Yesterday we received the sad news that race car legend John Surtees passed away at age 83. Robbert Moree looks back on a great career.
When John Surtees celebrated his TT championships in 1956, ’58, ’59 en ’60, I wasn’t even born. By the time this slim, fragile looking man took a Ferrari 158 to the F1 victory on four wheels in 1964 I was still being constructed. I first learned about Surtees during my visits to the Goodwood Revival. Where legends like Surtees were honoured on the track. Where he lingered amongst the other great names of his time. Like Stirling Moss, Jacky Stewart, Derek Bell and Jochen Mass. With his modest appearance he never stood out. I realised how pale his complexion was. Almost translucent. His bright blue eyes illuminating his face. A characterful man. A winner, but never one that was completely satisfied with what he accomplished.
Where he did win the Formula One for Ferrari in 1964, he never managed to win Le Mans. Like he said himself: ‘I went to Le Mans three times with Ferrari and all of these three times I had a chance to win.’ He never got passed third place. His temper would hold him from another chance. A quarrel with Ferrari about his fellow driver in the Ferrari 330, in which he just drove his fasted time ever on Le Mans, got completely out of hand. There was no longer a spot in Ferrari’s line up, officially due to Italian worries about his health. Surtees left Le Mans and the Ferrari stable with it. In 1966 (in a Cooper) as well as in 1967 (in a Honda) he won Formula One races. In the five years he raced post 1967 he wouldn’t find victory in a single race.
Many of the older Dutchmen watched Surtees race in Assen. Like during the TT-race he won in 1959. The year my parents joined in wedlock, as I realise while I’m writing this. Later we enjoyed this British speed devil at Zandvoort, even in his champion year 1964. For me all of these are stories from a rich tradition. I myself got to enjoy his presence at Goodwood. A venue that brought him many a happy memory. Of his first ever ride in a racing car, a 1959 Aston Martin DBR 1, followed by the Vanwall Formula One car. Goodwood’s Paddock took Surtees back to many a car he either raced or tested.
It is a strange feeling to realise I last saw this man in September last year, driving that same Aston Martin DBR 1 around the Goodwood track at age 82. He passed away on the 10th of March 2017, eight years after his son Henry died in a fatal Formula Two accident.