John Surtees’ achievements are so singular, so unrepeatable that they do not need detailing again here. Suffice it so say that no-one is ever likely to again be world champion on two and four wheels. The very idea is almost ridiculous. Yet this is what Surtees did. First he finished the work started by Les Graham at MV Agusta then he used his understanding of things Italian to win at Ferrari, and then he used his sheer bloody mindedness to become an F1 constructor and team owner. Like I said, ridiculous.
I first met John Surtees on my very first assignment as a professional motorcycle journalist, the John Surtees Day at Brands Hatch in 1980. Actually, that’s a lie. I saw him. Tyro reporters didn’t meet John Surtees, a man with a fearsome reputation for protecting his privacy who didn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. I saw him ride a variety of different machinery including Randy Mamola’s factory Suzuki RG500. He whipped round Brands’s Indy Circuit classically neat as ever and very quick in black leathers,. He got off and to the enquiry “How was it?” casually mentioned it was the first time he’d ridden a two-stroke and the first time he’d ridden on slicks so he didn’t have much to compare it to. Garry Taylor, the Suzuki team manager, asked only half-jokingly if he’d signed for anybody this year. John was 46 years old at the time.
Many years later I got a gig as compere at Mallory Park’s anniversary do, I turned up at a nearby hotel and froze with fear when I found I was at the same table for dinner as John Surtees and his then young son Henry who had started racing karts. The two were warm, open and charming company. Marriage and family didn’t alter John Surtees’ single-minded attitude to motorsport but it mellowed him enormously as a person. It is not too big a stretch to say that while he was racing he was universally respected but in his later years he was universally loved.
In the UK, there is much outrage over the fact he never received a knighthood. There are a couple of reasons why he might never have been tapped on the shoulder with a sword by Her Majesty. The most likely is that he turned the honour down. You only get asked once, and if you say ‘no’, that’s it. It is why Professor Hawking is not Sir Stephen and why Bowie left us as a plain David. To my regret, I never summoned the courage to ask him if he had refused the honour. I don’t know if that is the case, but it would have been very much in character for the intensely private man that he was twenty-odd years and more ago.
All of which makes the courage and dignity with which he faced the death at 18 years old of Henry the more humbling. That and the energy he subsequently put into the Henry Surtees Foundation was as remarkable as anything he did on a race track.