Tributes to a hero

Freddie Spencer

Motorcycle Grand Prix champion 

During the 1983 British GP at Silverstone I was struggling. I couldn’t get within a second of Kenny [Roberts] and was pushing my Honda NS500 to its limit and beyond. 

Before my last run of the day I was sitting alone in my garage with my head down when I felt two hands touch my shoulders. I still can feel the reassurance and firmness: “Do you know who I am?”

‘Of course I do, Mr Surtees!’ 

‘Call me John. I know you’re riding beyond your bike’s capabilities, but keep doing it because you can and it’s going to be OK.’ He winked and walked out. I felt better, went out, qualified second and finished second in the race. John always knew exactly what to say. He was a good friend and I will miss him. His accomplishments have been an inspiration for many and especially for me. Winning bike and F1 world titles sets him apart from all others.”

Valentino Rossi

Seven-time MotoGP champion

It’s a great shame because he was the only one to win the F1 and 500cc championships, so he did something very special. I am very sorry for his family. I met him three or four times and he was still in a good shape. Eighty-three – that’s many years.”

Murray Walker

TV commentator and friend

I was absolutely shattered when I heard the news. I first met him when I was racing bikes on the anti-clockwise grass track at Brands Hatch and he was sidecar passenger for his father, Jack. I guess that was the late 1940s. We became good friends when I subsequently commentated on many of his races, including his TT victories.

When I first met him he had very little to say for himself, but success bred confidence and he became a very eloquent spokesman on a wide variety of subjects. I know his forceful opinions could rub people up the wrong way, but he was nearly always right!”

Stuart Graham

TT winner on two wheels and four

John’s family and mine have been intertwined for years; my late father Les was a race contemporary of Jack Surtees, and John stepped in at MV when my father was killed. 

When you met him you were never sure which John you’d get – he could be genial and friendly or, if his mind was on something else, terse and short.

It was something to see John and Mike Hailwood together when Mike was driving for him – they were at opposite ends of the scale. Mike was so laid back while John was a perfectionist; he wanted clear feedback while Mike just got in and drove around any problem. John could cover every angle from nuts and bolts to driving to management, and he’d want to be involved in everything. He pushed himself very hard, maybe too hard in his 80s, but he was a great guy.”

Brenda Vernor

Enzo Ferrari’s secretary

I knew John a long time and I admired him firstly as a bike champion and then an F1 driver. He wasn’t always easy to deal with and he used to moan quite a lot. When we met he continued to blame Mike Parkes for the problem he had at Le Mans in 1966, when he was dismissed by Ferrari and they put Mike in his place!

However, I went to stay with him a few years ago and passed a few pleasant days in his company talking about old times. He will be missed.”

Sir Frank Williams

Team owner

First and foremost, John Surtees was a true gentleman and a great racer. On a professional level, I remember his team fondly. John always had a special aura in the paddock and, even though F1 is a business and teams come and go frequently, I remember feeling particularly saddened when his team ceased ahead of the 1979 season.

John is, and always will be, a true icon of the sport, on four wheels and two. His dedication to succeed was exemplary. He was without a doubt one of the most naturally gifted people the sport has ever seen.”

Bill Sisley

Former chairman of Buckmore Park

I first met John long after his own racing career had ended, when he came to Buckmore Park with Henry, who was seven or eight years old. 

He said those karting days with Henry were some of the best of his life. They brought back that feeling of racing again and memories for him of how he had started out with his father. He was absolutely destroyed by Henry’s death. I was amazed at how he pulled himself through it. But the truth is he didn’t get over it on the inside, but he would never show that to the public.”

Peter Connew

Draughtsman at Team Surtees

I joined Team Surtees in the late Sixties working in the design office. John took his work very seriously and inspired me to do the same. Once, when he’d booked a trip to Kyalami to do some tyre testing, I joked with his PA that he might be using it as cover for a holiday. She replied that he was more likely to book a holiday and use it as cover so he could go tyre testing!

I still have vivid memories of him walking in with a small piece of paper. It had a few outline sketches and he told us we were going to build an F1 car. That was the genesis of the TS7; not quite the way things are done today.”

Mel Johnson

Emergency response volunteer

I was an administrator for SERV (Service by Emergency Response Volunteers) and one of our projects was to use motorbikes to transport blood quickly for potentially life-saving transfusions at the roadside, in conjunction with the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust. It was the first project of its kind in the country.

Kent, Surrey & Sussex attended Henry’s accident and John was very appreciative of the efforts they’d made. He subsequently contacted me to see if he could help our work through the Henry Surtees Foundation.

Thanks to the HSF’s contributions, roadside transfusions now take place in seven regions across the country and I’d estimate that many hundreds of people have benefited. John was an absolute gent and I loved him to bits.”

Derek Warwick

BRDC President

I came across John working with young drivers and his passion and ability to understand them shone through. A few years ago I put together a petition to get him a knighthood – he achieved so much and gave so much back to the sport. It is shocking that he was never awarded one.

Jackie Stewart 

Triple F1 world champion

What John achieved with bikes and cars will never be forgotten. You have to remember how difficult it was to master both in those days. Bob McIntyre, the first man to average 100mph around the Isle of Man, tested single-seaters but couldn’t handle the way they slid. John mastered it immediately. He was a singular man but his name will ever be remembered.”