Discussing “the greatest motorsports competitor of all time” is like opening a can of rather aggressive, loud-mouthed worms. Whether on two wheels or four, many names come to mind: Hailwood; Agostini; Fangio; Sheene; Senna; Prost. The list isn’t endless, but it sure is long-winded.
In my view – shared by a great many motorsports enthusiasts – John Surtees MBE, OBE, CBE, stands head and shoulders above them all, if only because he triumphed in motorcycle and Formula 1 Grands Prix. Of course, the fact that he was born in my home county of Surrey (in Tatsfield to be precise) might also have something to do with it.
Young John, born 11th February 1934, grew up in a family that was deeply involved in motorcycling. At the end of the second World War his father, Jack, ran a motorcycle shop in Croydon as well as pursuing a racing career. John Surtees quickly acquired the paternal taste for vintage motorcycles and racing.
He initially partnered his father in sidecar racing. But it wasn’t until John had left Ashburton School in Croydon and embarked on an apprenticeship at the Vincent factory in Stevenage that his own racing career got under way. He won his first race at the Aberdare Park course in Trecynon, Wales, aboard a Vincent Grey Flash. However it was the following year that the motorcycle racing world really took notice of him when he gave Norton rider Geoff Duke a damn good run for his money at an ACU race at Thruxton.
In 1952 he scored his first Grands Prix World Championship point when he finished sixth at the Ulster Grand Prix, on the fearsomely fast Dundrod course, aboard a 500cc Norton. His next appearance on the World Championship scene came in 1954 with an 11th place (350cc) and a 15th place (500cc) at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, along with a 5th place finish in the 500cc race at the Ulster Grand Prix. His lucky break came in 1955, when Norton’s racing manager Joe Craig gave him a ride on factory Nortons. He finished the year beating the reigning world champion Geoff Duke at Silverstone and again at Brands Hatch.
But behind the scenes, financial problems were beginning to affect Norton. And when it became clear that their racing division was in jeopardy, John Surtees accepted an offer from MV Agusta to join their factory team based in Gallarate, near Milan. This is where he came into his own as a motorcycle racer: he was riding some of the most powerful bikes on the circuit, and the team had no financial woes to speak of. Surtees quickly formed a close relationship with Count Domenico Agusta. Augusta apparently gave Surtees his nickname, “figlio del vento”. The Son of the Wind.
In 1957, with MV Agusta standing head and shoulders above the competition thanks to Gilera and Moto Guzzi withdrawing from racing, the Son of the Wind was unstoppable. In 1958, 1959 and 1960 he won 32 out of 39 races. Surtees was the first rider to win three successive Senior TT races on the Mountain Course.
By then, though his relationship with the whimsical Count Agusta led him to take an interest in motor-racing. After almost beating Jim Clark’s Lotus at Goodwood in a Cooper-Austin entered by Ken Tyrrell, Lotus boss Colin Chapman approached him with a proposal to go racing in Formula One. He accepted and instantly displayed natural talent, finishing second at Silverstone and bagging pole position on the tricky, tramline- and cobblestone-infested urban course at Porto, in Portugal. Nonetheless he had a significant divergence of opinions with Chapman, and left Lotus before the season’s end.
For the next two years he only made sporadic appearances on F1 grids, primarily behind the wheel of a Lola fielded by Yeoman Credit/Bowmaker Racing. But in 1963 he struck Formula One gold, when he joined the Scuderia Ferrari. That year he scored a masterful win at the Nürburgring with the Ferrari 156. The following year, driving the Ferrari 158, he won the F1 world championship at the season’s final race in Mexico City where Jim Clark’s Lotus suffered engine failure and Surtees passed his teammate Lorenzo Bandini to claim 2nd place and the championship title.
However in 1965, the dearth of results was combined to serious injury when he crashed his Lola T70 at Mosport Park in Toronto. Despite being at death’s door for several days, he made a spectacular – not to mention swift – recovery, and was able to resume his place at Ferrari for the 1966 season. Nonetheless, doubts about his full fitness to drive (according to some sources, one side of Surtees’ body was four inches shorter than the other immediately after the Mosport crash), paired with behind-the-scenes machinations by Team Principal Eugenio Dragoni put his position in danger, despite strong performances at Silverstone, Monaco and Spa-Francorchamps (where he won after surviving the torrential downpour that took out most of the field on the 1st lap).
Surtees, who by nature had always been a very susceptible person, took this very personally and promptly walked out on the team. Some say that this possibly cost the Scuderia – not to mention Surtees – the 1966 world championship. John Surtees himself ended the season driving for the Cooper-Maserati team, coming 2nd in the drivers’ championship.
Following his tenure at Ferrari, Surtees competed in the inaugural Can-Am championship at the wheel of a Lola T70, going on to win the championship in front of Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue and Phil Hill. At the end of the year, he signed for Honda’s F1 team; but mechanical issues with the car meant that he didn’t have a very successful season despite a strong win at the championship opener in South Africa. In 1967, he only finished fourth in the drivers’ championship.
At the beginning of the Seventies, John Surtees created his own team, the Surtees Racing Organisation, which campaigned in the Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1 championships. Surtees himself retired from competitive driving in 1972. Incidentally this was the year that the team had its most notable success, when Mike Hailwood won the European Formula 2 Championship. The team ceased operations in 1978.
Following his retirement, John Surtees ran a motorcycle shop in West Wickham (Kent) and a Honda automotive dealership in Edenbridge, also in Kent. Alongside this he continued to have an involvement in racing: he frequently took part in classic motorcycle races aboard bikes from his personal collection, and in four-wheeled sport, eventually became chairman of the A1 Team Great Britain competing in the A1 Grand Prix racing series.
On a personal level, John Surtees was married twice; his first marriage in 1962, to Patricia Burke, lasted until 1979. He met his second wife, Jane Sparrow, while he was at hospital, where she was a ward sister. They were married in 1987 and had three children, Leonora, Edwina and Henry. Henry Surtees tragically died in a racing accident in 2009 during the Brands Hatch leg of the British Formula 2 championship.
In 1996 John Surtees was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and in 2013 he was awarded the Seagrave Trophy for having been the only competitor to have won World Championships in motorcycle Grands Prix (7) and Formula 1 (1).
John Surtees died aged 83