Our feature“The Drivers” continue today with another great name. This week we remember one of the Greats. John Surtees CBE.
Born 11 February 1934, in Tatsfield, Surrey, John Surtees is truly unique in motorsport. Riding for the celebrated MV Agusta team, he won seven World Championships between 1956 and 1960. Then, with nothing left to prove he made the transition from two wheels to four, winning the Formula One World Championship with Ferrari in 1964. To this day his feat of winning World Championships on two and four wheels remains unparalleled.
Hi father, Jack, was a motorcycle dealer in London. John had his first professional outing in the sidecar of his father’s Vincent, which they won. However, when race officials discovered Surtees’s age, they were disqualified. He entered his first race at 15 in a grasstrack competition. In 1950, at the age of 16, he went to work for the Vincent factory as an apprentice. He made his first headlines in 1951 when he gave Norton star Geoff Duke a strong challenge in an ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit.
In 1955, Norton race chief Joe Craig gave Surtees his first factory sponsored ride aboard the Nortons. That was the break he needed and he has never looked back. He finished the year by beating reigning world champion Duke at Silverstone and then at Brands Hatch. However, with Norton in financial trouble and uncertain about their racing plans, Surtees accepted an offer to race for the MV Agusta factory racing team., where he soon earned the nickname figlio del vento (son of the wind).
In 1956 Surtees won the 500cc world championship, MV Agusta’s first in the senior class. The following year was a different story as the MV Agustas were no match for the Gileras and he battled to a third place finish aboard a 1957 MV Agusta 500 Quattro. He got another break when Gilera and Moto Guzzi pulled out of Grand Prix racing, as this meant he was unbeatable. He won 32 out of 39 races between 1958 to 1960 and became the first man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession
Surtees switched from motorcycles to cars full-time in 1960 when he was 26, making his Formula 1 début racing for Lotus in the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. He made an immediate impact with a second place finish in only his second Formula One race, at the 1960 British Grand Prix, and a pole position at his third race, the 1960 Portuguese Grand Prix. He moved to Scuderia Ferrari in 1963 and won the World Championship for the Italian team in 1964.
His serious accident on board a Lola T70 race car during practice in Canada in 1965 took him away from racing for a short while and he made a full recovery and came back to compete with a T70 in the inaugural Can Am series in 1966, winning three races of six to become champion over other winners Dan Gurney (Lola), Mark Donohue (Lola) and Phil Hill (Chaparral) as well as the likes of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon (both in McLarens).
The 1966 season saw the introduction of new, larger 3-litre engines to Formula One. Surtees’s debut with Ferrari’s new F1 car was at the 1966 BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, where he qualified and finished a close second behind Jack Brabham’s 3-litre Brabham BT19. A few weeks later, Surtees led the Monaco Grand Prix, pulling away from Jackie Stewart’s 2-litre BRM on the straights, before the engine failed. A fortnight later Surtees survived the first lap rainstorm which eliminated half the field and won the Belgian Grand Prix.
He quit Ferrari because they decided he couldn’t drive at Le Mans in 1966. Mainly due to regulations, but still, he was not happy to be excluded and walked away from the team. This decision, cost both Ferrari and Surtees, the Formula 1 Championship in 1966. Ferrari finished second to Brabham-Repco in the manufacturers’ championship and Surtees finished second to Jack Brabham in the drivers’ championship. Surtees finished the season driving for the Cooper-Maserati team, winning the last race of the season and finishing second in the drivers’ championship, 14 points behind Brabham.
Surtees moved to the new Japanese Honda team for the 1967 season.He took pole position for the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but the car’s V12 engine suffered from reliability problems in the race. At the Italian Grand Prix Surtees slipstreamed Jack Brabham to take Honda’s second F1 victory by 0.2 seconds. Surtees finished fourth in the 1967 drivers’ championship.
The same year, Surtees drove in the Rex Mays 300 at Riverside, near Los Angeles, in a United States Auto Club season-ending road race. This event pitted the best American drivers of the day — normally those who had cut their teeth as professional drivers on oval dirt tracks — against veteran Formula One Grand Prix drivers, including Jim Clark and Dan Gurney.
In 1970, Surtees formed his own race team, the Surtees Racing Organisation, and spent nine seasons competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1 as a constructor. He retired from competitive driving in 1972, the same year the team had their greatest success when Mike Hailwood won the European Formula 2 Championship. The team was finally disbanded at the end of 1978.
For a while in the 1970s Surtees ran a motorcycle shop in West Wickham, Kent and a Honda car dealership in Edenbridge, Kent. He continues his involvement in motorcycling, participating in classic events with bikes from his stable of vintage racing machines. He also remains involved in single-seater racing cars and held the position of chairman of A1 Team Great Britain, in the A1 Grand Prix racing series from 2005-7. His son, Henry Surtees competed in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, Formula Renault UK Championship and the Formula BMW UK championship for Carlin Motorsport, before he died whilst racing in the Formula 2 championship at Brands Hatch on 19 July 2009.
He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1966. The FIM honoured him as a Grand Prix “Legend” in 2003. Already a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours and also CBE in the 2016 Honours.
In 2013 he was awarded the Segrave Trophy in recognition of multiple world championships, and for being the only person to win world titles on 2 and 4 wheels.
John Surtees passed away in 2017 at the age of 83.
Books on John Surtees;
An excellent in depth interview with Mail on line here.
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