There have been previous books about Il Grande John, but this isn’t so much a biography, more a story of a British motor sport titan told using photos and long captions. And what photos. They start with Surtees as a toddler at the Layhams Farm grass track venue in Kent in 1936. He’s sitting aboard his father’s B14 Excelsior-JAP sidecar outfit. Judging from his expression, the die has clearly been cast.
The story really takes of in the early ’50s, and we particularly loved the shot of the future world beater – then still a teenager – ahead of a record-breaking attempt at Montlhéry aboard a Vincent Black Shadow. The caption matter-of-factly outlines how his top-speed runs were curtailed when the rear tyre started to delaminate; he was travelling at 129mph at the time.
Many of the motor racing images are familiar, but that’s no bad thing when they include shots such as David Phipps’ picture of Surtees driving the Bowman-run, Maranello Concessionaires-entered Ferrari 250GTO in the 1962 Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. This famous colour photo shows him leading the race, while the corresponding LAT shot that flanks it shows how his race ended after fourth-place man Jim Clark uncharacteristically spun John Ogier’s Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato just as Surtees came up to lap him for the second time. He took them both out in the process.
Predictably, Ferraris feature prominently, and it was intriguing to see the image of an incensed Surtees remonstrating with the Scuderia’s team manager, Eugenio Dragoni, as engineer Mauro Forghieri looks on. Surtees doesn’t mince his words when describing the man who did so much to persuade the Briton to look for opportunities elsewhere. ‘Dragoni was incompetent and a mistake for Ferrari, and I always thought there were political reasons why he was there. Mr Ferrari himself never went to race meetings, and there was no TV coverage in those days, so he had to rely on the often-distorted reports from others.’
A sizeable section of the book is also given over to Surtees’ eponymous team, which, while successful in Formula 2 and Formula 5000, never quite made the leap to the top spot in Formula 1.
It’s hard to pick fault with a book that’s so enjoyable to dip into – especially since royalties go to the Henry Surtees Foundation. Highly recommended for fans of two- and four-wheeled motor sport.