The Ultimate Perfectionist
John Surtees – one of the most gifted and versatile racers of all time – holds the outstanding distinction of being the only man to have won World Championships on two and four wheels.
An out-and-out professional, with a strong independent streak, he took on all-comers to win seven World Championships on motorcycles, one Formula One world drivers’ title and the North American Can-Am Championship for sports cars.
During the 1970s he also designed, built and raced, with typical dedication and determination, his own Team Surtees F1, F2 and F5000 cars.
The ultimate perfectionist, he brought to motor racing an abundance of courage, determination, enthusiasm and engineering skills which helped turn many an also-ran into a front runner, or winner.
From Passenger to World Champion
John, now in his 70s, began his illustrious career on motorcycles in 1949 as passenger for his father, a top sidecar racer.
But by 1950 he was competing in road race events on his own account – initially as a privateer on a modified Triumph Tiger 70 and later on Vincents and Nortons.
By 1953 – at the age of 19 – he had been invited to ride for the celebrated Norton works team. Two years later he was spearheading MV Agusta’s 350cc and 500cc campaigns.
In his first year with the Italian team, he won the first of his world titles – the 500cc World Championship.
Over the following four seasons he went on to capture six further World Championships on the legendary red and silver machines – a feat which was acknowledged publicly in 1959 when he was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Throughout that year and 1960 he continued racing on two wheels for the Gallarate-based concern but, at the suggestion of the late Mike Hawthorn and others, eventually put his skills to the test on four wheels.
On Two Wheels and Four
Driving an Aston DBR1 and Vanwall around Goodwood – a circuit he had never seen before – he impressed both Aston Martin team manager Reg Parnell and Vanwall boss Tony Vandervell with an impressive display of commitment and speed.
But, despite strenuous efforts by both to sign him, he continued his career on two wheels. Not until 1960 – the year in which he clinched his third 350cc and fourth 500cc motorcycle World Championships – did he begin the changeover from two to four wheels.
For the remainder of that year he was in great demand, campaigning 350 and 500cc bikes for MV Agusta in World Championship events and squeezing in drives for Ken Tyrrell in Formula Junior races and in F1 for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team.
That year he reeled in nine wins for the Agusta stable – seven in World Championship events – and finished second in his first Formula Junior race, second in his first F2 event and second in his second F1 Grand Prix.
In the next GP in Portugal he put Chapman’s Lotus 18 on pole position and set a record lap of 112.31mph while leading the race.
On the back of his early performances, Chapman offered him the number one driver’s position at Lotus for the 1961 season but John – concerned about the hostile reaction of an existing team member – declined.
Instead, he elected to drive ffor Reg Parnell in a Cooper T53-Climax 4. He stayed with Parnell for the following season, racing the Bowmaker-backed Lola Mk 4-Climax 4 and V8, and finished fourth in the drivers’ table
Ferrari and World Championship Number Eight
he following year, 1963, he signed for Ferrari, which, having lost direction, was keen to benefit from his renowned driving skills and technical know-how.
By August, he had repaid the team’s faith in his capabilities with a victory in the German GP at The Nürburgring. This – his overdue first Grand Prix win – was Ferrari’s first championship victory since the 1961 Italian Grand Prix.
By 1964 – due in no small part to his input – the famed Scuderia was once more a potent force in Grand Prix racing, enabling John to lift the F1 title. In so doing, he established his unique claim to fame as the only ‘Grand Master’ of two wheels and four.
But 1965 was a less successful year due to Ferrari’s decision to start the F1 campaign with the previous season’s V8 engine while it developed a flat-12.
However, in sports cars – an arena in which John’s impressive record is often overlooked – he scored four wins and four second places driving the Ferrari 330P2 and 365P2 in European events, and his own Lola T70-Chevrolet in North American races.
Staring Death and Disappointment in the Face
John’s run of success following his switch to four wheels was brought to an abrupt halt by a catastrophic accident in practice for the Canadian GP for sports cars at Mosport Park.
A suspension upright on the Lola failed at high speed, pitching the car into a barrier. On impact it somersaulted and landed on top of John, fracturing his pelvis, seriously damaging his left leg and spine, and rupturing his kidneys.
But within six months of the near-death experience, he was back, testing Ferrari’s contender for championship honours in the new 3-litre formula introduced for 1966 F1 campaign.
He kick-started the season with wins in the 1000km race for sports cars at Monza, the opening non-championship round of the F1 calendar at Syracuse, and in the Belgian GP at Spa in June.
But despite his promising return to the cockpit, he quit Ferrari within a matter of days, following a bitter row with team boss Eugenio Dragoni. The disagreement, on the eve of the Le Mans 24-hours race, was sparked by the intense internal politics that he believed were the root cause of Ferrari’s under-performance both on and off the track.
“The parting was costly to Ferrari and to me,” John confesses today. “I believe we lost one or two World Championships as a result.”
Life after Ferrari
Following an approach from Roy Salvadori, his former Cooper and Lola team mate, John joined Jochen Rindt in the Cooper-Maserati team for the remainder of the season, finishing second in the World Championship behind Jack Brabham.
Racing his own Team Surtees-developed Lola T70, he also clinched the 1966 Can-Am Championship with five wins from eight races.
“il Grande John” – as he was nick-named by his Italian fans – also drove for Honda (1967/68) and BRM (1969) before devoting himself full-time to Team Surtees in 1970. Cars designed and built by the team won numerous events and championships throughout the world including the European F2 and US and UK F5000 Championships.
But F1 was a tougher nut to crack – mainly due to sponsorship and engine and tyre supply difficulties. Nevertheless, John, together with other drivers such as Mike Hailwood and Carlos Pace, won non-championship races and points finishes in World Championship races, including a second place in the Italian Grand Prix.
But, sadly, a lack of resources put consistency beyond reach.
Stepping Back From the Fray
John retired from the cockpit in 1972 but not before signing off with a third place in the F1 International Trophy Race at Silverstone in the Surtees TS9B and F2 wins at the Japanese GP at Mount Fuji and the Shell Trophy at Imola in the Surtees TS10.
After that he concentrated fully on management until 1978 when he was forced to withdraw the team from top flight competition altogether. The demise was caused by a combination of financial difficulties – brought on by the failure of a sponsor to meet its obligations – and health problems – a legacy from his horrendous 1965 Mosport crash. Never one to accept defeat readily, he found it a bitter pill to swallow.
Looking back, he reflects: “The main thing is that whatever I’ve done, I’ve done from the heart. I have loved being involved in first building and riding motorcycles and then driving cars – but above all, competing.”