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Surtees Jr perishes chasing the dream
Posted By: James Allen  |  20 Jul 2009   |  10:22 am GMT  |  27 comments

It is ironic that as one 19 year old is given his big break into Formula 1, news comes through of an 18 year old who died in pursuit of that same dream, while racing in Formula 2.

The death of Henry Surtees, the son of 1964 world champion John, has rocked the motor sport community.

Surtees died on Sunday following a freak accident at Brands Hatch where he was hit on the head by a loose wheel, which had been knocked off the car of Jack Clarke, stepson of F1 racer Julian Bailey. Clarke  had spun and hit the barriers, causing the wheel to detach.

Loose wheels have been a hot safety topic in F1 for many years, with wheel tethers being used with varying degrees of success. F1 specification wheel tethers are used on the F2 cars, but the impact was high speed and at an angle.

F2 is essentially a new category with new cars this year. It has been revived by Jonathan Palmer  and the FIA, who got together with Williams F1, the designer and builder of the car.

The series features some exciting up and coming talents and is notable for a club of  “sons of” F1 drivers of the past, who have all been taking steps along the road to emulating their famous fathers.  Along with Surtees and Bailey, there is Alex Brundle, son of my  colleague Martin and Jolyon Palmer, son of series founder Jonathan.

One can only imagine what must be going through their and their families’ minds. In their day motor sport was far more dangerous than today and many of them lost close friends during their careers.

Although the cars are faster now, the safety features built into them are massively superior. Many of these racing Dads got their sons through karting and felt comfortable with the idea of encouraging them to progress through single seaters, pursuing the dream of emulating them and becoming F1 drivers.

This incident is a tragic reminder that you can never make racing completely safe and never believe that you are close to doing so.

My thoughts are with the Surtees family and the F2 community.

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27 Comments
  1. Aaron James says:

    James, a very well written article summing it up.

    Question- i saw a big difference in the wheel linkage design on the F2 and F1 cars- the F2 car had mostly in a horizontal line while the F1 car is smothered in bars.

    What is the actual difference in wheel spec?

  2. Gareth says:

    Such a tragic accident.
    My thoughts are with his family and friends.

  3. Such a shame to lose a lad we would, no doubt, have been writing about for years to come.

    RIP Henry

  4. Phil Huff says:

    I spoke with Henry on Saturday, and we both said ‘Hi’ as we passed each other on Sunday, both with somewhere else to be.

    The accident was devastating, and the mood in the paddock changed immediately. Everyone feared the worst, and it was quite clear there wasn’t going to be a happy ending.

    Motorsport is dangerous. I’ve had my fair share of accidents and, fortunately, got away with only very minor injuries, but that risk is always present and, despite the huge advances in technology and safety, it’ll never go away.

    My very sincere condolences go out to the Surtees family. The only consolation is that he died doing what he loved to do the most.

  5. Martin Trautvetter says:

    I think it’s a logical fallacy to suggest that racing can’t be made safe. Yes, it can.

    There are a number of solutions to the very issue that took Henry Surtees’ life, may he rest in peace, yesterday, chief among them introducing a structure to protect the drivers head and helmet from impact by rummaging debris.

    Of course, with such a device, monoposto racing wouldn’t be the same as it was before.

    And that’s where I find issue with your comment. It’s not that racing can’t be made safe, it’s that WE CHOSE to not make the required changes.

    In that, I fear, we’re complicit in not just Henry Surtees’ death yesterday, but in everyone else injuries – past, present, and future – incurred by the same, long-known, well understood, terribly dangerous mechanism.

    1. Duds says:

      The only thing that could have prevented a vertically dropping wheel being fatal is a roof.

      So really you’re advocating the actual death of single seaters as we know them. I feel that’s too high a price to pay for an accident of lottery defying odds.

      1. I believe there are actually safety considerations though with regards to roofs, etc…

        The driver has to be able to get out of the car in less than 5 seconds which is something that would go out the window.
        However I would be more worried about a car on the off chance it caught fire or ended up upside down.

        A roof over the cockpit might end up being more detrimental to the driver’s safety…

  6. Duds says:

    Jack Clarke whose wheel it was is a stepson of an F1 pilot (Julian Bailey) too I believe. I was at Brands, Henry was driving well. It’s important to recognise that this really was a freak, the exact same circumstance would have been just as fatal in F1, WSR or GP2 as well. It wouldn’t have been terribly pleasant even in the WTCC race either.

    We need to recognise that the fact it takes utter insanity to kill in today’s motorsport means simply that the safety innovations ARE working and that simply nothing is 100% safe, not even taking your bins out at night.

    Hopefully this doesn’t kill a promising motorsport category that, at least at Brands, was providing exactly the spectacle and opportunity it was designed to promote.

    1. Snail says:

      I agree. Our society today, is, it seems, in all walks of life, very risk averse and seems to think all risk should be removed. I used to walk to school (over a mile) on my own when I was 6, nowadays parents even walk their 8 year olds to the local school not even 1/4 a mile away. I just hope the people wearing the peaked caps down at the local council don’t use this as a reason to clamp down on this activity. They’ve already banned kids from climbing trees…

      Trip over a kerb, land face down, unconscious in a 1 inch puddle and you’ll die. Its life, life is full of risks.

      The accident was most unusual and he was very unlucky to be hit like that and for that to then cause the accident that compounded his problems. Very unfortunate. But he knew the risks every time he got in the car. Sad and as that is, he did go out doing what he wanted to do.

