Gone but not forgotten

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John Surtees’s life contained enough to stories to fill a book – and then some

Sometimes whatever one may write about a topic it never feels adequate. The geographic confines of a magazine page, and the minimum legible type size – tiny print used to be a typifying feature of Motor Sport through so many decades – forces one to unaccustomed brevity, which at its most brutal simply means omission. 

This is an editorial fact with which any journalist must cope, but which readers seldom consider. In our appreciation last month of John Surtees I ended up not mentioning his six Isle of Man TT wins on the works MV Agustas, not mentioning the high regard for the sheer quality of workmanship embodied within his Surtees cars and not – by any means – listing all of his successes.

Sitting within the serenity of Worth Abbey church at the great man’s funeral service – which itself was simply beautiful – I gnawed on what we had had to omit. When he became the first Can-Am Challenge champion in 1966 with his red and white arrow-liveried Team Surtees Lola-Chevrolet he had won three of the six qualifying rounds.

But he admitted he had given serious thought to opting out of the series after he had destroyed a couple of engines and written off one car. In the deciding round at Las Vegas’s arid desert Stardust Raceway he’d just added $11,000 to the $17,000 accrued earlier in the series – not including accessory bonus money – and then for clinching the Challenge Cup there was another $19,250.  

John had said that he tackled Vegas practice not too concerned with setting fast times, he just wanted to conserve his well-used T70 in which he had won superbly at Riverside two weeks before. The moment the starter’s flag dropped, John had taken advantage of the rival Chaparrals’ auto-transmission sluggishness off the line. He had shot up the inside, stuck out his elbows and held off Phil Hill and Jim Hall round the first turn… then led comfortably for the rest of the distance as mayhem erupted behind him.

John later told the press: “At about half-distance I started noticing an unusual engine vibration that gave me some concern so I slowed my pace even more…” and I can imagine him saying that with a grin and a real racer’s glint in his eye, having just patronised all his rivals yet again. Then he admitted: “Actually, the touchiest part of the race was when someone up ahead would drop a wheel off the road and send up clouds of dust. I never knew as I went through the dust when I’d find someone’s machine straddlin’ the road. It’s things like that that account for these grey hairs…”. And then off he’d have gone, to bank his winnings.

Then there’s the 1972 Formula 2 season when John’s great friend and team-mate – and sometime rival – Mike Hailwood won the European Championship title in their Matchbox-sponsored works Surtees-Hart TS10. Having seen the travails of schoolroom-class formula racing over the past 20 years or more, doesn’t any enthusiast yearn for a return to such a category in which the emergent new stars could pit their skills against old-established multiple world champions?

In that ’72 season, the Formula 2 race winners’ names included such relative newcomers as Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson, plus Jody Scheckter, Carlos Pace, Tim Schenken, Peter Gethin, Jochen Mass, Henri Pescarolo and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud confronting the real veterans, Graham Hill, Mike Hailwood and John Surtees – while the opening round of that year had fallen to Dave Morgan… 

What a competitive category Formula 2 really was, no fewer than 34 races crammed into that entire season – 35 if one includes the F2 class of the Formule Libre Rothmans 50,000 at Brands Hatch – with 14 different winners. Get the regulations right and the ‘sport’ part of ‘motor sport’ will float to the surface. 

In his Matchbox Formula 2 car, John won that year’s Japanese GP at Fuji – OK, against nobody – but also the Gran Premio Citta di Imola, a European Championship-qualifying round in his beloved Italy. There he headed home Graham, Niki, Jody and the rest on aggregate. It was a wise old win – fourth in heat one, third in heat two. In the first 28-lap batteria he finished behind winner Peter Gethin’s Chevron, team-mate ‘Mike the Bike’s sister TS10, and Carlos Reutemann’s Motul Brabham BT38; in the second only behind winner Bob Wollek’s Motul BT38 – there, how many recall later sports car specialist Wollek as a capable single-seat pedaller? – and John Watson’s Tui run by the late Allan McCall.

During practice there, Mike Hailwood had gone out as lead car to enable Team Surtees’s client Carlos Ruesch to slipstream him and set a time. Unfortunately the Argentinian overdid it and fell off, clouting the barrier. Next time round Mike stopped to offer help. But then his engine refused to restart. John drove out to assist, with a bottle of fuel in his lap, and finally both cars were retrieved to the pits. That was the first time that weekend that the tifosi went barmy at the sight of the two great former MV Agusta motorcycle champions together, John always – of course – also retaining his Ferrari world champion afterglow. And when he won there on the Sunday – a deeper glow still, and another tremendous reception from the Italian audience. 

It was stature, you see, but on a great – yet now half-forgotten – stage.

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