Tuesday May 2, 2017
‘He was a very great man, a very great driver. Run through with unbending steel’ – Motor Sport.
‘Try to imagine it today: a motorcyclist, a seven-time world champion admittedly, hopping into an F1 car and seizing the title four years later. It is motorsport’s equivalent of a concert pianist discovering that he can also play violin to the standard of Yehudi Menuhin’– The Daily Telegraph.
‘He was true racing royalty’– Road & Track.
No matter how many superlatives were printed to mark the passing on 10th March of John Surtees the only man to win Formula One and motorcycle Grand Prix titles, they could never be quite enough. This is the racer who, after winning 38 events including seven world championships and six TT victories over a four-year period followed the advice given to him in 1958 by Mike Hawthorn at a Sportsman of the Year ceremony. ‘John, try a car sometime. They stand up easier’. At that time the name of Surtees was automatically linked with the MV Agusta team of Italy but his contract forbade him from using his own bikes on British circuits. However, this restriction did not apply to car racing and in April 1960, Surtees took the wheel of a Formula Junior Cooper-Austin at Goodwood, nearly beating Jim Clark.
Such a feat did not go unnoticed by Colin Chapman and he hired the 26-year-old driver to compete in the last four races of the Formula One season. By the end of the year, Surtees had taken his Lotus to second position in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, ahead of his teammate Innes Ireland. In 1963 Surtees was racing for Ferrari; he had been approached by Enzo three years previously but then felt that was not yet ready for such an opportunity.
Surtees won the 1963 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring and in the 1964 Mexican Grand Prix, at the wheel of a new Ferrari 1.5-litre V8 158, he became the new F1 Champion by one point. Sadly, on 25th September 1965, Surtees was involved in a serious accident when driving his own Lola T70. Incredibly, he was fit enough to compete in the 1966 season and Surtees’ victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa became one of the legends of the sport. But 1966 was also the year that Surtees departed Ferrari after an argument at the Le Mans 24 Hour with the team’s manager Eugenio Dragoni. In more recent times Surtees reflected that Enzo later told him that ‘John, we must remember the good times and not the mistakes'.
Of course, there are any number of obituaries that detail Surtees’ incredible full career and for those of a certain vintage, his feats were often witnessed first-hand. But thanks to the archives of British Pathe and Movietone, Surtees’ achievements have been preserved on film. Here is some footage from Monza in 1957, with the enthusiastic narrator pointing out ‘young John Surtees of Britain'.
In 1966 Pathe Newsreel Team attended the Belgian Spa and one especially glorious period detail in this silent footage is the chain-smoking Yves Montand on a break from shooting the feature film Grand Prix - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr0NoGqtT3I. What also fascinates me is the incidental details; the neatly attired spectators clad in collar and ties to the racing cars that were still free of advertising.
Then there are the names that the announcer mentions in passing as the camera at the 1964 German Grand Prix variously focuses on a short-back-and-sided Jim Clark, a dapper Colin Chapman and a pensive looking Graham Hill - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wklHNH-_oag. And here, photographed in Technicolor at Brands Hatch - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgL45VFl8o, and in Mexico in 1964 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1idxOsWPeBk is the man who was known in Italy as ‘Figlio del Vento’ – son of the wind – and in his home country as possibly the greatest sportsman never to receive a knighthood. He will be sorely missed.
John Surtees CBE 11th February 1934 – 10th March 2017