(Interview by S.Murtas – realized and published in February 2015)
The myth began half a century ago, when John Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on 2 and 4 wheels. And to add to the legend, he did it on a Ferrari, the F158. His achievement, still unmatched to this day, makes Surtees a fantastic ambassador for motor sport and Karting, which he has been passionately involved in since 1998.
Two decades of racing at the highest level, almost equally divided between 2 and 4 wheel racing, and five World Championships in both disciplines. John Surtees is by far the most iconic motorsport character having been able to master two different disciplines at the highest level, something no other racer has ever been close to achieve. The legend came alive in 1964, when after four years of F1 racing, at his second season at the court of the ‘Drake’ Enzo Ferrari, Surtees landed an unprecedented – and still unmatched – World Championship title on the F158 to add to his already four motorbike world crowns.
And as you would expect from an all-round, motorsport passionate character like John Surtees, over the years he has established strong links with the Karting scene, which he passionately nurtures thanks to his involvement with Buckmore Park, one of the most prestigious karting facilities in the country.
How did you first get involved with Buckmore Park, and Karting?
“My first involvement started when my son Henry, almost 8 years old, went to Buckmore Park with a friend of ours and after having had a great time he came back and said ‘daddy, that’s what I want to do!’ From then he started racing, going through all the cadet and junior ranks, ultimately also racing in junior gearbox.”
And how did you go from being a driver’s dad to a committed Buckmore Park supporter?
“During this time Bill Sisley, the leasehold owner of Buckmore Park circuit, came to see me about the improvement of the facility, and I was more than happy to help. So I supported Bill with the design and the financing of the new clubhouse, the scrutineer’s bay and the cafeteria which was built in the paddock. Then, even after Henry had moved to cars, my involvement with Buckmore Park has continued, also through my collaboration with Racing Steps Foundation. Then three years ago I was actually able to buy the freehold of the circuit.”
Buckmore Park is one of the most picturesque circuits in the UK, with a very exciting layout, but we can’t wait to see the extension works you have planned…
“We made few extension designs a few years back during our negotiations when we set to purchase the freehold of the circuit and the additional land which are still valid. The extension plan will depend on when the first investment is required, and on negotiations that are taking place at this time regarding the potential development of the facilities. Not only in terms of extending the actual layout, but also on the possibility to have an alternative circuit to be used for our training programs and suchlike. Together with the arrive and drive facility, it will virtually allow Buckmore to have four independent circuits, each aimed for different programs.”
The tragic, sudden death of his son Henry at Brands Hatch during a race of the 2009 Formula Two Championship, which took the whole world by surprise, marked Surtees stronger involvement with Buckmore Park, also through the activities of the foundation that bears Henry’s name.
“Since I lost Henry, Buckmore has played a part in a very special event we do for karters at the end of the year. The event has a range of prizes, which is well above anything present in junior motorsport, all aimed for youngsters with talent to make progress in their career. Prizes include equipment and test-drives, which normally would be rather expensive to say the least, thanks to the support of our many sponsors and partners. Buckmore Park has been the host venue for this great event, and I’d like it to play an even bigger part in future.”
As you said, motorsport and karting can provide huge attraction. How do you intend to engage youngsters in motorsport?
“At the moment I’m very much engaged in talking to colleges throughout Kent, also Oxford Brookes and Brooklands college about the possible establishment of a training center to provide youngsters with career prospects, using the emotion and attraction of motorsport and karting. The motorsport industry has a wide range of careers available, and we’re not talking only about drivers. From being a mechanic, an engineer, working in health and fitness, and so on. What we aim to do is becoming a feeder giving initial training, both from the mechanical and IT side, which would prepare them also in their college and university studies.”
Inspired by his son Henry, aimed at assisting people with brain or physical injuries caused by accident and providing education and training associated with motorsport-related programmes, the Henry Surtees Foundation is actively involved in the sport.
What can you tell us about the Henry Surtees Foundation and the events that you organize every year?
“We run two events a year, one which we do at Brooklands during the Grand Prix week in July, and the other one, the Henry Surtees Challenge, held in October at Buckmore Park in partnership with Club100. The event at Brooklands is a team event, a 2h corporate endurance race with a cocktail reception and an auction held at the Mercedes Benz World building, which has a romantic feel to it as it’s where motorsport started.”
Do you think Karting is still an important step in the progression of a career in motorsport?
“I’m a little dismayed… when I started karting with Henry the sport was quite simple and you didn’t have as and have fun. In some ways, Verstappen’s story demonstrates that he has learned an awful lot from his karting experience. The fact that he was able to go into many classes as you have now. And it wasn’t as expensive as it’s become in recent years. Nevertheless, I believe that Karting still provides good discipline and helps youngsters to be independent, to communicate efficiently, essentially to grow up. I still remember when Henry, after having used his PI acquisition system on the kart, came back from school with a note from his IT teacher that read ‘thank you for showing me how to get the best out of my laptop’.
I think karting still has this power, and it’s what gives me the enthusiasm to share it with the youngsters from the community. Karting can still play a big part, but we must be very careful it doesn’t become driven exclusively by commercial forces.”
You have been involved also with the Racing Steps Foundation, one of the most successful projects of recent years in helping young British talents with little means coming through the ranks.
“When I joined the project, I was very much aware of the difficulty for youngsters to progress in their motorsport career. When this idea from Graham Sharp came forward in 2008, I thought it was a fantastic idea, it’s a pity we couldn’t have helped more! As far as I know we’ve dropped the support on karters for now, but the two lads that we support I think have great potential.”
What do you make of the Verstappen story? At 18 years of age, the lad is set to debut in F1 this year after a brilliant career in Karting and one season in Formula 3.
“I think one year spent in another category like GP2 would have been useful, particularly for the longer term. From a point of view of young karters, they should realize that the ambition to jump in a Formula 1 is understandable, but racing mustn’t necessarily lead to F1. There are lots of other opportunities, all sorts of categories not only in Europe, but also in America for instance. They should be open to experience other things, cars and do very well speaks for itself, and is very good for Karting. At the end of the day, Red Bull people are in a better position to judge than me, and it might well be that the lad is in fact ready!”
Besides feeding from incredibly successful stories such as Verstappen’s, how do you think we could improve the promotion of Karting?
“I think that to a certain degree the emotion and attraction created by the Wheldons, the Buttons and the Hamiltons is necessary, but it’s only part of it. Not enough is made about the incredible uniting factor Karting can be for families. It strengthens bonds and relationships, and can be a very educational discipline, where youngsters learn several different things, from dealing with pressure to self-discipline and physical and mental fitness.
I remember feeling like starting a new adventure every time Henry and I used to go to a karting event. This is the message that we need to be put across more and more. Karting can’t just be the stepping-stone to F1, there’s an awful lot more to it than that!”