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Jonathan Palmer pays tribute to John Surtees

Monday, March 13 2017

I was very sad indeed to hear that John Surtees had passed away last Friday, particularly as I had not been aware he had been unwell. He was a truly extraordinary man, and summaries of his remarkable and unique successes in motorsport have been well documented throughout the media. I would like to add a personal tribute to John, who I got to know quite well through both our sons' racing careers and a general shared passion in not only motorsport, but particularly young driver single seater championships.

I first got to know John when he was looking after his son Henry's racing and we were at kart circuits together when Jolyon was racing, particularly Buckmore Park. Seeing John and Henry working together was most impressive - John was fully involved with running Henry's kart and clearly had a very technical and intelligent approach to everything, whether kart preparation, set up or Henry's driving. What was nice was that Henry loved the engineering element too, which made their relationship particularly special. John clearly loved going racing with his son Henry and was a great mentor, a role which Henry enjoyed taking full advantage of - they were a wonderful and very successful father and son team.

When Henry moved into racing cars, initially with Ginetta Juniors, then Formula BMW and Formula Renault, I'm sure John continued to be as heavily involved with the engineering ofF2BH-05 the car as was appropriate, given the expertise of the team. And then in 2009, like Jolyon, Henry moved into our new FIA Formula 2 championship. Although the cars were engineered by the F2 personnel, the drivers were free to be involved too and inevitably John discussed set ups and car preparation extensively with Henry, though always with respect for the F2 regulations. Henry was a very quick and intelligent driver, taking a pole at Brno and finishing on the podium with a third in the first race at Brands Hatch, and John was rightly very proud of Henry's success, though modest and realistic too - John certainly wasn't one to gush about his son's obvious great potential.

Tragically the enormous pleasure of this father and son team and the dream of F1 success came to a devastating, sudden end in the second Brands Hatch F2 race, when Henry was struck by a wheel from a crashing car just ahead in a freak accident.  The grave seriousness was immediately obvious and when Henry was taken to the London Hospital I joined the family there shortly afterwards. John's strength that evening was extraordinary. He, along with his lovely wife Jane and daughters Leonora and Edwina, had suffered every parent's worst nightmare. Clearly everyone was in total shock, but despite his obvious devastation, John remained composed and objective in circumstances that would have reduced most people to distraught ineffectiveness. Clearly John's character and no doubt experience of tragedy over a highly dangerous motorsport era contributed to his remarkable stoicism.

Henry's funeral at Worth Abbey was beautifully organised, and again John demonstrated incredible fortitude, now well beyond the initial shock and amidst a huge number of family friends and acquaintances attending. John and I spent a lot of time together after Henry's death, understanding the circumstances of the accident and what could be learnt, and I believe our friendship grew considerably deeper in the period after that tragedy.         

John's energy was always amazing, particularly for a man of his age. Following Henry's death others might have turned their back on motor racing, but not John. It wasDeh 0921ju 105 understandable that John would immerse himself in developing the Henry Surtees Foundation, a very successful charity to mainly help head injury victims that will undoubtedly continue to flourish in memory of Henry. What is perhaps more remarkable is John's continued interest in young driver series, racing cars and the career path for young drivers. He would often call me to either let me know his views - or ask for mine - on such matters. Karting was always a sport dear to John's heart, and his purchase two years ago of Buckmore Park circuit was great news that has resulted in a major upgrade of the popular local kart track and an exciting future for it with major involvement from Leonora Surtees.

John Surtees was a remarkable man and a motorsport legend and it was a great privilege to have known him. His achievement of being the only world champion on two wheels and four will almost certainly remain unique in history. It remains lamentable that John has not survived to enjoy the knighthood such prolonged success and enormous contribution to motorsport should have earned him.

Jonathan Palmer


Main image: Jakob Ebrey Photography