Remembering John Surtees: Two and four-wheel world champion

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John Surtees is the most honoured English motorcycle racer of all time, having been awarded a CBE, MBE and OBE.

Surtees sadly passed away at the age of 83 and would have celebrated his 85th birthday on February 11, 2019. In light of this, we are celebrating his many achievements during a life spent on both two and four wheels.

In 2016, John Surtees was bestowed the rank of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in recognition not only of his achievements in, motorsport (Surtees remains the only man to have won both the MotoGP and F1 world titles), but also for his work with the Henry Surtees Foundation – the charity he set up after the death of his son in a car racing accident in 2009.

John Surtees with Valentino Rossi

Totally unrivalled
Rossi dipped his toe into the car racing world but came nowhere near to matching Surtees’ form

Speaking exclusively to MCN in 2016, Surtees said: "I am honoured to receive this award. This year marks the anniversary of me winning my first TT and motorcycle world championship in 1956 and of my winning the CanAm American Sports Car Championship, and winning the Belgian and Mexican Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1966. I look upon this award as being shared with those that I have worked with and have helped me through my career."

John Surtees on a 350cc MV Agusta at the Isle of Man

Brave competitor
A fourth place finish on the 350cc MV in the 1957 Isle of Man TT was Surtees’ only finish of the season, prompting him to tackle Count Agusta directly over engine reliability issues.

Surtees won his first 500cc world title for MV Agusta back in 1956 and would go on to win a further six world crowns in the 350cc and 500cc classes as well as winning six Isle of Man TT races between 1956 and 1960.

Surtees’ record in motorcycling was truly astonishing: he took 38 grand prix wins from 49 starts! His TT record was equally impressive, with six wins and two further podiums from just 14 race starts.

Surtees pictured with his OBE in 2009

Royal approval
In 2009 the Queen added an OBE to Surtees’ other accolades

After switching to cars in 1961, Surtees went on to achieve the seemingly impossible by winning the F1 world title for Ferrari in 1964. Taking world titles on both two and four wheels is an achievement never likely to be repeated as both disciplines have become more intensely focused in recent decades.

John Surtees gets a kiss from his mother after his first TT win

Family values
A 22-year-old Surtees gets a kiss from his mother after his first TT win

For some, the news of Surtees' CBE award came as a bit of a disappointment as many of his most ardent admirers believed that he had done more than enough to merit a Knighthood.

In 2013 an online petition was set up in an attempt to persuade the Queen to dub him ‘Sir John’ but that particular honour remained elusive. Surtees, modest as ever, played down the issue when asked about it in 2013. "It might happen but you never know," he said. "The Government does tend to have rather a lot of things on its mind at the moment."

John Surtees with his 500cc championship-winning MV Agusta

Still in the saddle
Reunited with the 500cc MV Agusta that took him to four world championship crowns in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960, Surtees still enjoyed the chance to sling a leg over it at events like Goodwood

Surtees’ first gong came way back in 1959 when he was awarded the MBE for his services to motorcycle racing. Almost half a century passed before he was given the higher rank of OBE in 2008. The CBE is the highest honour anyone can achieve before being granted a Knighthood. 

Title fighter
Surtees’ champion years

1956 - 500cc world champion (MV Agusta)
1958 - 350cc and 500cc world champion (MV Agusta)
1959 - 350cc and 500cc world champion (MV Agusta)
1960 - 350cc and 500cc world champion (MV Agusta)
1964 - Formula 1 World Champion (Ferarri)

John Surtees in his Ferrari Formula 1 car

Words: Stuart Barker Photos: Rex Features/Bauer Archive

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