INTERVIEW: John Surtees, remembering Henry

johnandhenry“I am pleased to say he was a good lad”, an emotional John Surtees OBE tells me just days before the fourth anniversary of his son’s untimely death in 2009.

The Henry Surtees Foundation, founded in his honour, is a response to the love and incredible sentiments Henry garnered throughout his eighteen years. In 2010, the Henry Surtees Foundation was given official charity status and the first Henry Surtees Award was handed to Tom Blomqvist that same year.

“At his service, we asked for donations to be given instead of flowers”, John explained. The Motorsport community did what it does best; £32,000 was immediately gifted in his memory. This changed everything for John. “I realised I could work with him, he’s going to live on”, he explained. I could hear John’s voice change as the importance of maintaining Henry’s legacy became all the more evident.

“He was independent and followed his heart, not his dad”, John reminisced when I asked him about Henry’s early racing career – he was eight when he first gave racing a try. It was obvious then that Henry would go far; he was tipped for the top.

Much like the man I spoke to that day, Henry had a successful start to his career. Not only did he claim pole position at his first attempt but his first season in racing, as part of the Ginetta Junior Championships, saw him finish third. John expressed his particular delight at Henry’s Silverstone win in the series.

“Daddy, that is what I want to do”, Henry told his champion father. The dream was set, now the family just had to make it happen.

henrywin£550,000 was required to continue Henry’s career; the cost increases as Formula 1 gets closer. John explained that his son “was against selling things to find the money.” His independence and determination to prove himself was obvious; if he was to be successful, he was to do it without the help of his famous surname.

Opportunities came Henry’s way. “Fate intervened. Jonathan Palmer from Formula Renault 2.0 made an offer. Henry had some good drives in an extremely competitive field”.  John’s voice was, once again, one of pride. This was the start and, unfortunately, the end of Henry’s Motorsport career; he would not finish the season.

“The anniversary is very personal to us, as a family we do our thing. It is usually very quiet”. I began to get emotional. I will be honest, I had to wipe a tear from my eye as I listened to a Formula 1 World Champion and Motorsport legend disregard his own achievements and instead gush about the son he misses dearly.

“I faced a very difficult decision. I nearly walked away from Motorsport completely”. Henry’s accident was a case of bad luck, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time – Felipe Massa endured a similar accident one week later in Hungary. “I was so bitter and upset”, this is a frankly understandable reaction.

hsfWhat better way to remember a loved one than to transfer the generosity they showed in life, and fulfil it all on their behalf? That is the Henry Surtees Foundation in a nutshell.

The hard work has created success. Over £40,000 from the foundation has provided blood transfusion equipment in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Aiming to push youngsters onto the career ladder, helping to  improve the health of the surrounding community and creating karting events for aspiring racers, the Henry Surtees Foundation is certainly keeping John busy.

When talking to John, Henry’s giving nature was frequently a topic of conversation. John told me of the time that his IT teacher at his school had thanked Henry with the message, “thank you for helping me to get the most of out of my laptop”. That was Henry. It is easy to see why his father is still proud to this day.

Henry’s love of technology and the desire he had to understand fully the data for his car, pushed the foundation to teach the importance of communication within a team whilst educating the public about technology. In Henry’s honour the foundation has assisted drivers with physical injuries and helped to relieve unemployment.

I do not think anyone, including Henry, could ask for a better tribute than that and there is more to come.

Blood Launch Cheque PresentationPlans for the future include a karting event at Buckmore Park in aid of the Air Ambulance service and to continue this throughout the world. “Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey were inspired by little experiences of Motorsport. That is what we are aiming for”. Thanks to the great work of John Surtees and the Henry Surtees Foundation, youngsters are being gifted with experiences that could one day define them.

An ever-humble John simply remarked, “that’s pleasing.” Indeed John, it is.

John and Henry used to take “little adventures together” up and down the country to races. “Sometimes I was the chauffeur, sometimes the mechanic and sometimes the cook”, he recalled with a laugh. Now John and Henry work together in a completely different way.

As for his legacy, “it is only the beginning”.

18 FEBRUARY 1991- 19 JULY 2009.


A special thank you to John and everybody at the Henry Surtees Foundation for their generosity of time.
All images are courtesy of  Jakob Ebrey Motorsport Photography and the foundation itself. Please visit their website to find out how you can help continue Henry’s legacy.


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