Next weekend I’ll be writing an article looking back at the recent testing sessions as we count down to the new season. Before that though, I think it’s only correct that tribute is paid to the great John Surtees who sadly passed away on 10 March 2017 at the age of 83.
John Surtees was a man who created a piece of history that might never be repeated. Not only did the British driver win the Formula 1 world title but he was also a motorcycling world champion. Whether it be on two or four wheels, he was one of the greatest ever competitors.
A career in motorcycling was perhaps inevitable seeing his father was a motorcycle dealer. His first pro race was in the sidecar of his father but then it was discovered he was underage leading to their disqualification. His first official race was in a grasstrack competition at the age of 15 and the following year he began work at the Vincent factory as an apprentice never dreaming of the success he would achieve in the future.
His first factory sponsored ride came with Norton in 1955 with some notable performances. With Norton’s finances in poor shape, Surtees joined the MV Agusta team in 1955 and began to dominate the 500cc World Championship.
Surtees won the 350cc motorcycling world title in 1958,1959 and 1960 and four 500cc motorcycling world championships on his MV Agusta, dominating the sport in the second half of the 1950s winning the title every year between 1956 and 1960. He had a bit of help in 1956 with defending champion Geoff Dukes suspended for six months.
The only year in which he failed to win the title was in 1957 when suffering three retirements in six races. The best four results counted and he only had three finishes so only finished third in the championship. He certainly made up for it the following two seasons winning all 13 races in which he competed. In the period 1958-60 he won 32 out of 39 races and also became the first man to win the Senior TT on the Isle of Man for three years in a row.
Move to F1
1960 saw him move to Formula 1 joining Team Lotus. He went on to become a double world champion winning the title with Ferrari in 1964. That might not have been in his dreams early on in the season as his Ferrari retired three times in the first four races. He went on to win the German and Italian races that season and won the title by a point from Graham Hill. It all went down to the last race in Mexico with both Graham Hill and Jim Clark looking to have the title wrapped up until encountering problems. Ferrari ordered his team-mate Lorenzo Bandini to step aside and let Surtees finish ahead of him to clinch the title. I wonder if Hamilton and Rosberg would have ever agreed to that!
September 1965 saw him survive a serious accident in Canada while practising a Lola T70 sports racing car. He suffered several broken bones and had to have his body physically stretched as one side of his body was four inches shorter than the other. The treatment reduced the difference to under an inch.
Two years later he finished second behind Jack Brabham, not bad considering he had five retirements. That 1966 season was the championship fictionalized in the movie ‘Grand Prix’ though Surtees didn’t take part in the movie.
The great John Surtees won six F1 races between 1960 and 1972 driving for several other teams including Lotus, Honda and BRM. In 1970 he set up his own team, the Surtees Racing Organisation and came eighth in the constructors’ championship driving alongside Derek Bell. The team also competed in Formula 2 and Formula 5000 to 1978.
Other projects included running a motorcycle shop in West Wickham, Kent and a Honda car dealership in Edenbridge, Kent. You couldn’t keep him off the track though as he took part in classic bike events, single-seater racing cars and became the Chairman of A1 Team Great Britain. He was still racing in his 80s!
His son, Henry Surtees also became a racing driver but was tragically killed in a Formula 2 championship race at Brands Hatch in 2009. family set up the Henry Surtees Foundation in aid of people recovering from brain and physical injuries and to support motorsport-related educational programmes.
Why did he never become Sir John?
In 1959 John Surtees was awarded an MBE and also that year won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Further awards came as he received the OBE in 2009 and the CBE last year. Why he was never knighted is beyond me. It’s not often I agree with Paul Hollywood but I do when he tweeted: “Will always be “SIR” John Surtees in my eyes.”
Reaction to his Death
Murray Walker – “It’s an absolute hammer blow for me and for British motorsport in general…..he’s undoubtedly one of the greatest people who’s ever lived in the history of motorsport.”
Damon Hill – “We have lost a true great motorsport legend.”
By Steve Ashfield