Skip to main content

You are here

Surtees: on Enzo, Lewis and crashing

  1. Forget all the other numbers being thrown around ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, because the one we’re most concerned with right now is four.

    Sure, Silverstone might be celebrating its 50th F1 race since 1948, and Williams man Felipe Massa might be on his 200th GP, but for John Surtees - who this year celebrates his 80th birthday and 50 years since his F1 world championship win - the number four will forever remain a reminder of his mortality.

    “I had an internal rupture of the kidneys, I split my pelvis, knocked some pieces off the bottom of my spine and ended up in a hospital in Toronto,” he tells TG. “I didn’t really know anything until I came to, some considerable time afterwards. But the accident left me four inches shorter on my left side than my right.”

    Accident. It was some accident, which - in the perverse way the universe operates - arose because of the burgeoning community of British motorsport in the 1960s. And just one year after Surtees was sitting on top of the motorsport world, with his first (and, it would transpire, only) Formula One world championship crown on his head.

    It’s exactly 50 years since Surtees took the world title with Ferrari in 1964, making him a champion on both two wheels and four (he won seven motorbike world championships between ‘56 and ‘60), the only racer in history to perform such a feat.

    And yet motorsport is a fickle, spiteful comrade. Just one year later, Surtees would find himself mummified, strapped to a hospital bed in Canada with no recollection of how he got there.

    “I was aware that the British motorsport fraternity was developing back in the mid 1960s,” he tells us, “but Ferrari - my team - were all isolated in Italy. I asked Enzo Ferrari, my boss, if I could keep in touch with the British developments in the out-and-out sports cars that Ferrari weren’t building, to learn something.”

  2. So back home Surtees went, and partnered up with Sir Jackie Stewart running a Lola T70 in Can-Am. Testing at the ‘65 Mosport race in Canada, John was hammering down the straight when one of the front uprights exploded, pitching the car into a barrier. Upon impact, the rogue suspension landed on John, with messy consequences. The internal bleeding lasted for a while.

    “Tony [Vandervell, Vanwall F1 founder] appeared in hospital, spoke to the staff and gave me a number of options,” Surtees recalls like it was yesterday. “He rang Dr Urquhart at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, who screamed to ‘not let the Americans get their hands’ on me. So I was taped onto a stretcher, put on a BA flight and flown back to London.” He’s laughing now.

    Dr Urquhart was the same chap who looked after Stirling Moss, and upon Surtees’ arrival in London, proposed a low-tech solution to reshape Surtees’ wonky body. “Dr Urquhart told me about his ‘big, rugby-playing registrar’. The plan was to ‘do it the old fashioned way’: the registrar would hold me on one end, Dr Urquhart on the other, and then they ‘pulled like hell’.”

    No doubt you’re squirming in your seat, but the torture paid off. After the makeshift operation, Surtees’ right side was stretched from four inches short, to just a quarter of an inch. The ramifications however, will last a lifetime; Surtees still requires regular six-month checkups as a result of the internal bleeding.

    “The thing that kept me from quitting after that accident were a few words from one of the Lola engineers: it wasn’t my fault. This is the biggest worry for any racing driver. A part which shouldn’t have been installed made it onto my car, and that was that. But it wasn’t my fault.”

  3. His boss, Il Capo himself, was equally upbeat about John’s return. “Enzo came onto the phone while I was in hospital and asked ‘what’s the matter with you?’ I told him I was four inches shorter on my left side and was generally smashed up, so he turned around and said ‘no matter, we’ll make you an automatic F1 car’.”

    Not quite the terrifying Enzo of legend, is it? Though Surtees had a fractured relationship with Ferrari team manager Eugenio Dragoni - which ultimately led to Surtees walking out of the Scuderia - with Enzo he was sweet. “Enzo was a complex character, in that he had many stresses on him - keeping the finances flowing, building a production car, racing in GT, in F1, the lot.

    “So there were two Enzos. The one who reigned in Maranello - and he was like a king up there - but another who’d phone me up off the cuff and say ‘let’s go off to the sea’. We wouldn’t sit in his Ferrari, though. He was a great enthusiast of Issigonis’s Mini, so his chauffeur would sit in the front, he’d sit in the passenger seat and I’d be in the back, and we’d go off to the Adriatic Coast to his little house there for the weekend.”

    Enzo clearly felt a connection with Surtees. The Brit found himself racing for the Scuderia having moved from bikes to cars at the end of 1960, after a small storm of circumstances forced his hand. “MV Augusta said I had to stop riding my own machines because of the publicity it brings,” John says, “and the Italian papers were saying I didn’t need an Italian bike to win.”

    Surtees had got a taste for four wheels after testing Stirling Moss’s Le Mans winning DBR1, and a Vanwall F1 car at Goodwood, and following a lunch where Mike Hawthorn (the 1958 F1 world champion) told him bluntly, ‘John, try a car, they stand up easier’.

  4. So Ferrari had approached Surtees early on in 1960, but Surtees turned him down. “I didn’t feel ready to go to a team like Ferrari so early on in my career. But after his successful 1961 season, Enzo had a pretty dreadful year in 1962, and a walkout of the engineer, designer and Phil Hill, so they went back to rebuilding.

    “Before they [Ferrari] said ‘they don’t ask twice’, but they did to me. I thought it was a better time to join. I was still learning, and they were having a bit of a rebirth, so it all matched up”.

    The stage was set for 1964, with Surtees driving the Ferrari 158, a beauty of a thing. “It was incredibly close with me and Graham Hill in 1964,” John recalls. “It was one of those years when you didn’t have the reliability you have today. Ferrari at the time were undergoing a great challenge from Ford relative to Le Mans and this took precedence over the Formula One programme. So we took a little time to get going, and it wasn’t until the German GP that we got some performance. Then it all came right.”

    Surtees would take the win at Germany and later at Monza in Italy, but at the season finale in Mexico, he needed a bit of luck: Hill was leading the championship. “My car overheated, it [the V8] kept dropping off to six cylinders, and I dropped back to 13th. Luckily all cylinders chimed in again and I caught up my teammate Lorenzo Bandini and Hill, who were having a skirmish and touched. I was able to power through and finish second behind Dan Gurney - who was a great, great driver - and as soon as I got round to the pits, my mechanic rushed over to put a flag in my hand, and that was that.”

  5. He won the championship, and by a single point, too, not unlike Lewis Hamilton’s last-gasp in 2008. “Lewis has a bit of a struggle on his hands this year,” says Surtees. “Him and Rosberg have the best material at the moment, but Rosberg has been doing a very intelligent job.”

    What perhaps digs a little, though, is the performance of his old outfit, the Scuderia. “Alonso is a superb driver, but being an engine and chassis manufacturer, I’m most surprised by my old team. I’m surprised they aren’t a little more on the pace. It’s one of those things, I suppose.”

    He won’t be pushed on who’ll take the title, not yet. “I don’t agree with this double points thing at the last race, but that can change everything. But who’ll win? I honestly don’t know. The season is young…”

    Surtees would later leave Ferrari - due to a mixture of the discord with Ferrari’s team boss and political scuffling over changes to the Le Mans programme - something Surtees thinks affected both parties badly.

    “In life you can always look back and wonder if you did the right thing,” he reflects, “but I was leading the championship when I left Ferrari. We both lost out.” A pause. “Maybe I should have confronted those other forces that were present at the time, and put myself in the best seat available at the time. But you can always look back…”

    John Surtees is actively involved in the Henry Surtees Foundation. Click here to find out more

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear’s code of conduct (link below) before posting.

Promoted content