Il Grande John

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Rider, driver, team owner, fund-raiser, dad: John Surtees’ remarkable life was covered  in glory and touched by tragedy

Back in 1996 I stood with John Surtees above the Albert Park pits in Melbourne, watching the Australian Grand Prix, freshly relocated from Adelaide. We were gawping up at a big TV screen on which we had just seen Martin Brundle’s Jordan barrel-roll, landing in a heap of tangled scrap before Martin was winkled out from underneath, chirpily waved to the crowd to prove to onlooking officialdom that he was absolutely okay (I doubt he was) and then jogged back to the pits to take a somewhat jangled restart in a spare car.

“Now what do you think that tells us about Formula 1?” John asked cryptically, as so often he would. I knew him well enough to appreciate that whatever possible response I could give would never be right. I always suspected that he would frame questions to catch one out, whatever the reply. He wasn’t seeking an opinion, he really felt the need to declare his own. So I rather disappointed him by just saying “I really haven’t a clue, John, you tell me…” He narrowed his eyes and clearly suspected I was winding him up, but – after the briefest pause to consider that possibility, which he evidently dismissed – he, with index finger raised, then declared his case with the total self-belief of an Old Testament prophet. 

It was to do with clueless, past-it has-beens, bed-blocking younger talent by hanging on to Formula 1 drives way past their sell-by dates. “We’ve just got to encourage fresh talent,” he said. “These days too many drivers have been in F1 just too long. You’ve got to realise when enough’s enough, you’ve had your chance, move over and move out.”

I guess he was thinking back to his own retirement from racing, at what in many ways had become his spiritual home, the Monza Autodromo, in 1972. He more or less conducted a race-test there of his latest Surtees-Cosworth TS14, while lead driver ‘Mike the Bike’ Hailwood in the works Surtees TS9B took second place behind Emerson Fittipaldi’s winning Lotus 72. Fittipaldi clinched his first world championship title that day, but it was telling how all weekend the milling Monza tifosi had packed around the Surtees paddock area almost as much as around Ferrari’s since they perceived the two multiple motorcycling world champions – Surtees and Hailwood – as the second-best sight on offer. 

In these pages Jenks then reported: “As darkness settled upon the paddock two brand-new and shiny Gilera motorcycles zoomed off into the gloom, ridden by two ex-world champion motorcyclists. It was John and Mike returning to their hotel in Arcore, the home of Gilera, and the sight warmed the hearts of a great many Italians, for the ex-MV Agusta riders are both still remembered with great affection in Italy.” That was an affection John certainly always returned.

Astride works MV-Agustas, John  won four 500cc world championship titles, 1956-58-59-60 and in those latter seasons added three 350cc world crowns. He won five times at Monza, then Mike Hailwood six times more, 1961-66. This duo accumulated 16 motorcycle world titles but only John made the perfect four-wheeled transition to win not only the F1 title but also two more Italian GPs at Monza. Guess his business office address in Edenbridge? ‘Monza House’.

In his pomp he could be a difficult, tricky, suspicious, untrusting, sometimes almost paranoid character – more likely to assume the worst of anyone new than to expect the best. But when he built a team around himself – as he certainly did at Ferrari from 1963-65 – the Italian mechanics just loved him for it. He told me once how, when he had first signed up with Count Agusta, the team had gone to test at the Autodromo, “But it was raining, so they spread their hands and shrugged and said ‘So sorry – we cannot test today.’ And I said ‘Why not? We race in the wet – so why don’t we test in the wet?’ And we started testing right away.” The MV engineers and mechanics melted in admiration and adored him ever after.

An MV cut-back sparked John’s four-wheeled conversion, first testing the water with Vanwall, then racing Cooper, then Lotus, soaring FJ-F2-F1 within 1960. On the rebound post-Ferrari ’66 he joined Cooper-Maserati, rather like Lewis Hamilton jumping to Williams mid-year, and the fire he put under them forged Mexican GP victory by season’s end. For John, having enabled Maserati to humble Ferrari was just delicious! In contrast, at his Team Surtees works at Edenbridge in 1970 I asked him about the Chaparral he had been driving in the Can-Am Championship. Talk about a straight answer: “That Chaparral was without doubt the worst racing car I have ever had the displeasure of sitting in.” His 1969 BRMs were “not just appalling, but unsafe too” – and he told me why he had walked out of Ferrari in mid-1966, something upon which we shook hands not to confide in his lifetime. “It finally became a shouting match with Dragoni – and a bit with Forghieri too – and then Dragoni said that if I insisted on finishing my season with Ferrari, they could no longer guarantee my safety in the cars. I could only read that as a threat.”

