Deaf Sports Stars19th October 2014

John Surtees - Motor Racing Great and Hearing Loss

Hugely successful, being able to hear the engine noise leads to hearing loss

by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

Through the years, Britain has produced more than its fair share of motor racing heroes but arguably none greater than John Surtees. Fifty years after he accomplished the feat, he remains the only man ever to have won World Championships on both two and four wheels.

Now 80 years old, he is the oldest surviving Formula One champion and the second oldest 500cc motorcycle champion after 81 year old fellow Englishman Geoff Duke. Awarded the OBE in the 2008 Birthday honours list, there is a vigorous ongoing campaign to see him receive a knighthood.

Despite his many achievements, the octogenarian continues to lead a hectic lifestyle with much of it dedicated to raising funds for the Henry Surtees Foundation, named after his son who lost his life in a freak motor racing accident at Brands Hatch in 2009, aged 18. The foundation assists people with brain or physical injuries caused by accident to return to community living. 

Ironically, although he was competing in a far more dangerous era, John himself emerged from his own career having survived one life threatening accident but with his main physical legacy being significant hearing loss as a result of being around noisy engines throughout his racing with little or no ear protection.

John recently spoke exclusively to SLFirst about his life now and about how his hearing loss impacts on it.

Born in Tatsfield in Surrey in 1934, a motorsport career was seemingly inevitable for the young Surtees. As well as being a motorcycle dealer, his father, also named John, was a successful racer with John’s mother often partnering him in their sidecar outfit. When the young John took his first turn partnering his father in the Vincent outfit, they won the race only to be disqualified when race officials discovered how young the passenger was.

John subsequently competed in his first grass track motorcycle race when he was 15 and at the age of 16 he began an apprenticeship with the famous, but now long gone, Vincent Motorcycle Company. John’s passion for the engineering side of the sport survives to this day.

John’s first race win came in August 1960 at the Aberdare Park circuit in South Wales, although that wasn’t the first race he had led, as he recalls, “I led a race at Brands Hatch. The only trouble was, I wasn’t on my bike at the time. I slid past the leader on my backside!”

With his first race win under his belt, however, plenty more success quickly followed until in 1956 he took his first world championship, in the blue riband 500cc class. He was riding for the works MV Agusta team and he was known by fans of the Italian marque as Figlio Del Vento or ‘son of the wind’. Surtees and MV went on to dominate the sport at the highest level and between 1958 and 1960 they took six more world titles, three each in the 350cc and 500cc classes. For good measure, he also claimed six wins on the famous Isle of Man TT circuit, becoming the first man to win the Senior TT three years in succession.

At the end of the 1960 season, with 38 Grand Prix wins from 49 starts under his belt, John made the decision to switch to four wheels. He had made his debut that year at the Monaco Grand Prix driving for Lotus and, after two years driving for British privateer teams he joined the legendary Scuderia Ferrari for the 1963 season.

The Italian team had been going through a difficult time and team principal Enzo Ferrari was a big fan of Surtees and what Ferrari regarded as his fighting spirit. Signing him paid dividends in 1964 when Surtees took his Ferrari to a World title. He had now won world championships on both two and four wheels for Italian manufacturers.

The following season saw him combine his Formula One activities with racing his own Lola sports car in the North American CanAm sports car championship. In September, while practising for a race at the Canadian Mosport circuit, his Lola suffered suspension failure and he crashed heavily suffering multiple injuries.

Somehow, he managed to fight back to fitness over the winter to take the CanAm title the following season. Although he was still racing with Ferrari, his relationship with the team and in particular with its manager Eugenio Dragoni had always been stormy. Eventually, things came to a head at the famous Le Mans 24 Hour race when Surtees took the unheard of step of walking away from Ferrari. Years later both Enzo Ferrari and John Surtees conceded the split was a mistake that cost them both at least two more world titles.

John’s Formula One career continued until 1973, briefly for the British Cooper team and then Japanese giants Honda before he took the decision in 1970 to build his own cars.  The Surtees team remained in racing until 1978 with the high spot being victory in the European Formula Two Championship, the driver another Motorcycle Grand Prix Star,  Mike ‘the Bike’ Hailwood.

Today, John combines his work for the Henry Surtees Foundation with working on and riding his classic race machinery at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Despite his remarkable achievements, John concedes that he also has regrets about his racing career, not least his falling out with Ferrari. He also regrets being a little too honest with a father who asked John to give an assessment of his son’s race driving ability. John’s candid response cost the Surtees race team a lucrative sponsorship deal and was responsible, at least in part, for them finally closing their doors.

He also regrets the impact that the sport had on his hearing. He says that he gave the problem little thought during his racing career although he believes that, at the time, there was no alternative. “I remember when I first sensed problems with my hearing”, he recalls, “I went along to a hearing specialist and he said there is not much you can do about it. Racing drivers, musicians and gunners, they are a bit of a lost cause. He didn’t come up with many ideas.”

He adds, “In my time I have driven probably some of the noisiest cars out. The 12 cylinder Honda and the Ferrari 12 cylinder were certainly in that group, the noisiest car being the 12 cylinder 3 litre Ferrari, although some of the cars I have driven since my actual career, the pre-war Mercedes, had a different sound but were still very noisy.”

John has talked to doctors about the extensive measures taken to protect the hearing of modern day race drivers but believes they wouldn’t have been practical in his day, explaining, “He or she doesn’t have to do the same things that we had to do. They have traction control and our traction control was through our right foot and you were listening to the engine and adjusting the throttle to suit the conditions, so it was vitally important that you heard the engine.”

John wears hearing aids to assist him but, characteristically, he is very clear about what measures he is prepared to take, commenting, “I don’t want to have an artificial sense of the world and I don’t want anything that is too intrusive.”

Despite his hectic schedule, travelling the world, driving some of the world’s finest racing machinery and meeting thousands of people all anxious to hear at least part of this legendary racer’s story, he says the biggest effect that his hearing loss has revolves around one of the simpler things in life. “I have to make certain allowances but generally it’s alright. I think the main thing is that if I go along and watch television I may make it a little uncomfortable for others also watching television since I may want it a 'little' louder.”

Having experienced adversity and tragedy as well as unsurpassed success in his sport, at the age of 80 John still clearly has a zest for life and he has no intention of letting his hearing loss prevent him living it to the full.

Article by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

19th October 2014