The name Nick Syrett will mean little to the current Formula One generation but, 50 years ago, he was very much The Man.
As Secretary and then Executive Director of the British Racing and Sports Car Club (BRSCC) in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Englishman was at the centre of British motor sport, from club racing to international events. Based latterly at Brands Hatch, the BRSCC was the driving force behind all major meetings, arranging entries and running the races.
As Clerk of the Course, Syrett was the UK’s Charlie Whiting of the day. Bespectacled and softly spoken, he would nevertheless bring his great height and background in the Royal Air Force to bear as, clipboard in hand, he was affectionately known as ‘The Guv’nor’.
Syrett and the BRSCC were instrumental in making the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch one of the preeminent non-championship F1 races, most of which were held in England, as well as introducing a round of the World Sportscar Championship, the BOAC 500, in 1967.
It was while presiding over the latter in 1970 that Syrett caused a stir when he black-flagged the Gulf Porsche 917 driven by Pedro Rodriguez. In atrocious conditions, the Mexican had overtaken under yellow flags (one of which was being waved by Syrett himself) following a major shunt on the start/finish straight at the end of the first lap of what had become a 1,000km endurance race.
Penalising the immensely popular Rodriguez was the equivalent of bringing in Kimi Räikkönen or Max Verstappen – and the effect was probably much the same.
Syrett curled his large frame into the tight cockpit of the 917 and gave the driver a dressing down, Rodriguez sitting passively throughout. When the door was slammed shut, the mighty Porsche took off, fishtailing up the slope to rejoin the race almost one lap down. Syrett had actually done everyone a favour as Rodriguez went on to produce arguably the greatest drive of his tragically short life by sliding and slashing through the field to a brilliant victory.
Syrett’s popularity was never under threat. Looking after the interests of marshals and BRSCC members, he held monthly club nights in London that attracted Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and other top drivers as guest speakers. To celebrate his tenth anniversary with the club in 1967, he bought everyone a drink. Alongside John Webb at Brands Hatch, Syrett was behind the introduction of the spectacular Formula 5000 single seaters and Formula Ford to the UK and Europe, and later became secretary of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.
Moving on from the sport, Syrett ran a restaurant in Surrey before taking on the management of Winchester House, a popular gentlemen’s club in Putney, where he remained for 35 years, spending much of his time happily chatting to guests about motor racing and his other great love, cricket.
A big man in every sense, Nick Syrett passed away on Boxing Day at the age of 84. They don’t make them like him any more and motor racing is the poorer for it.