Was so nauseating Zhou Guanyu’s upside-down crash at Silverstone, and the wait for an update on his condition is so horrifying that Leonora Martell-Surtees considered leaving the track early. As the daughter of the great John Surteesthe only man to ever win two- and four-wheel world championships, the sight of the Chinese driver’s shattered Alfa Romeo caused horrific flashbacks.
It was on July 19, 2009 that her younger brother Henry, who raced Formula 2 at Brands Hatch, was killed in a freak accident when the steering wheel of a rival car, which had broken its chain during a high-speed spin, bounced. back across the runway and landed on his head. Leonora, who had endured a painful wait that day before receiving the worst possible news, had no desire, amid the initial whirl of doubt about Zhou’s fate, to reacquaint herself with the memory.
“It was horrible to say the least,” she recalls the day after. “I found the accident difficult. We thought if he was injured we might leave the race.”
She had watched from the grounds of the… British Racing Drivers’ Club, along with her husband Rich, in the heart of Silverstone’s vast human sprawl. “I have to say that at the beginning, like most people, we didn’t really know what was going on. But anyone who follows motorsport will understand that once they stop showing the reruns, the crash has been pretty severe.
“We had noticed that in the background of the grid the car was shooting to the side. The fact that we were all left without a word, and a red flag, we were really concerned that Zhou was seriously injured, or that we were watching a fatality. Having had such a traumatic experience with Henry’s accident, we decided we would go. It was a difficult situation. It is inevitable that it will all flow back.”
In the end, Leonora, now 33, can be glad she stayed. For this unforgettable British Grand Prix was not a repeat of the tragedy that befell her brother, but a stirring confirmation of her late father’s tireless campaign in honor of his son. Zhou didn’t die, but instead made such a dizzying escape that, within an hour of being trapped in the wreckage between a tire barrier and a steel fence, he was able to talk calmly with his team. The rookie owed its survival, he acknowledged, to the halo — an innovation Surtees had long rebelled for.
When asked what he would have thought of such a scene, unimaginable amid the deadly dangers he faced in F1 in the 1960s, Leonora does not hesitate. “My father would have been very, very grateful that things had moved on,” she says. “Even a few years ago, this crash probably wouldn’t have been survivable. Papa would have been grateful that neither Zhou’s parents nor his family were personally involved. Yes, these are sports people and we put them on a pedestal, but essentially they are someone’s child, someone’s partner. Thank goodness his family doesn’t have to go through what ours did. There is a relief on all fronts that we have seen progress.”
Henry’s death has devastated the Surtees family. At the age of 18, he lived a daunting paternal legacy with distinction, holding his own in the feeder series for F1. That a life so rich in promise would be brought to an end by the impact of a loose wheel, his car being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was an unbearable cruelty. “He was my best friend as well as my son,” a robbed John once said. “He was a golden boy.” And yet he channeled his fear into lobbying for greater safety at the highest levels of motorsport, desperate to convince a skeptical sport of the halo’s virtues.
“It’s amazing that a driver can have such a horrible accident and survive – and I think everyone can see that the halo must have played a big part in that,” Leonora says. “What I do know, from the time my father supported the halo, was that he was very frustrated with the amount of backlash from the industry. It was mainly about the aesthetics, but also about the aerodynamic aspect. Dad felt angry. He thought that if there had been other people in his position, with what had happened to Henry, they would never have said the same thing. We’ll never know if Henry would have survived if the halo had been on his car. But of course there was a good chance, given the kind of accident it was.”
Surtees was annoyed when Lewis Hamilton claimed in 2016 that he would have nothing to do with the halo. “This is the worst looking change in F1 history,” he wrote on Instagram. “I appreciate the quest for safety, but this is Formula 1 and the way it is now is fine.” He later deleted the message. Against the backdrop of his crushing loss, Surtees found Hamilton’s comments irresponsible, arguing that the halo was a vital intervention.
“That’s the most important thing I remember, how passionate Dad was about it, how much he tried to push people in the industry to support it,” Leonora says. “He was desperate for measures that would advance security. I remember a real frustration that it took so long for people to get on board. It’s undeniably been such a great addition in terms of safety.”
Indeed, Hamilton can consider himself a happy life thanks to the halo. Last year at Monza, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was launched into the air from a sausage rim and eventually fell on top of his Mercedes. Only the halo saved him from serious injury or worse when he dove into the cockpit. The same was true of Charles Leclerc, who was given a momentous reprieve at Spa in 2018 after Fernando Alonso’s McLaren airborne crash landed violently on his Sauber. The device’s greatest moment, however, was at Silverstone on Sunday, when it rescued two drivers in four hours: first F2’s Roy Nissany and then Zhou.
“When Dad was racing in the 1960s, one of the main reasons drivers died from fire was,” explains Leonora. “It would have been catastrophic for Zhou if there had been any kind of fire. But safety has become so important, and this was a huge factor in his not being more seriously injured.”
Leonora ran the Henry Surtees Foundation with her father for a number of years, raising more than £1 million for causes from air ambulance services to wheelchair rugby. Last summer, she sadly had to end it — a result of both the pandemic and the death, in 2017, of the inspirational John. “The loss of momentum that Dad created was huge for us,” she explains. “I oversaw business with him, but he was very much the figurehead. It was a challenge to move on without him. So much good had been done, that the worst thing we could have done was to let it die out and become a shell of what it had been. We didn’t feel that would be a fitting tribute to Henry.
“You can always do more – more goals, more projects. It’s infinite. Unfortunately, the donations are not infinite. But we are proud of what we have been able to do. Working with almost every air ambulance in the UK, we increased the blood they carried on board and improved the survival rates of those involved in serious road accidents. That is at the acute end. But we also kept rugby central. Hendrik loved rugby. I know that if he had survived the accident but had been injured, wheelchair rugby would have been an option. We always tried to think, “What would Henry have wanted?”
At Silverstone, Henry was once again at the forefront of Leonora’s mind as Zhou’s troubling ordeal unfolded. But this time, in a lasting will to John Surtees and his steadfast belief in the halo’s ability to transform motorsport, there was a different outcome. “I’m so relieved that someone else doesn’t have to experience what we’ve done,” Leonora says resolutely. “This time the halo was there and doing its job.”