Remembering John Surtees
Last Friday, the world of racing lost one of the most important figures. A successful rider, an important ambassador, and a very nice person. We want to commemorate his life today with some stories you might not know.
The loophole in the contract
When he was racing for MV Agusta the “Conte” made sure that his young rider won’t race in any other category or team. This was very explicit in their contract. Surtees went to Agusta’s office and tried to convince him also the 250cc. In that time John was racing in the 500cc and the 350cc and Agusta didn’t have space for a rider in another category. But he didn’t give up, he read the contract again and found a loophole, it didn’t say anything about car racing. He found a seat at Lotus for the season of 1960 but he still had to honor his contract with MV Agusta. So Lotus offered him to race in F1 when he wasn’t busy racing in the motorcycle championship. And remember that he was racing in two classes there for a total of more than 20 races. Surtees managed to win both, the 350cc and 500cc.
The F1 experience
Surtees left the motorcycle championship with 7 titles but the beginning in F1 was hard. In road racing, the psychological warfare is necessary to win as Surtees explained in an interview. Experienced racers know the men on the grid, they know who to respect, they know who defends his lines more aggressively than others and who can be bullied out of the way. He was completely new and didn’t know anyone. It’s like being thrown into the arena blindfolded with a sword and twelve lions.
So after a period of adaptation, in 1963 the first victory finally came on a Ferrari V6 and placing himself 4th in the Championship. In 1964 he won the Title with two victories in Nürburgring and Monza, making him the only racer to win on 2 and 4 wheels.
On September 25th of 1965 in Mosport Circuit in Canada, Jackie Stewart was testing a Lola T70, a British sports car powered by an American V8. The car wasn’t performing too well so John took the wheel to try to find out what could have been. While being on the straight in full acceleration, a front upright casting broke separating the wheel and driving the car into the guardrail. The car flipped over and John remained unconscious under it. Two days later he woke up in a hospital. He had several fractures including the pelvis. His kidneys were bleeding and he lost a lot of blood. The impact was so hard that there was a four inches difference between his right and left the side of the body. The Canadian doctors offered him two choices: send him to the US and have a surgeon to put his bones together or staying in Canada and use a quick old school method. The “old school method” described by the doctor consisted in being pulled by his limbs to set all the broken bones into place. They managed to reduce the difference to less than an inch.
The Surtees’ Legacy
His name is in the International Motorsport Hall of Fame since 1996, honored by the FIM as Legend in 2003 and he received many other awards for his contribution and services to motorsport. But one of the most important parts of his legacy is certainly the Racing Steps Foundation. Over the decades he acknowledged the rising costs in racing making motorsport less accessible to racers without a good sponsor or a supporting family. He was an ambassador for these riders and drivers and low-cost entry classes.
We wish all the love and support to his family for the loss of someone we’re all going to miss, both the man and the racer.
Originally published at www.gasolirium.com on March 12, 2017.