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Jonathan Palmer comments on death of Henry Surtees

Formula 2
Monday, July 20, 2009

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Henry celebrates his  first podium finish in F2
I am absolutely devastated that 18 year old Henry Surtees lost his life in an accident in the Formula Two race at Brands Hatch yesterday.  This is the saddest time in my 35 years of motor racing and my deepest sympathies are with father John, mother Jane and their daughters Edwina and Leonora, together with other family and friends.

Henry was driving at about 120 mph between Westfield and Sheene corners on lap 9 of the race when he was struck on the head by a bouncing wheel and tire from an accident at Westfield corner several seconds earlier.  It is clear that Henry was knocked unconscious immediately, and his car then continued straight on at Sheene Curve, hitting the tire wall barrier.  I understand that the fatal injury occurred instantly and that the impact at Sheene had no influence on the outcome of the accident.

The race was immediately red flagged and the medical team were very quickly at the scene.  Henry was removed from the car, stabilized and taken to the medical centre, where he was prepared to be air-lifted to the Royal London Hospital, the regional trauma centre.  After evaluation and investigations in the intensive care unit, Henry was found to have suffered a major head injury that was not survivable.

Henry had joined Formula Two for this first season of the new championship and had immediately impressed with a pace, focus and maturity that belied his young age of 18 years.  He took an incredible pole position at Brno in the Czech Republic in only his second F2 event, and became the first British driver to win a place on the podium with a magnificent third place at Brands Hatch on the day before he died.  Henry made a big mark in just four events and looked very likely to be a winner in F2 in the future and maybe even F1.

Not only was Henry immensely talented but he was also a very popular member of the whole Formula Two team, making many friends amongst both the other drivers and the team members, earning enormous respect everywhere. 

John Surtees played a major part in his son’s success, carefully monitoring everything that was going on and meticulously using his huge experience mentoring Henry and contributing to the all important set up and strategy.  It was such a pleasure seeing father and son working together so effectively and it was clear that pursuing Formula Two success was the focus of Henry and John’s lives and something they enjoyed immensely.

There will of course be a detailed investigation into the accident that claimed Henry’s life and we will do everything possible to understand exactly what happened and why, and see what can be learnt from this freak accident in the continual quest to make motor racing safer.  It is perhaps ironic that John Surtees competed for many years at the highest levels of motorsport on both four wheels and two at a time when safety was given little consideration, but his son Henry should lose his life at a time when driver safety has never been greater.

The Williams F1 designed Formula Two cars comply with the FIA 2005 F1 safety standards including the fitment of wheel tethers to reduce the risk of wheels coming off in accidents.  The F2 car also includes the latest F1 standards of driver head protection with high cockpit sides and lateral deformable structures.  As with F1 however, wheel tethers cannot provide an absolute guarantee that a wheel will not come off in an accident and in a single seater race car the front of the head is inevitably exposed to the risk, however small, of being hit by another car or component.

This accident is particularly poignant for me as a father and brings into sharp and uncomfortable focus the inevitable danger of motorsport.  On Sunday morning my 18 year old son Jolyon and Henry were sat together, amidst all the F2 drivers, joking and signing autographs for fans.  In the afternoon F2 race Henry was just half a second or so behind Jolyon, trying to move forward after an earlier spin.  As they both dived down towards Sheene, the bouncing wheel just missed Jolyon, but hit Henry, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  By the evening, I was with John and Jane Surtees in the same intensive care unit at the London hospital that Jolyon had been in nearly two years earlier after his serious quad bike accident.

The awful tragedy has not just touched, but profoundly affected many people.  Our whole Formula Two team and those involved at Williams F1 are enormously saddened, shocked and stunned by what has happened and for Henry’s dedicated F2 mechanic Don Old it is a particularly difficult time.  When such incidents occur one relies upon the professionalism of all those involved and I am proud of the way the medical team at Brands Hatch did everything possible to save poor Henry’s life.

We all know life can be cruel and we read of young victims of tragedies every day, whether through accident, war or illness.  But nothing can prepare someone for the loss of their own child and clearly John and Jane are absolutely distraught.  We are all so desperately sorry.  At this most difficult time in the Surtees’ life we will of course do whatever we can to help as John and Jane in particular try to come to terms with the loss of Henry, someone so special and someone who had already achieved so much in his short life.

Jonathan Palmer, Chief Executive of MotorSport Vision

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