The recent loss of a number of friends – Williams’ Sheridan Thynne, Warwick Farm’s John Stranger and the 1971 Italian GP winner, Peter Gethin – has reminded me with a start that acclaim, if it is due, should never be neglected. Something worth saying, in other words, should always be said in the here and now and not when the moment has gone.
Let me reiterate, then, my steadfast belief that there is no-one in British motor sport more deserving of a knighthood than John Surtees. The only man ever – and ever likely – to win World Championships on motor-cycles and in cars, Surtees in addition won non-championship F1 races plus F2 and F5000 titles with cars of his own design. He was an integral part of the British motor racing boom. And, astonishingly, he also remains one of the few drivers ever to win Grands Prix with two different teams in the same season. Such was his versatility and engineering prowess.
After seven motor-cycling World Championships and then front-running drives for Team Lotus and Lola in F1, Surtees led Ferrari to the 1964 World Championship. Surtees scored a masterful win in the wet at Spa with the new 3-litre Ferrari in 1966 and that year would certainly have won the title again – or at least pushed Jack Brabham right to the line – but for a squabble in Maranello. Strong-willed and true to his principles, Surtees walked away from Ferrari after Spa.
Walked into the Surrey offices of the Cooper Car Company, to be precise – which in today’s parlance would be a bit like Lewis Hamilton suddenly leaving McLaren and choosing to drive for Toro Rosso.
It didn’t stop there. Surtees put the unwieldy Cooper-Maserati on the front row for the next race (the French GP) and thereafter matched or exceeded the pace of his highly-rated team-mate at Cooper, the brilliant Austrian, Jochen Rindt. Surtees was always mighty at the Nurburgring – and so it proved in 1966, when he qualified and finished second.
Then came the Mexican Grand Prix, the last round of the ’66 Championship. Surtees won for Cooper, setting up a double-header for the Surbiton-based team that would be completed by Pedro Rodriguez in South Africa early the following year.
Surtees had by then started a new project with Honda. The latest Honda for 1967 turned out to be a bit of an early Cooper-Maser, so John quickly persuaded the Japanese to allow him to build an adapted Lola around the V12 engine. John gave the “Hondola” its first race at Monza, in September – and won.
Honda pulled out the following year and so John switched to BRM for one season; in the background, though, he was designing and building his own F5000 and F1 cars. Team Surtees became a fully-fledged manufacturer, building cars for customers and racing as a factory team at the front.
John won two Oulton Park Gold Cups with his own F1 car; and Mike Hailwood all-but-won the 1972 South African Grand Prix in the works Surtees. Mike and John – ex-motor-cyclists both – also ran consistently at the front of the ultra-competitive 1972 European F2 Championship with the gorgeous, Matchbox-sponsored Surtees TS10-Harts; Mike went on to win the F2 Championship that year.
I could go on, too. John brilliantly driver-engineered the Ferrari Prototypes of the mid-1960s and was instrumental in the evolution of the Ford GT40 (based as it was on the Lola GT developed by Surtees). With Eric Broadley, he also created and honed one of the most prodigiously successful cars in British motor racing history – the Lola T70.
I was stunned, like the rest of the motor racing world, when John’s young son, Henry, lost his life in an innocuous-looking accident in a one-make F2 race at Brands Hatch in July, 2009. It was an unspeakable tragedy.
And yet John has emerged from the cloud with dignity and fortitude. He campaigns actively to raise money for “Henrycopters” – for quick-extraction helicopters to assist at serious accident scenes; he still loves the engineering side of motor racing; and he shuns the glitzyness of F1 glamour. If used correctly, I think he could play a far bigger ambassadorial role for our sport – particularly at school and college level – than any of us could imagine.
It was with some trepidation that I visited him in the summer to talk specifically about his epic drive at Spa, in 1966. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew John well in the 1970s and 80s but I hadn’t seen him for a while…
He was courteous, razor-sharp, full of life and every bit the John Surtees who moved, and is still moving, mountains. And so I include here the brief interview we recorded that day. I hope it gives at least a feel for John’s endless enthusiasm and sense of responsibility.
As I say, it will in my view be a travesty if one day we look back at the career of John Surtees and think: “Well, of course, he should have been awarded a knighthood….”