There are very few times in one’s life when the opportunity arises to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the seven times world motorcycle racing champion and 1964 Formula One world champion, John Surtees.”
But that is exactly what happened at Goodwood last month.
‘Big John‘ and self were engaged by Shell to bring the Revival to life for its guests and to mark the restoration of the Shell Classic X-100 motor oil as a brand. Not only is Shell bringing back an icon of the 1950s and 1960s to the shelves of your local retailer, but with every can sold it is raising money for one of the best causes out there – the Henry Surtees Foundation.
At Brands Hatch in 2009, a promising and personable young racer, Henry Surtees, was killed. Your scribe was at Manston that day, but had been at Brands Hatch the day before, when I was introduced to Henry by a mutual friend and was deeply impressed by his wit and easy confidence. When the news came over the radio that he had been lost, I was not alone in feeling his loss very sharply indeed, even after such a short meeting.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I first met Henry’s celebrated father, when he was among the champions who had gathered in Bahrain to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Formula One world championship. His early arrival and eager presence around the paddock – accompanied at every turn by the stalwart artist, Michael Turner – became a welcome feature of the weekend.
Then came the matter of climbing aboard his car for the parade of champions: the wickedly beautiful little Ferrari 1512, which now resides in Bernie Ecclestone’s very private collection. John was rather uncomfortable about this, as it was to be the first time he had gone on track since Henry had died and his family was far from thrilled about it. Then the car broke. Bernie was annoyed, spotted windmilling his arms in the collecting area, but Surtees himself was outwardly unmoved.
The following day, with the car miraculously fixed by the genius who cares for it, the host of champions mustered once again. First out of the blocks was Nigel Mansell at the wheel of the glorious Thinwall Special Ferrari. He was followed by the likes of Damon Hill in his title-winning Williams, Mario Andretti in his title-winning Lotus and Jody Scheckter in his title-winning Ferrari.
I was stationed beside ‘Big John’ in case there was another problem. Here was a rather wiry, almost nervous old gentleman, far removed from the confident, beaming figure that we all recognise in the photos from the mid-Sixties. He seemed ill at ease while the likes of Keke Rosberg and Jackie Stewart set off on either side amid the yowl of Cosworth DFV power – but then came the most unforgettable sight.
First of all, the Surtees chin jutted. Then he snapped his goggles down and the years fell away. Everything about his body language changed – as if to say: “I’m still a bloody racing driver, like it or not!” And with that he dumped the clutch and left two black lines running down the immaculate Bahraini pit lane. It was an astounding demonstration of courage.
Fast forward to this year’s Revival, where John was to be found signing autographs at every turn, posing for selfies, doing interviews and generally being pressed into action. He drove a Ferrari 250 LM to lead out the Lavant Cup competitors, helped to open Shell’s new vintage-looking aviation refuelling area and he played a key role in the Bruce McLaren tribute.
In the midst of all this, he came and spoke to a lot of bigwigs from Shell. As MC for the event, I had seven questions to make sure we said all the right things – and didn’t need one of them. Surtees has been a Shell ambassador for decades and knows, very precisely, what to say and when. Then I asked him to tell the audience something about Henry and what the Foundation is doing in his name. And what a response.
John talked us through his time as a karting dad, about Henry’s life and loss and then about the work that the Foundation has done since 2009. He spoke brilliantly about the lives saved because the Air Ambulance now has blood transfusion equipment. About his determination not only to make the world safer in Henry’s name but also to use motor sport to bring wayward and disadvantaged kids back from the brink.
All of it impressed upon the guests how important every can of Shell X-100 oil sold will be. And, equally, it also showed the determination and energy of a man who, even in his ninth decade, is determined to work harder than ever in his son’s name to bring some measure of good from his horrendous loss. This is the John Surtees that I have come to know. These encounters have been a pleasure and a privilege and I hope that our paths cross again before long.