John Surtees’ glittering celebrity status is rightly underpinned by his unique achievement of being the only competitor ever to win world championships on two wheels and four. Yet his F1 record of six Grand Prix wins out of 111 career starts could be said to short-change his talents. Surtees was not simply a good driver, he was unquestionably a great driver, right up there among an elite group of contemporaries which included Jim Clark, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham.
He was also one of those drivers with a tantalising ‘what might have been’ hovering over his record of achievement. Had not Lotus boss Colin Chapman messed him about at the end of his freshman 1960 season in F1, the heyday of the 1.5-litre F1 era might well have been dominated by a Clark-Surtees super team which would have pre-dated Jimmy’s Lotus 49 partnership with Graham Hill by five full seasons.
John remains to this day an enigmatic character. You can hear what he is saying, but you can never be quite sure what he is thinking. During his active racing years he was a man who was content to let his achievements on the track speak for themselves. And, particularly on two wheels, they were utterly dazzling.
John grew up in a household which was deeply involved in the motorcycle business. His father, Jack Surtees, was a successful ’bike dealer who encouraged his son’s emergent interest in the sport. He cut his teeth on a Vincent Grey Flash on which he would score his first victory at Brands Hatch in 1951 when he was barely 18 years of age.
He later bought a Manx Norton and was invited to join the works team in 1955, clinching his reputation as one of the sport’s most gifted rising stars with a memorable victory over Geoff Duke’s Gilera at Silverstone at the end of the season. Unable to persuade Norton to continue with a works effort in 1956, despite getting close to attracting commercial sponsorship from a UK national daily paper, he switched to the Italian MV Agusta squad for 1956. Then he set about ensuring that the Surtees name was writ large in the pages of motorcycle racing history.
It would be a cause of some regret to John that MV’s rivals Gilera and Moto Guzzi soon withdrew from racing, leaving the MV squad to dominate the scene. Even so, Surtees performed remarkably. In the three seasons up to the end of 1960, when he quit professional motorcycle racing for good, John won the 350 and 500 world championships, as well as the Senior and Junior Isle of Man TT in 1958 and ‘59, plus the Senior once again in 1960. Yet he was always disappointed that the autocratic Count Domenico Agusta proved increasingly reluctant to field ’bikes in non-championship and British domestic events, or even to permit Surtees to use his own private Nortons in these events.
This lack of flexibility on Agusta’s part led Surtees to take the initiative to supplement his racing programme. The Count may have been contractually able to restrict John’s motorcycle racing, but there was nothing to prevent him competing on four wheels. In fact, late in 1959, Surtees was invited to test an Aston Martin DBR1 at Goodwood by Reg Parnell. Earlier he had also received a great deal of tacit encouragement from Mike Hawthorn and Vanwall boss Tony Vandervell.
John duly made his four-wheeled racing debut at Goodwood in April, 1960, driving a Ken Tyrrell-entered Cooper-Austin Formula Junior. He was only narrowly defeated by Jim Clark’s Lotus. He also underlined his world class by finishing second in the British GP at Silverstone in a works Lotus 18 and rounded off the season with pole for the Portuguese GP at Oporto.
Yet as his relationship with Lotus came to an untimely end, so John was left pursuing his F1 ambitions with the Reg Parnell-run Yeoman Credit team in 1961 which became the Bowmaker Lola F1 squad – and scarcely any more successful – in 1962. Not until he joined Ferrari in 1963 would the magic be rekindled.
Surtees had come to love Italy during his time at MV Agusta and deeply admired the way the Italians operated. Paradoxically, despite the success which would come his way, in Enzo Ferrari Surtees would find the same sort of stubborn, self-absorbed and autocratic character as that of Count Domenico Agusta. And just as Agusta’s intransigence steered Surtees towards the exit door, so it was with the Commendatore. After winning the F1 championship by a single point in 1964, the injuries John sustained when he crashed a Can-Am Lola gave Enzo’s Machiavellian team manager Eugenio Dragoni the excuse he needed to kick John into touch.
Life in F1 was never again the same for the British driver, although he continued to chase his personal holy grail of ambition through Cooper, Honda and BRM before becoming a constructor in his own right. Several of his drivers saw him as too much of an interventionist, unable to delegate, yet the underlying bond he forged with fellow motorcycle man Mike Hailwood seemed to prove him capable where necessary. And Surtees F1 cars were far from also-rans; in both 1971 and ‘72, JS and Mike the Bike came within sniffing distance of winning the South African GP before their machinery wilted beneath them.
From a personal viewpoint, as a young journalist I always found John warm-hearted and generous – until I was on the receiving end of one of his terse letters at Motoring News. But he never held a grudge and, when I was walking back to the Kyalami paddock in a state of shock after seeing Tom Pryce killed in front of me in the ’77 South African GP, John ushered me into his team caravan and poured me a large slug of scotch.
He hardly said a word. Nor did he have to.
Grands Prix: 111
Pole positions: 8
Fastest laps: 11
Other achievements: Seven-time Motorcycle World Champion, six-time Isle of Man winner, 1963 Sebring 12 Hours (1st), 1963 and ‘65 Nürburgring 1000Kms (1st), 1966 Monza 1000Kms (1st), 1966 Can-Am Champion