His wins for Ferrari included the Nürburgring 1000Kms (twice), the Syracuse GP (twice), the German GP (twice), the Italian GP, the Sebring 12 Hours and the Monza 1000Kms, in the rain, despite failed screen wipers. Never forget that he drove again for Ferrari, in the 1970 512S endurance cars. Mr Ferrari – who habitually addressed him as ‘Giovanni’ had always kept the door open – he loved his motorcyclists, like Nuvolari, Varzi, Taruffi and so many more. And of course John was Mr Lola T70 – developing the open Can-Am roadster and the closed T70GT with Eric Broadley. John shone in British Group 7 racing, won at St Jovite, Riverside and Las Vegas to become the first Can-Am Champion, and later developed and engineered his own Surtees Formula A/5000, F2 and, from 1970, F1 cars.

But his exploits 50 years ago in the slimline 1967 Lola T100 – his 1600cc Formula 2 car – really shone. On consecutive weekends he won at Mallory Park then at Zolder in Belgium – first running rings around young upstart Jacky Ickx’s Tyrrell-Matra in pouring Leicestershire rain. So who was the rainmaster that weekend? In a two-heat race at Zolder John, Jim Clark, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Jack Brabham all locked into a bare-knuckle street fight. The last five laps of the second heat remain an almost-forgotten classic… 

On a pulsating final lap, John drew abreast of ‘Black Jack’ flat out up the hill at the back of the circuit. The two hardest men in road racing simply sat out one another into the final curves… and it was John’s tactical sense that positioned his car unerringly upon the right piece of road. Jack knew exactly what he would do, and given the chance he’d have done just the same, but he was forced to blink first and back off. Surtees won by 0.4sec.

Four months later, the Formula 1 Italian GP at Monza – John in the stop-gap Indy Lola-chassised ‘Hondola’ he had hastily co-engineered as a stop-gap to replace the bloated Honda V12, Jack in his minimalist Brabham-Repco BT24. He was leading after Jimmy Clark’s Lotus 49 had suffered a puncture. Jimmy had rejoined and screamed around, astonishingly to recatch the leading group regaining a whole lost lap. On the 59th lap everything seemed to happen: Jimmy had his sights on John’s second-placed Honda, but Graham Hill’s sister Lotus 49 had blown its DFV engine in the biggest way entering the last corner, the Parabolica. 

Jimmy catapulted past the Honda but John used the Lotus slipstream to draw even closer to Brabham. Jack was just leading at the end of lap 60, but Clark was closing rapidly, and as they disappeared towards the Curva Grande the jam-packed grandstands rose to a man as the Lotus retook the lead, having regained that whole lap. 

After 60 laps the three leading cars were nose to tail and Brabham locked smartly into Clark’s slipstream, with the Honda right behind.

Five more laps and Clark had dropped Brabham, which gave John his chance to slipstream into second place. But as they ripped into the last lap Jimmy’s leading Lotus was in obvious trouble. The trio tore into the 165mph Curva Grande in line astern, but Clark’s engine abruptly cut, twitching the car sideways. John and Jack just managed to dodge by.

So John led, at his beloved Monza, in his brand-new stop-gap car, with half a lap to run. The Lotus was failing to draw the last of its fuel, while the two most rugged, unforgiving Grand Prix drivers of their day ripped down the back straight at more than 180mph. 

John: “I knew that Graham’s big oil slick was right down the inside line into the Parabolica, but I had to cover the inside or Jack would dive in there with his lighter car. But if I stayed wide and left the inside open – would he chance it on the oil? Knowing Jack I was sure he couldn’t resist it, so I stayed wide and made him the offer…”

Jack: “I knew that John might take the wide line, leaving me the inside, over the oil slick, or nothing – but of course I had to go for it. What else could you do?”

These two genuine hard nuts both braked absolutely as late as possible, John wide, Jack inside, and sure enough the Brabham-Repco locked up on the oil-thick cement dust and slid, drifting wide as John crossed his tail, stole the tighter line and led (just) onto the finishing straight. Jack flicked out of the Honda’s slipstream for one last lunge, but John won by 0.2sec. And this was just the day job.

Make no mistake – these men were heroes. And by their deeds they are surely immortal, living on within our minds – we need never believe they are really gone. I will miss his smiling “’Ello!” For me John Surtees was a genuine warrior – in recent years a much-mellowed and warm family man, though tragically tormented by the unendurable loss of his adored son Henry at Brands Hatch in 2009.

To his lovely wife Jane, and to their daughters Leonora and Edwina, we offer – I am sure – the Motor Sport readership’s most wholehearted, and sincere, condolences.