At the 1967 German Grand Prix, John Surtees was a busy man. It was his first year with the Honda Formula One team, a racing effort that had been plagued with problems — the biggest two being that it was underpowered and overweight. That would have been a handful enough, but Surtees was also preparing David Hobbs for his first Formula 2 event while helping other teams prepare their Lola-BMW F2 cars. All that at the most difficult track in the world.
But that’s just who John Surtees was. When he realized he’d accomplished a truly prestigious amount of success in the motorcycle world, Surtees decided to swap from two wheels to four. A little challenge came natural to him. And that’s why he’s the subject of Michael Cooper-Evans’ Six Days in August.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at John Surtees: Six Days in August by Michael Cooper-Evans.)
Six Days in August is no tome — it clocks in at a mere 126 pages — but Evans manages to pack in a lifetime of challenges alongside some personal tidbits (my favorite being that Surtees preferred home-cooked English food to all other cuisines because he found all others to be poorly spiced).
The title says it all: The book follows John Surtees, his wife Pat, and the Honda team at the 1967 German GP. The Honda team wasn’t brand-new for the season, but after a promising start to the year, things quickly went downhill. The first iteration of the car was heavier than the competition by several hundred pounds and was outfitted with a motorcycle engine. As other, more experienced teams came to grips with the challenges of F1 racing, Honda struggled to complete the upgraded version of its car — one that went on to win that year’s Italian Grand Prix.
But in Germany, the Honda was miserable. Because the car was so heavy, it was best set up with a low ride height to lower the center of gravity — but the Nürburgring’s many bumps and elevation changes meant the car would bottom out. Surtees had to compromise by raising the ride height, which practically demolished the car’s handling. And with so many other challenges on his plate, Surtees barely had time to understand how to best develop his car.
While the book itself is great, its small notations are the ones that really exemplify what a great man Surtees was. Rather than contest a full slate of racing himself — at the time, it was common to also compete in F2 and Can-Am races — Surtees remained in the office and in the shop, working to improve the Honda team. He didn’t have to — Surtees could easily have left those tasks up to Honda’s engineers — but he didn’t. He could easily have gone to a different team, one that could have guaranteed him a win, but he didn’t.
That’s the kind of dedication that made Surtees a legend, and you won’t find a better example of that in action than in Six Days in August.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on March 28, 2022. We’re going to be reading Shirley Shahan: The Drag-On Lady by Patrick Foster.