I was saddened to hear of John Surtees’ death at the end of last week.
For one thing, I didn’t know he was ill – indeed the last I had heard of him was that he was still working hard ‘at the coal-face’ of Buckmore Park, which has undergone something of a face-lift since his taking over of it a few years ago. It has been a face-lift that I been able to watch at first hand as my son and I regularly visit the place. He had been due to attend their annual awards dinner last year, but had to cancel at the last minute, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed – not least because Robin had been there to pick up an award, and even if it was no more than a name to him, at least to have met the man would have given him something to tell his children about.
There are a couple of other reasons why ‘Big John’ was particularly relevant to me, in the way that he seemed to be an oft-recurring theme in my experiences of motor sport.
It is odd the way that these things stick in the mind, but he was the first racing driver that I ever saw. I remember that day at Brands Hatch in 1967, at the Race of Champions: his Honda (number 7) was the first car out onto the track at the beginning of the day, even though Surtees qualified second-fastest and therefore would start the first Heat from the middle of the front row. In those days there was no left-hander at Brands Hatch named after him – what we now call Surtees, was then South Bank Bend, taking the cars out of the Brands ‘bowl’ up the hill and out into the country.
As only road cars had been making relatively slow laps of the circuit at that point (I later realised it was the marshals heading to their posts), the speed of the Formula 1 cars heading out of paddock and up the hill to Druid’s seemed to my young eyes as truly breakneck. Forever more, Surtees was the one, despite Dan Gurney’s win and Jack Brabham’s fastest lap in the final, who took my racing virginity, if you’ll pardon the indelicacy of the phrase.
Since then, he has been an ever-present force on the motor-racing scene; giving interviews and speaking often on a wide variety of topics. Always lucid, sometimes controversial, and usually right, in his frankly-expressed views.
The last time I saw John Surtees was at the Motor Sport ‘Hall of Fame’ awards last year, where he was inducting Valentino Rossi into the exclusive club of which he himself became a member in 2012. The fact that The Henry Surtees’ Foundation will be the official charity partner for this year will be especially poignant. I was indeed impressed with the grace with which John handled the whole business last year. Those who were there will know what I mean.