      If you aren’t willing to face the risks (whatever they are), don’t do the activity.

      That said, some risks don’t need to exist at the level they exist at: is the design of F2 wheel tethers inferior to that for F1, etc? If so, why?

      1. Duds says:

        Oh absolutely, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persue safety. I believe they use F1 teathers in this case and the car is designed to 2005 F1 safety standards (the cockpit protection to 2009)

  7. Dan says:

    This is sad and also so reminiscent of Tom Price death in 1977.
    Like Tom poor Henry did not stand a chance. No matter how safe cars are now, freak accidents like this one will always happen. I saw him as a young boy among the spectators next to his dad at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed price giving ceremony maybe 10 years ago when he was only starting his go-kart career and dreaming of one day being a Motor racing hero himself. At least he died doing what he loved.

    1. Aaron James says:

      To be honest, it strikes me a lot as Ayrton Senna in 1994, apart from it was someones elses wheel.

      I just pray that his death doesnt go for nothing, and like the great Ayrton something is done about safety.

  8. Aaron James says:

    I was there yesterday, and while this was a freak accident, I can’t help but think Brands is not the best place for openwheel racing.

    Also, the issue with wheels coming untethered seems to plague these F2 cars. While any tether can be broken, it definitely needs to be looked at with these cars.

    But this is discussion for later. It is such a sad day for all fans of motorsport to lose someone in such tragic circumstances. I really do wish Henry’s family all the support in the world during this awful time.

  9. Motorsport is dangerous :(

    1. krad says:

      But statistically less so than horse riding

  10. Lee Gilbert says:

    This is a terrible freak accident

    But has anyone else noticed how bad the tethers have been in F1 this year – even in low speed shunts against the barrier they are breaking

    Now tether shave never been 100% but this year has been noticeable

    Any reason why they appear to be worse this year?

  11. RichB says:

    Loose wheel. Fatality. Williams F1.
    We’ve had that combination before.

  12. Matthew says:

    Yet again we are jolted into the reality that these superstar drivers really are risking their lives whilst racing.

    It is too easy to become blaze about the safety aspects that we now take for granted. Although the shock of Henry’s death is testament to the advances we have seen, it reminds us that we should keep on pushing.

    It is unfortunate that Williams are once again involved in a driver’s death. It will not go unnoticed, I hope, that the rear wheel of Henry’s car also failed to be held by the tether.

  13. Manny says:

    its so sad. He was so young. When I looked on the autosport website this morning, it was such a loss. It hit me though, within a few hours Felipe Massa was giving out his condolences. It just shows how all racing drivers are some how family even if they have never met.

  14. Rick J says:

    A tragic event. Given Henry’s father’s background, he perhaps entered the 4 wheeled world because it was considered safer than the 2 wheeled one, which would be a sad irony indeed. I really feel for John Surtees and his family right now.

  15. Jacs says:

    You’re right James, although the risks can be reduced they can never be emimimated. As it says on the back of every ticket ‘Motor Sport is dangerous’ and nothing anyone can do will change that fact.
    When something like this happens, I’m always reminded of a quote by Bruce McLaren, who himself died tragically young at the wheel of a racing car; “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone”.

  16. Soeren says:

    Maybe now some people will realize the anachronism of having these high-sidewalled tyres instead of low-profile ones with larger rim diameters. Go ask the DTM teams if they’d like big wobbly tyres instead of sharp-turning low-profile ones. If I’m not mistaken it means more unsprung mass, more mass hitting someone if a wheel comes off, more bounce, suspension characteristics far less controllable than leaving the fine-tuning of the suspension setup to sophisticated sets of springs and dampers … for what? “Because of the tradition”, I hear someone say. Sod off. Same goes for cockpit cages / surrounds (see post of Martin Trautvetter)

  17. Rudy Pyatt says:

    Absolutely tragic.

    The only good thing that can come of this is the adoption of additional measures that may help other drivers in the future. As noted, no race car, no vehicle of any kind really, can be made wholly safe. But I do think that the “higher” levels of motorsport can learn from more “primitive” ones where open-wheel safety is concerned. USAC had a tradition of no rollover protection and many drivers perished as a result. They got over that, now having used a full roll cage for decades, with a much, much lower injury rate, and certainly lower fatality rate. Take a look at any video to see the look and effectiveness.

    Again, just tragic, tragic news. My heart goes out to the family.

  18. Dermot Keelan says:

    A tragic accident indeed. My sympathies to the Surtees family and all those who were close to Henry.

    However I can’t help but get the feeling that the tethers used for the rear wheels on these cars are inadequate. When Henry’s car hit the barriers, after the loose tyre had struck Henry, the rear wheel came off as well even though it did not seem like a heavy impact.

    This will surely need to reviewed after this tragedy.

    RIP Henry

  19. Stu says:

    Horrific accident, reminded me a little of Tom Pryce.

    James, how difficult would be to introduce a special valve into these tyres that could automatically open itself? Either by high impact, a tether snapping or both. The valve opening would quickly dump alot of the air in the tyre and would reduce it’s bounce and speed.

    Maybe if you think this is a good suggestion you could mention it to one of the tyre techs or someone from the FIA this weekend.

  20. Foobar says:

    Such a pointless death is always a sad thing.

    I’ve been thinking about this and feel that they could prevent these types of accidents – and improve peripheral vision as well – by adding thick “rollbars” as a canopy and lowering the side walls as well hence improving sideways visibility…which, I feel, would improve the chances of overtaking.

  21. The Limit says:

    My deepest sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man.

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