John Surtees 1934-2017

by Web Editor on 10th March 2017

John Surtees, the only man to win world championships on two wheels and four, has passed away aged 83, his family has confirmed.

Motor Sport extends its condolences to the Surtees family.

Il Grande John

Although John Surtees, 1964 World Champion and winner of six Grands Prix, had a Formula 1 record of which anyone would’ve been intensely proud, the numbers actually sold his greatness short. Something got in the way – a friction of sorts – of his achieving even more. That something was a fiercely independent spirit coupled with an un-budging set of principles that made life difficult for him in the often-political waters of F1. He wouldn’t bend in the wind and that led him to leave both Lotus and Ferrari in high dudgeon. And once he’d turned his back on those two teams in the 1960s, it was always going to be difficult to make the record books align with the talent.

In person in his later years he was utterly charming, approachable, friendly. And from that post-retirement perspective, he readily admitted his career mistakes. “Rather than start my own team,” he said a couple of years ago, “I should perhaps have said to Chapman, ‘Look, let’s put the past behind us,’ and concentrated on being John Surtees, racing driver. I was always taking on new projects, new challenges. Too much of an enthusiast, I suppose.”

He had a big-vision of how things should be, was an idealist. He wanted to make Ferrari more of an international team, for example, was trying to recruit talent from British motor racing – decades ahead of his time. He even had The Old Man’s blessing in this, which is why Enzo had tacitly agreed that he could race a sports car Lola in the States. A suspension failure in that car flipped him into an enormous accident late ‘65 and his life lay in the balance.

A few months later the Ferrari mechanics literally craned him into the seat of the new F1 car. And gave him a standing ovation when he completed the test driving just as fast as he ever had. And boy was he ever fast. Fast and thrusting enough to give Stirling Moss the shivers when he first made the transition from bikes. “Boy, he would go for gaps I wouldn’t even look at,” recalled Moss in his biography All But My Life

He’d not had a plan to race cars. It just came out of his bike racing – partly because of that truculent stubborn streak. For 1959 MV Agusta had refused to allow him to race his own bike in between his commitments to them – and after Mike Hawthorn had suggested to him he should try cars ‘because they don’t fall over as easily’ he realised his contract only stipulated he couldn’t ride bikes for anyone else. It said nothing about cars…


Moss leads Clark at Goodwood in 1960


But here’s how special a talent he was: his first try-out in a race car was in a Le Mans Aston Martin around Goodwood. He lapped faster than the car had ever gone around there even in the hands of Moss, who was without question the greatest driver around then. Vanwall boss Tony Vandervell got to hear of the Aston test and was straight on the phone to Surtees to berate him. “He said, ‘what the hell were you driving that thing for. Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to try a car?’ He told me to be at Goodwood the next day where there was an F1 Vanwall waiting for me.” He also lapped that faster than it had ever been lapped by Moss or Tony Brooks…

His first actual race came at Goodwood in 1960 – in a Formula Junior Cooper-BMC entered by Ken Tyrrell. Jim Clark was having his second-ever single-seater race in the works Lotus. Surtees beat him to pole… In the race, a backmarker tripped him up as he was fending Clark off. Later that year he made his F1 debut in a works Lotus. In his second Grand Prix he finished second. In his third Grand Prix – at Oporto – he set pole, faster than Moss, and was leading until fuel leaked onto his foot and caused it to slip off the brake pedal. Chapman offered him the world – and the choice of team-mate between Clark and Innes Ireland. He chose Clark, and Ireland threw a tantrum. Surtees, not yet feeling part of this world, felt cowed by the establishment that Ireland represented – and walked away. That 1960 Lotus would be the most competitive F1 car he ever raced.

He turned Ferrari down for ’62, feeling he wasn’t ready. Yet Enzo asked him again for ’63, and this time he acquiesced, in many ways re-living his Agusta bike years, living in Italy, forming a bond with the autocratic boss, becoming a world champion again. But at Maranello there were always people ready to stand in between Ferrari and the driver, largely because the Old Man wouldn’t travel. Team manager Eugenio Dragoni was not a character Surtees could tolerate indefinitely – and it blew up. “Mr Ferrari said to me years later, ‘We shouldn’t remember the bad times, but the good times,’ I told him I couldn’t have agreed more. We both lost out. There was another title for the taking in ’66, maybe another two after that.”

