JOHN SURTEES: 11 February 1934 – 10 March 2017
One of the greats of both Formula 1 and motorcycle racing passed away on Friday, having been admitted to hospital three weeks ago with a respiratory condition.
John Surtees was 83. He was the only person to ever win world titles in both motorcycle racing and Formula 1.
Son of a motorcycle shop owner and sidecar racer, Surtees raced a bike for the first time when he was 15 – considered young at the time. By the age of 22, in 1956, he was an MV Augusta works rider and went on to win four 500cc world titles in five years, along with three 350cc titles, and was the first man to win the Senior TT at the isle of Man three years in succession.
Looking for a new challenge, he switched his attention to four wheels, debuting at the Monaco GP no less, for Lotus. He retired from that race but, sensationally, finished second to Jack Brabham in only his second F1 race, that year’s British GP. After a couple of years of moderate results in moderate cars, reaping a couple of podiums, the big break came in 1963, when Ferrari came knocking.
A three-year, slightly turbulent relationship, with the Scuderia followed, highlighted by his 1964 World Championship, a disastrous 1965 (dominated by Jim Clark’s Lotus) and his frustrated departure from Ferrari after just two races of the 1966 season. While some might have described Surtees as ‘difficult’, his quest to ‘get it right’ was more likely behind many of the tense relationships at the time.
He went to the Cooper-Maserati team, and managed to turn a dog of a car into a winner, at the final race of the year (Mexico), before his next big challenge – Honda.
The Japanese manufacturer introduced its second car for the 1967 Italian GP, snatching its only GP win on the last lap of a famous race, as Surtees towed past Jack Brabham on the final sprint to the line. The Honda wasn’t really competitive however and, after a fruitless year with BRM in 1969, Surtees decided to build his own car in 1970. Surtees Racing Organisation was born, spending nine years building, racing and selling cars in F1, F2 and Formula 5000. John himself retired from driving at the end of 1972 – the year in which Team Surtees had its greatest success, that other great ex-bike star Mike Hailwood taking the European F2 Championship.
Outside of F1, his greatest four-wheeled success came in winning the inaugural Can Am series, in 1966, driving a Lola T70.
While keeping in touch with motorsport over recent years, especially via increasing appearances at major historic events, Surtees and his the family were shattered by the death of John’s only son, Henry, in an F2 race at Brands Hatch in 2009, when hit on the head by a wheel detached from another car. Surtees subsequently founded The Henry Surtees Foundation, to “assist people with accidental injuries and help young people to develop their capabilities.”
Considered an absolute legend of motorsport, it remains a quandary why, despite other honours (OBE, CBE), Surtees was never knighted.
He is survived by his wife Jane and daughters Leonora and Edwina.
Date posted: March 11, 2017