You will read all about John Surtees’ remarkable success with bikes, and cars, in great detail and in every form of media, because he was arguably the greatest ever master of motorcycle and car sport. These are a few memories of the man behind the statistics, told from the point of view of a clubman racer and journalist.
I could not claim to know Surtees well but I did work with him on two or three occasions whilst writing articles – the last time being only 18 months ago.
The interviews were always interesting – and for a range of reasons. First, John was meticulously polite. The system was that I made an appointment with his secretary for a certain date and time – sometimes weeks ahead. I would then phone and be put straight through to John immediately – a degree of professionalism and courtesy which, in the modern ego ridden world, was always a welcome surprise.
John’s attitude was fascinating. He had a razor sharp brain, and was always conscious of his place in the racing firmament. In short he was very well aware of how much he knew, and had done and achieved. It was wise to think first and then speak during an interview with him. For sure, I always did my research before I ever thought of opening my mouth!
At the same time, he was very modest and rather matter of fact. Yes, he knew Count Agusta personally but that was just part of the daily life as MV Agusta’s team leader. Winning this GP or that TT was simply part and parcel of a World Champion’s job.
There was never any sense of “Look at me and see how important I am…” Rather, he was just a genuinely interesting person who had achieved remarkable things without the aid of PR consultants, merchandising or a Twitter account.
However, my single strongest memory was not of working with him professionally but kneeling next to my bike, in the pouring rain, at a classic bike festival at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, near Paris. I was having a rotten time with a Suzuki which would not run in the monsoon conditions and John squatted down next to me, water streaming down his black waxed cotton over suit, and offered some advice.
For a clubman rider of no great merit, it was a strange – and deeply moving – experience to have a seven times World Champion genuinely care about whether I was going to be able to ride. For me, this was a sign of true greatness – to know how good you are and yet still possess the humanity to reach out to those at the very bottom of the motorcycle racing tree.