Remembering John Surtees

John Surtees, the 1964 Formula One world champion, died on Friday at age 83. Surtees won that title in a tense, see-saw affair in Mexico City, edging Graham Hill with a little help from Surtees’s ill-fated teammate, Lorenzo Bandini.

Of course, Surtees was also a four-time 500cc motorcycle world champion and—say it together, now—the only man to ever win world championships on both two and four wheels.

I don’t have any wild or exciting stories about John Surtees, but I did have the privilege of speaking with the Surrey native once, two years ago, when I interviewed him for a story I was writing about Jim Clark, one of his first F1 teammates.

It was surely a meaningless interview for him—just another in a lifetime of thousands—but it meant a lot to me that he took the time to do it. He had no idea who I was (and no reason to know), but he answered every question I had, even if some of the details from a random race nearly 50 years before, where he finished five laps behind the leaders, had faded away.

The race was the 1968 South African Grand Prix and my favourite quote from Surtees was that, despite the Kyalami Ranch’s reputation (and despite what some other drivers told me), “It wasn’t a playboy time.”

Surtees had a deep respect for Clark and his talent, but he was not in awe of the Scot the way many people are…likely because he had shared many race tracks with him and proved a match for him on many occasions. He said that Clark’s death was a great waste and then spoke briefly about his son Henry, who had been killed in a Formula Two race more than five years before.

I didn’t ask about Henry, but our discussion of Clark, who also died in an F2 race, inevitably led Surtees there. As if a father burying his son is not bad enough, it seemed particularly tragic that Surtees had lived through so many of motorsport’s most dangerous years, regularly attending the funerals of his peers, and then watched the incredible safety improvements through the intervening decades, only to lose his son to the random bounce of a tyre.

* * *

You never know what small act, even if it seems insignificant to you, will make someone’s day.

Interviewing Surtees was especially meaningful for me because it was after I spoke to him that I knew I could write the story that had been bouncing around in my head for a long time, about Clark’s final F1 race. At the time, there were eight drivers still living from that grand prix and I had interviewed two of them: Brian Redman and Basil van Rooyen. Not to diminish any of their achievements, but for the article to work I needed at least a couple of the big names, as well. His generosity and openness made it a reality.

John Surtees lived a long life—certainly longer than many of his F1 contemporaries—but he is still gone too soon, another link to the sport’s past, lost.

Rest in peace.

(Featured image credit: Formula 1 on Twitter)


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