John Surtees' tribute to son Henry

Discussion about all other motor racing categories - GP2, GP3, Rallying, NASCAR, F2 & F3, MotoGP
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 25503
Joined: 29 Sep 2007, 17:32

John Surtees' tribute to son Henry

Post by phil1993 » 31 Dec 2009, 16:01

Former world champion John Surtees shares his memories of his son Henry, who was killed at the age of 18 in a freak accident in a Formula 2 race a Brands Hatch in July

By John Surtees
1964 Formula 1 world champion

For Henry's situation, Formula 2 was a welcome revival because it gave opportunity for people to compete at a world level at sensible budgets. People criticise that the structure doesn't teach people things, but I would disagree with that. From a concept point of view, F2 was welcome.

He'd sat in a Formula 3 car and won in the National Class at Donington first time out, and his data showed that he could compete with [Jaime] Alguersuari, [Oliver] Turvey and such. But we were confronted with the fact that the best team had signed up people that finished behind him in Championship Class cars, because they had £650,000.

Well, we didn't have £650k to go racing, particularly with the intense testing programme of F3 and school – the two were not compatible. Education was important, and would give him options. But we couldn't go along spending those vast sums.

We had another intriguing possibility which was to take an active part in the rebirth of the Mygale and join with the Tandys. That was something which was very interesting, but it was to involve me in the organisation of it. I already had an involvement in a motorcycle project, but then something intervened which changed our lives. I had a heart attack. The motorcycle programme had to be largely forgotten and there was no way I could be sure I could involve myself in the running of a race team.

I'd had a meeting with Jonathan Palmer and I'd been impressed by his vision. I had one or two reservations, I didn't want it to be too close to Palmer Audi, it had to be Formula 2. It had to create its own identity.

What convinced me was the good people that were coming. In a team you're judged by how good you are against your team-mate. If you can't see your team-mate off, you've got problems. The same applies to a formula. You need to race against good people. There's no point having all the success in the world if the people are frankly second rate. But when you saw the quality of the entry that went into F2 this year, you realised that 50 per cent of them had been on the world stage and were knocking on the door of GP2 and potential F1 tests. We thought it was good company, so we made the decision together while I was in hospital.

I hate to think about luck in racing, but Henry was very unfortunate to get involved in other peoples' mistakes and accidents. He had set the fastest time at a pre-seaon test at Silverstone. Then when he went and put it on pole at Brno, three of the main contenders had their clutches fail on the line. Disaster. But the most important thing was that he'd shown he could compete having come back from adversity.

At the start of the second race at Brands Hatch, he was pushed up on the kerb and got sideways. Others had gone off so the race director suspended the race under new Formula 1 rules. Because Henry had to wait for everyone to go by, he was at the back of the field – always a dangerous place to be…

People talked about Felipe Massa's accident in Hungary the following week. He had a 0.8kg hit him, Henry had 29kg. That was the mass which hit him – so it was instant.

I looked after the sensible first race he drove at Brands and thought ‘I've got no worry here'. It was all coming together. We had Donington coming, where Henry had been very quick, and Imola where he'd driven a Formula Master car and loved it, so I thought he could quite easily have at least a couple of wins on our hands there. The engineers he'd worked with were totally convinced about him.

He'd suddenly become a changed person since finishing his exams and leaving school. We'd always been on about this bit of extra weight he carried, but he went and did a session with the Racing Steps [Foundation] trainer in Italy where they went through exactly what he needed to watch for and work on.

Once he'd finished his exams he showed us this plan for how much time he needed to spend in the gym, how much body fat he had, what weight he could achieve without losing any strength. Brands Hatch was the first race that he was dead down to weight. He'd lost 8kg through training and eating carefully. And on the Monday morning after Brands he was due to come into my office and take over a desk. He was going to run his website, look into sponsorship and try to put together some areas for next season.

It has split the family down the middle – the rest of the family doesn't want to know anything about motorsport, although they appreciate that this was a freak accident and that I would find it very difficult to walk totally away from something that has dominated so much of my life.

I met my wife after my racing career had finished so they were never involved in that. In my house, you won't see trophies or anything else – other than the odd one in my study. The kids never really realised my background. We just lived our life as it was and I was no longer a racing driver by then.

It wasn't even me who introduced Henry to karting. He went, came back and said that's what he wanted to do. It wasn't because of me, I never pushed him. My eldest daughter wanted to do it to as well, but my wife said no to two of them doing it and put her on something even more dangerous – horses!

I tried to make certain I was a supporting force and not a driving force. I've seen people who if it wasn't for their fathers would probably rather be doing something else, and I didn't want that to happen. The driving force had to come from within him. That had stepped up a gear since he finished school, and we were yet to see the best of him.

I have to be very careful about not getting angry. At times I feel very empty – a very large part of my life has disappeared. I remember from the days karting with the truck, I'd be chief cook, bottle washer, everything. Motorsport was very much a part of his life and we were very close with those common interests.

It would have been easier if he'd over done it, got it wrong and crashed. But to be taken out by someone else's accident is hard to take. It's the cruellest thing. I get near the edge at times but I have to think at least we had 18 and a half years of a loving son and brother, and a lot of exciting and wonderful experiences together.

Everybody in Formula 2, Jonathan Palmer, Henry's school, have been fantastic. We saw what happened on all the various websites and such, Henry touched so many people. In these very difficult times for all of us we have been so grateful for so much support that has come from all over the world and thank everybody for their kind thoughts and sentiments.

car driver
car driver
Posts: 1
Joined: 13 Nov 2009, 18:14

Re: John Surtees' tribute to son Henry

Post by Hannah. » 31 Dec 2009, 16:20

Ok, well that made me cry :'(
Henry was such a promising racer and probably would have ended up in F1 given half a chance, guess we'll never know now.
Thoughts still with his family, RIP Henry Surtees xxx

Post Reply