I will never forget John once saying, quietly and reflectively: ‘I’d give back the fame, fortune, titles and trophies in an instant for a different outcome’. Too true. 


The pain, he assured me each time we met, was further masked by time, but my fear over discussing Henry and the superb work John and his team, led by daughter Leonora, undertook to help those with brain injuries, was allayed by his iron will and selflessness. ‘Please ask me anything you want. If it upsets me, it’s my problem not yours.’

I adored getting to know him better over the course of a decade and it was impossible to tire of yet another exciting recollection of his time at the top of his game. His frank accounts of his early life and the relationships with the key players who shaped his destiny – Count Domenico Agusta, Enzo Ferrari, Soichiro Honda, among others – were compelling. Unfurling the rich tapestry in the recesses of his razor-sharp mind and memory banks was deeply rewarding, helped by his insistence, often to the angst of producers/directors in my ear, on recalling minute and mesmerising detail.

I will always fondly recall his five visits to Autosport International, numerous doorstepped and/or pre-planned conversations at Goodwood, where his four-wheel career began with a test for Aston Martin and a maiden race for Ken Tyrrell in Formula Junior, helping to launch his magnificent, award-winning book, John Surtees – My Incredible Life on Two and Four Wheels, at London’s Royal Automobile Club headquarters, compèring the past five sell-out HSF karting, cocktail party and auction events at Brooklands and, last summer, an intoxicating day at his home, making a film about his Can-Am exploits 50 years earlier in a thunderous Lola T70 Spyder.


All have been duly uploaded to the ‘unforgettable moments’ folder.

It never occurred to me that our hour-long – and predictably superb – chat on stage at the Classic & Sportscar Show at London’s Alexandra Palace at the end of October would be the last time I saw him. He was at his super-sharp, witty and honest best, with little sign of needing to slow down. There’s an air of immortality about our veteran racing uber-heroes, a sense of invincibility born out of their having come through unscathed from one lethal journey after another.

It was something way beyond merely a privilege to be allowed to lure him, on air and off, into retelling those fantastical tales of derring-do from a different time. I’ll cherish the memories forever and will enjoy recounting those tales about this god-like, global icon of a man who was, above all, extremely kind to me. My tiny part in his life, coupled with his much larger part in mine, seem slightly surreal, yet he was, in fact, the embodiment of a normal guy who happened to possess an abnormal skill.

Cheerio, you brilliant man, and thanks.

Images courtesy of LAT

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