Instead he cast himself adrift on projects – Cooper-Maserati, BRM and, finally, after he’d ran out of options, Team Surtees. But let it be noted that he turned up at Cooper part-way through 1966 and proceeded to out-perform the incumbent Jochen Rindt; in their seven races together the qualifying score stood at Surtees 6, Rindt 1 - and Surtees won the final Grand Prix of the year, in Mexico.

That unquenchable enthusiasm saw him continue with the team well past his own retirement as a driver, until it was forced out of business. But the love of racing never left him. Late fatherhood – Henry Surtees was born in 1991 – gave John the opportunity to get involved all over again and together the pair rose through the karting ranks. They were close and Henry was gifted. Tragically he lost his life to a bouncing wheel in the 2009 Brands Hatch F2 race. It cannot even be comprehended how it felt at 75 years old to lose an 18-year-old son. But he didn’t just curl up and surrender. John’s strength of character shone through yet again in his establishing the Henry Surtees Foundation, a charity to assist those with accident injuries.

He was a very great man, a very great driver. Run through with unbending steel.

Mark Hughes


Photo: iomtt.com


The solid-gold talent on two wheels

John Surtees was part of that rich seam of solid-gold British talent that foreign manufacturers mined so successfully during the 1950s and 1960s. Geoff Duke made Gilera great, Surtees made MV Agusta great, Mike Hailwood made Honda great and Phil Read made Yamaha great.

Surtees signed for Count Domenico Agusta in the autumn of 1955. He gave the Count a first premier-class world championship the following year and followed that with a further six titles in the 350cc and premier 500cc categories. He would surely have won more motorcycling titles but for the Count’s autocratic ways, which diverted him into the world of car racing where he made history.

Son of Dorothy and Jack, a south London bike dealer and sidecar racer, Surtees made his racing debut in his father’s sidecar at Brands Hatch, when the Kent circuit was nothing more than a grasstrack venue. The future course of his life was sealed there and then.

Surtees was brave, intelligent and very mechanically minded; all vital skills in those days of lethal street circuits and motorcycles that required mechanical sympathy as well as riding talent to get them to the finish line ahead of everyone else.

His early start made him an unusually young winner for that era. He enjoyed his first major successes as a 17-year-old, riding a Vincent Grey Flash. At the same time he was doing his engineering apprenticeship at Vincent in Stevenage, which earned him a weekly wage of £4.

In 1952 Surtees graduated to Norton machinery and over the next few seasons he also rode an NSU, an EMC and a factory BMW. His years with MV were heroic. He arrived at the factory when Agusta’s 500s had an evil reputation – their poor chassis design had only recently been responsible for the deaths of Les Graham and Ray Amm.

Surtees needed the patience of a saint and all his English politeness to steer the Count and his engineers in the right direction, using the knowledge he had gained while racing those other machines. Communication was always a problem, so while based in Italy he taught himself the language by watching subtitled spaghetti westerns at the cinema.

Although he was eventually well paid by Agusta, his life as a factory rider was hardly luxurious. He travelled to the Isle of Man for his first TT with MV in 1956, sitting in the guard's van of the London-Liverpool train, looking after the MV 500 four. He then pushed the bike through the streets of Liverpool to board the ferry to Douglas.

Surtees claimed his first world title for the aristocratic marque later that year when he was only 22-years-old. He still ranks as the fifth youngest premier-class champion behind Marc Marquez, Freddie Spencer, Casey Stoner and Hailwood. Valentino Rossi in 2001 was 48 days older than Surtees had been when he won his first big-bike title!

Mat Oxley


A statement on the Henry Surtees Foundation website reads:

"It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our husband and father, John Surtees CBE.

"John, ‪83, was admitted to St Georges Hospital, London in February with an existing respiratory condition and after a short period in intensive care he passed away peacefully this afternoon. His wife, Jane and daughters, Leonora and Edwina were by his side.

"John was a loving husband, father, brother and friend. He was also one of the true greats of motorsport and continued to work tirelessly up until recently with The Henry Surtees Foundation and Buckmore Park Kart Circuit.

"We deeply mourn the loss of such an incredible, kind and loving man as well as celebrate his amazing life. He has set a very real example of someone who kept pushing himself at his peak and one who continued fighting until the very end.

"We would like to thank all the staff at St George's Hospital and The East Surrey Hospital for their professionalism and support during this difficult time for us. Thank you also to all of those who have sent their kind messages in recent weeks."


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