Friday March 10th 2017 marked the death of one of Formula 1‘s most talented drivers in the history of the sport. John Surtees will always be remembered as one of the real racers of Formula 1, not only being a champion on four wheels but also on two, securing four titles on motorbikes before making the switch to cars.
John Surtees: A Life on Two Wheels and Four
John Surtees was born in Tatsfield, Surrey, on February 11th 1934. To many, John Surtees will always be known as the champion of the 1964 Formula 1 Season, however, before Surtees competed in cars, he raced on two wheels on bikes.
Motorcycles were a part of John Surtees’ life from a very young age, with his father being a motorbike dealer in South London. In Surtees’ first professional outing with his father in the sidecar of the bike, the pair won, however were disqualified after race officials found out Surtees’ age. Nevertheless, this did not stop Surtees from racing, with the Englishman making his first professional outing as an individual aged 15 in 1949 in a grass track competition. Two years later in 1951, Surtees made the papers for the first time in his life after challenging the champion-racer Geoff Duke in an ACU race at Thruxton.
Surtees secured his first professional race win on bikes in the 250cc category in 1955 at the Ulster Grand Prix, followed by a third place finish on the same race weekend in the 350cc category.
For 1956, Surtees accepted an offer to race for the MV Augusta racing team where he would win his first 500cc world championship after securing three wins in the season.
After a difficult season in 1957, Surtees returned in 1958 stronger than ever, again racing for MV Augusta. This saw Surtees secure his second 500cc world championship and his first 350cc world championship. Surtees’ form continued into the end of the decade, with the rider also securing the 500cc and the 350cc world championships in 1959 and 1960.
In 51 race starts in motorcycle racing, Surtees amassed an impressive 38 wins and 45 podiums, making him one of the most successful motorcycle racing World Champions to date, having seven championships to his name in the 500cc and 350cc categories.
Following a very successful stint from 1952-1960 on two wheels, Surtees made the transfer to four in 1960 at the age of 26, making his debut for Team Lotus at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone. In only his second race in Formula 1, Surtees managed to finish on the podium, securing a second place finish at the 1960 British Grand Prix. Following this was Surtees’ first pole position at the Portuguese Grand Prix in what was his third race.
For 1961, Surtees moved to the Yeoman Credit Racing Team to drive alongside Roy Salvadori. However, the season was largely unsuccessful, with Surtees’ highest finish being fifth at the Belgian and German Grand Prix. Surtees joined the Bowmaker Racing Team for 1962, which, like Yeoman, was also managed by Reg Parnell. For 1962, Surtees has his most successful season yet, finishing fourth in the championship with 19 points after five consecutive points finishes and two podiums at the British and German Grand Prix.
After success in 1962, Surtees joined Ferrari in 1963. In 1963, Surtees would claim his maiden F1 win, winning the German Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring. Surtees also finished on the podium a further two times in the season, coming third at the Dutch Grand Prix and second at the British Grand Prix. Through this, Surtees bettered his results from 1962. Despite finishing fourth in the drivers standings again, this time the British driver finished with 22 points as opposed to 19 the previous year.
1964 was Surtees’ most successful year in Formula 1, with another win at the German Grand Prix, a win at the Italian Grand Prix, and a further four podiums in the Netherlands, Britain, the USA, and Mexico allowing the driver to become the Formula 1 World Champion for Ferrari, beating Graham Hill to the title by one point.
In 1965, Surtees again remained at Ferrari, however was unable to mount a challenge to his title defence which meant that he finished fifth in the standings with 17 points. Also in 1965, Surtees has a life threatening accident when testing a Lola T70 sports car.
1966 marked the end of Surtees’ relationship with Ferrari after scoring one championship, four wins, and a further nine podiums with the team. The fallout arose when Surtees was removed from Ferrari’s driver lineup for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the team running two teams of two drivers. When asking why he was not included in the lineup, Surtees was told that the team did not feel that he was fit enough to race following his testing accident in late 1965. This caused him to immediately leave the team, joining Cooper instead to finish the remainder of the season. Surtees finished second in the standings to Jack Brabham in 1966, despite switching teams during the season.
For 1967, Surtees signed with Honda. Despite finishing third in the season opening South African Grand Prix and winning the Italian Grand Prix, Surtees finished fourth in the standings once again. From here on, Surtees’ career began to slip away, with his win in 1967 in Italy marking the final win of his Formula 1 career.
Surtees formed his own team in 1970, however, the team had limited success, securing only two podium finishes in 119 races in Formula 1. The Surtees team’s biggest achievement however, came in 1972, when the team won the European Formula 2 Championship with Mike Hailwood in the car. The team folded in 1978.
After retiring from competitive motor racing in 1972, motorsport continued in Surtees’ life, regularly competing in classic motorcycle events and remaining involved in single seater racing. Surtees was inducted in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996 and was appointed as an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2008 and a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2016 for his services to motorsport throughout his life. Surtees was also awarded with an honorary degree by Oxford Brookes University in 2015, becoming a Doctor of Engineering.
Following Surtees’ death last week at the age of 83, he will always be remembered as one of the true legends of motor racing and his legacy will live on forever, living his life on two wheels and four.