Seven times MotoGP champion and one time Formula 1 champion, who comes into your mind? The list is certainly short, in fact, only one person has managed this feat. John Surtees, born 11 February 1934, is frequently crowned as the only champion on both two and four wheels. He has also been rightfully celebrated as a motorsports legend, having been around anything with an internal combustion engine his entire life.
Eldest of the three Surtees brothers, his early career was motorcycle-centric. Undoubtedly thanks to his father, Jack Surtees, who was a successful grasstrack racer. In fact, they won during John’s first professional race as a sidecar passenger to his father’s Vincent. Though they were disqualified once the adjudicators discovered John was only 14, indicating John’s talent as a racer.
It wasn’t until the year 1950 at the age of 16 though that John began motorcycle racing on his own. He left school, serving as an apprentice engineer at the Vincent factory. In fact, he remarked that his first road race at Brands Hatch was his most memorable. He noted that it had begun to dawn on him that he wasn’t a mechanic riding a bike anymore, but a bona fide racer at one with his bike.
With that said, it wasn’t until the year 1951 when John Surtees gained distinction for contending head-to-head against motorcycle racing legend Geoff Duke. It wasn’t until the year 1955 that he received a factory sponsorship from Norton Motorcycles. He then went on to score two wins over then-dominant Geoff Duke in Silverstone and Brands Hatch.
However, Norton’s financial difficulties troubled their racing ambitions. MV Augusta saw the opportunity to offer John a spot in their racing team. He promptly accepted, a move which truly propelled John’s racing career. With his new racing team, John went on to win the 1956 500 cc class. He also ended up with consecutive championship wins for both 350 cc and 500 cc in the years 1958, 1959 and 1960.
Despite racing motorcycles full time, John had been involved with racing cars as well. He even test drove an Aston Martin DBR1 but stuck with two wheels. It wasn’t until the year 1960 that he finally made the move, switching to Formula 1. He debuted during the 1960 BDRC International Trophy, age 26, racing at Silverstone for Team Lotus. He introduced himself the only way he knew, coming in second-place during his second race and pole at his third. Despite the abrupt switch, he was absolutely thriving in this vastly contrasting environment.
Following that, he cemented his place with Scuderia Ferrari in 1963 when he landed pole during the year’s German GP, surpassing F1 legend Jim Clark. It was particularly noteworthy, as it was the only time Jim came in second in a Championship race. He then went on to win the 1964 World Championship for Ferrari.
Late 1965, John sustained a nigh-fatal crash in a Lola T70 while practising around Mosport Park due to suspension failure. As A.J. Baime puts it in his book ‘Go Like Hell’, doctors had to stretch his body, resulting in him coming out four inches shorter on one side. He was forced to miss the rest of the F1 season.
Make no mistake, the injuries never slowed him down. If anything, it motivated him to drive harder and faster. In the following year, F1 introduced larger 3-litre capacity engines. John debuted with Ferrari’s new F1 racer at the 1966 BDRC International, finishing closely behind Jack Brabham in his Brabham BT19. He would then lead the 1966 Monaco GP, slingshot past Jackie Stewart’s 2-litre BRM before suffering engine failure. Redemption was due, when he scored pole in the following Belgian GP.
During the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans though, Ferrari made the executive decision to exclude John from the driver lineup. Allegedly then Ferrari team leader cited his injuries as the reason, but John put it much differently. This drove John Surtees to quit Ferrari immediately, possibly forsaking the 1966 Formula 1 Champion title. He was also competing in Can-Am racers concurrently.
The following years, he raced for Honda and enjoyed notable success amongst a field of veteran F1 drivers such as Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and Jim Clark. He established Surtees Racing Organisation competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1 in 1970. He retired from competitive racing in 1972, before disbanding his racing team in 1980.
John Surtees died 10 March 2017, aged 83, in a hospital bed due to respiratory failure. But even after retiring, he never stepped away from fast cars and bikes. He still involved himself with motorsports decades after his retirement and can be seen participating in classic racing events in his vintage machines.
John Surtees is a motorsports legend, and rightfully inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in the year 1996. He even involved himself with charity, founding Henry Surtees Foundation (HSF)that assists accidental brain injury victims and promotes motorsports safety. Named after his son Henry who died in a tragic motorsports accident. To this date, the HSF still contributes, and one that hopefully will immortalise John Surtees’s impact on the world.