As you’ll read in this month’s news—and likely learned from our web site back on March 10—multi-time motorcycle and Formula One World Champion John Surtees has passed away at the age of 83. While we make mention of his passing in this issue, next month we will feature a unique tribute and look back at Surtees’ many accomplishments, both with memories from many of the legendary figures he raced with and a unique collection of rare photographs. So, while we will honor Surtees with a fitting tribute next month, I didn’t want to let this issue go without at least saying something about John Surtees the man.
We’ve been extremely fortunate to count many legendary racers as friends of the magazine. John Surtees’ association with VR stemmed from his willingness to help a charity. Back in 2004, our European Editor, Mike Jiggle, had the brilliant idea to honor the 40th anniversary of Surtees winning the Formula One Drivers Championship and in so doing, create a charity dinner that would raise funds for the UK-based “NARA-The Breathing Charity” organization that supports those in need of critical breathing devices. Surtees was uncertain of the need to “honor” his anniversary, but was only too happy to lend his support to benefit the charity. And so began what would become a 13-year friendship between Surtees and the staff at VR.
Over the course of the past 13 years, I’ve personally been fortunate to get to spend a little time with Surtees at a handful of events, but perhaps the most enjoyable—and most telling about the man himself—was the last function I shared with him.
Several years ago, I was invited to a very swanky dinner party that Mercedes-Benz annually hosted at Pebble Beach, during the annual concours weekend. A very small collection of automotive media would be wined and dined at Pebble’s exclusive “Beach Club,” usually in the company of Mercedes executives and a handful of racing or celebrity guests. So, as in previous years, I showed up to this event solo (too exclusive for plus-ones!), grabbed myself a glass of wine and made my way through the collected great-and-good to the patio that overlooks the gorgeous Carmel Bay. It was clear and brisk on the patio, so most of the attendees were schmoozing inside. Yet, when I get out on the patio who do I spy standing all alone, with his glass of wine, but a pale, older man with thin, wispy grey hair—John Surtees.
Unsure whether he was intending to be left alone or was just being ignored by the assembled crowd(!), I hesitantly walked up and said hi. Surtees’ face lit up and he warmly greeted me like we’d been long lost pals, despite his only briefly meeting me a few times, years before. For the better part of the next hour or more, we stood on the patio and discussed a variety of issues, from the state of Formula One and historic racing to great cars and, more interestingly, awful cars. Fearful that he might want his solitude back, I tried on several occasions to let him graciously disengage, but each time, he’d launch into a new line of discussion that would see us carry on. Over the course of our time together that evening, I was continually struck by how warm and personable Surtees was, and how surprising this realization was based on his reputation!
In his day, Surtees had something of a reputation for being a hard taskmaster who did not suffer fools lightly. As you’ll read next month, many of his contemporaries have nothing but praise for Surtees, while some that worked for or drove for him, like Roy Salvadori and Jochen Mass, might not have nearly as flattering an impression! The point of mentioning this is not in any way to speak ill of Surtees, and to underscore the fact that he was a genuinely talented and complex person, which makes his story, and his achievements, all the more fascinating.
For me, my personal experience was that John Surtees was always a very warm, caring and engaging champion. Check out next month’s issue and draw your own conclusions.