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Maurice Hamilton: Remembering John Surtees

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I was fortunate enough to have lunch with John Surtees, not far from his office in Edenbridge. The thing I recalled immediately upon learning about his passing on Friday was the journey to and from the country pub.

Yes, I can remember clearly the wonderfully detailed stories of his world championships won on two wheels and four. But overriding all of that is the image of the 80-year-old hustling his BMW 330d Touring estate through the Kent lanes with an ease and precision that marks out a natural driver. I was mesmerised by the effortless left-foot braking, the classic arms slightly bent driving position and, quite simply, the speed and control exercised without risk while he continued talking. And John liked to chat.

In fact, you could say a willingness to express forthright views denied John Surtees even more success than the records show. His multiple world titles on bikes and the 1964 F1 World Championship with Ferrari have been widely and rightly quoted in the past few days. But it would take even longer to list the 'if only' stories linked to a stubbornness that actually made the man what he was and, without question, brought Surtees back to the cockpit when his career should have been ended by a terrible accident in 1965.

While testing a Lola T70 at Mosport Park (think Brands Hatch if you want a mental picture of this challenging track), a broken front upright sent the heavy V8 sports car into the barrier before it flipped and landed on top of the driver. Surtees suffered a smashed femur, split pelvis and damaged kidneys; extensive injuries and an accompanying loss of blood he later described as "a bit touch and go".

Apart from the humanity associated with ensuring the best possible recovery, it said much about John's professional reputation that Tony Vandervell (boss of the Vanwall F1 team) blocked off a line of first class seats and had Surtees flown back to London. Following a long and painful rehabilitation (a burly rugby-playing physio reducing a four-inch discrepancy in his left thigh to three-eights of an inch), Enzo Ferrari converted a single-seater into what he referred to as a 'convalescence car' for his driver.

A frame normally used for engines was adapted to lift Surtees in and out of the cockpit. But he was mobile, pounding round and round a test track (long since abandoned) at Modena. It was a matter of regaining strength. The confidence and speed were there. As they had been from the moment he first raced on four wheels in 1960.

Even though we were casting back over five decades, Surtees remembered every detail of his debut and how he had qualified on the front row and fought with Jim Clark at Goodwood before finishing second in his next F2 race at Oulton Park. Was he surprised by his speed? "No," he said, "Because that was obviously the objective."

In cold print, that smacks of arrogance. But it was said in the matter-of-fact way that characterised a direct trait which frequently got him into trouble, specifically with Eugenio Dragoni as Enzo Ferrari's team manager ploughed a personal political furrow in the absence of his boss at the races. Even though Surtees walked out halfway through 1966, there was much sympathy and affection remaining among the ranks at Maranello.

"I did the Mille Miglia in around 2002 and we stopped en route," Surtees said when recalling the retro event. "Who should turn up but every one of the remaining lads from my Ferrari team. That summed up the true spirit of the relationship we had."

That feeling also remained among the passionate fans in Italy, where he was forever known as 'Il Grande John' in loving recall of his championship success with MV Agusta and Ferrari.

Surtees ultimately - and perhaps inevitably - ended up running his own team, a financially and mentally demanding challenge that blunted an outstanding driving talent and eventually led to his closing the workshop doors and walking away from racing.

It was while running successful businesses in factory rental and building restoration that John found himself drawn back to the sport in accompaniment with the very promising progress of his son. Despite the desperate heartache when Henry, at the age of 18, was fatally struck on the head by an errant wheel during a Formula Two race in 2009, John applied his extraordinary tenacity and quiet charm to forming 'Headway' and the 'Henry Surtees Foundation', charities for recovery from head injuries and the training of young people.

These are the tangible legacies of an exceptionally talented champion, and very nice man who knew his own mind - and was not afraid to express it.