Powered by
  • WheelsWheels
  • MOTORMOTOR
  • 4X4 Australia4X4 Australia
  • Street MachineStreet Machine
  • Trade Unique CarsTrade Unique Cars

The loss of legend John Surtees

By Peter McKay, 13 Mar 2017 Motorsport

John Surtees

Only man to win GP world championships on two and four wheels

John Surtees, the widely admired motor sporting hero and only person to win grand prix world titles riding motorcycles and driving Formula One cars, has died at 83.

Despite his accomplishments, Surtees missed out on the knighthood that so many in motorsport sensed he richly deserved.

Despite his imposing world titles in two sports, and six-pack of F1 grands prix wins, Surtees probably should have won more on four wheels.

A stubborn, unbending gent of unyielding principle who inevitably did things his way or no way at all, Surtees walked out on opportunities at Lotus and Ferrari that may have brought him more wins and perhaps more championships.

Brave, naturally quick and mechanically sympathetic, Surtees was a remarkable talent who dominated the premier 500cc motorcycle category for much of the late 1950s, when he won world championships in 1956 and then again in 1958, ’59 and ’60.

In 1958, 1959 and 1960, he won 32 out of 39 races and became the first man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession

A dispute with MV Agusta encouraged Surtees to look at alternatives during the 1960 season. He was stunningly quick in a couple of tests in cars. In his first car race, for Formula Juniors, he beat Jim Clark to pole.

He was soon in F1. Second place second time out at home at Silverstone confirmed his versatile talent. He was on pole for his third F1 GP.

After claiming his fourth 500cc crown, Surtees switched to Formula One full time, proving immediately competitive in privateer cars. He was signed by Ferrari in 1963 and won the drivers’ championship for the Scuderia in 1964 after a tense battle with Jim Clark and Graham Hill.

Though Surtees continued to be one of the standout drivers of the mid-1960s – along with Clark, Hill, Jackie Stewart and Dan Gurney – that 1964 title was the only F1 championship he won.

In 1965, Clark and the Lotus was an unstoppable combo, but the following year, Ferrari was more competitive.

But Surtees perhaps cost himself a second title when he walked out on the Italians after a dispute with the team manager over his non selection for the squad’s Le Mans team.

Turning up at Cooper part-way through 1966, Surtees embarrassed the incumbent Jochen Rindt. In seven GPs together, Surtees out-qualified Rindt six to one and won the final race the year, in Mexico.

In 1967 Surtees landed at the new factory Honda team.

After winning a GP and taking fourth in the drivers’ points, he won for the Japanese marque in Italy and finished fourth in the championship, before Honda abandoned F1.

There was an unsuccessful time with BRM before his driving career stuttered to a halt after starting his own team in 1970. At first he took the twin roles of driving and running the outfit, before he called time on his racing career at the end of 1971.

Surtees Racing was not a resounding success, its best GP result being a third place in the 1973 US Grand Prix.

One of Surtees’ drivers was Alan Jones, in the 1976 season, but the car was not competitive and the two iron-willed personalities didn’t get along. 

The team folded in 1978.

Surtees remained in motor sport, turning out with classic cars and bikes at historic events.  In 2005-7 he was the figure-head chairman of the British entry in the A1 Grand Prix series.

But motor racing brought him tragedy in 2009 when his gifted teenage son Henry was killed by a loose wheel in a Formula Two race crash at Brands Hatch.

This inspired him to set up the Henry Surtees Foundation to assist people recovering from brain and other injuries.

In his retirement, Surtees was a delightfully charming and approachable man who in hindsight readily agreed he’d made some poor career moves.

Surtees passed away on March 10, 2017 following a short illness. He is survived by his wife Jane and daughters Leonora and Edwina.

Just retired 2016 F1 world champion Nico Rosberg was one of countless people who registered their appreciation of Surtees’ rare talent:  “Very sad, can't believe it John. You had been so supportive of me all along!  My thoughts are with your family. REST IN PEACE #johnsurtees”