The Cadwell trip that got Surtees hooked on racing

Talking with the great John Surtees recently was more than usually interesting as he began to reminisce about the dawn of his racing career. I’d asked him about his earliest significant memory of contact with the racing world, and it took him way back to the days when his father Jack was resuming his own racing activities for the first time since the pre-war years. John said: “I do recall seeing my first-ever motorcycle race, at Cadwell Park, I think at Easter, 1946. But it’s not only the racing I recall. It’s as much the journey there, and the whole weekend. Dad had a big American car – a Ford V8, I think – with two front seats and a dickie seat in the back. Our parents put my brother, sister and myself in there. Dad’s 596cc Norton sidecar combination was locked onto the tow-hitch behind and we drove all the way up from Shirley near Beckenham in South London to Cadwell in Lincolnshire, in the dickie seat, with a tarpaulin to pull over the top if it rained…

“When we got to Cadwell we pitched camp there for the weekend. We didn’t have the money for a hotel. And it was fantastic. Dad raced the combination with his passenger Frank Lillie – he’d been Dad’s passenger pre-war before serving as an RAF rear gunner. Perhaps that proved he was ideal for the job! They had a great battle with Eric Oliver. I loved everything I saw. And I was hooked.”

Within years John began winning races on solo motorcycles: “My first motorcycle road race win was in 1952 – at Aberdare Park in Wales, where they roped off the town park and let us get on with it around the parkland roads. They were narrow, everywhere there were things to hit – like trees and park benches – but that’s just the way it was then. I rode a 500cc Vincent Grey Flash I’d built up myself – I was an apprentice at Vincent’s then – and for the first time I felt that real flush of satisfaction at achieving a win. That made me want some more.”

More came with the added accomplishments of four 500cc and three 350cc World Championship wins on two wheels, between 1956-1960, plus the 1964 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship for Ferrari. Riding MVs for the great Italian marque he admits that Count Agusta’s team had not been his first choice: “Every competitor wants to ride or drive the best – Gilera was the best in the 1950s, but they already had the World Champion, Geoff Duke, so they didn’t need the young me.” But in Italy with MV Agusta he became revered as Il Grande John – ‘John the Great’ – and the Italian GP at Monza on two wheels and four became very special for him. When Mike Hailwood drove his works Surtees TS9B there in 1972 against Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72, John still reckons Mike could easily have won if only a tuppeny-ha’penny spring clip securing the engine airbox had not parted. Mike lost the airbox, and 2-300rpm off his engine’s all-important top end. “But that’s racing…” John philosophises, and ‘Mike the Bike’ still finished second.

Perhaps a more frustrating Italian GP for John – other than his Ferrari 1512 clutch failure on the startline in 1965 – was his Honda RA301 experience at Monza in ’68, the year after he’d won there in the famous hybrid ‘Hondola’. “We could and should have won that one. The car was going well with pace in reserve. I was behind Chris Amon’s Ferrari as he went into the Lesmos, and he hit the switch to actuate his adjustable rear wing and the hydraulic circuit popped. It sprayed fluid all over his rear tyres which sent him off into the trees, and I spun like a top on the oil and wound up against the barrier. Adjustable wings were banned soon after…”

‘John the Great’s’ stature stands – so far as I’m concerned – even higher these days since he and his wife Jane lost their son Henry in the tragic Brands Hatch accident of ’09, and they’ve ridden this horrific blow with grace and compassion for other head injury victims. At the time of writing their Henry Surtees Foundation is awaiting charitable status, but once confirmed do consider donating…