Obituary: John Surtees 1934-2017

Published: 10 March 2017

John Surtees will always be remembered as the first man to win world titles on both two and four wheels and, given how specialised both sports have now become, it's an achievement that is likely to stand forever. 

Born on February 11, 1934, Surtees was the son of a south London motorcycle dealer and was surrounded by bikes from an early age - even his mother Dorothy rode. He entered, and won, his first competitive event at Trent Park, North London, in 1949 at the age of 14 as passenger to his father in a grass-track Sidecar event but the pair were later disqualified when the race organisers discovered Surtees was underage. 

As soon as he turned 15 Surtees began entering solo grass-track races on an old Excelsior-JAP and when Brands Hatch was converted from a grass-track circuit to a road racing circuit in 1950 he made his tarmac debut on a pre-war 250cc Triumph - still shod with grass-track tyres. His first road race win came at Aberdare Park in Wales that same year but it was his performance in an international meeting at Thruxton in 1951 that really made his name. Riding an obsolete push-rod Vincent, Surtees gave that year's double world champion, Geoff Duke, a real run for his money and announced his arrival in the big league. 

His performances on a private Featherbed Norton in 1952 attracted the attention of the factory's legendary race chief, Joe Craig, who signed the young Londoner to ride for the official Norton squad in that year's Ulster Grand Prix. 'I had a Norton allocated to me which came in time for the 1952 Ulster Grand Prix' Surtees said. 'It was the last race to be held on the old Clady circuit. It was also my first world championship event and my first event off the mainland. I was a little flukey because of Les Graham and others retiring, so I finished sixth and got a world championship point, which hadn’t been planned, and it ruled me out of the Manx Grand Prix.'

Unable to contest the amateur Manx event, Surtees found himself thrown in at the deep end at the 1953 TT. But that's where his relationship with Norton almost came to an end. 'I was asked by Joe Erhlich to ride a 125 EMC at the TT and I thought it would teach me the circuit a little more so I agreed. I went along with my private Norton but when I got there, Syd Lawton, the works Norton rider, had an accident so Joe Craig turned round and said “we want you to ride the works Norton in the TT.” And I didn’t even know which way the circuit went!

‘I went round the course in my father’s van and I walked lots of it to try and pick it up. Then I actually had quite a good practice on the 350 works Norton. When I got the works Norton I tried to withdraw from the 125 race but Joe Erhlich said no because it would give him problems with his sponsors and, although we had no written agreement, we had made an agreement so I felt bound to him. But disaster struck - I got as far as Ballaugh Bridge and the front forks broke and I went down and broke my scaphoid - that nasty little bone in the wrist. So my first time at the TT had been up to Ballaugh Bridge on a 125 apart from some practice on the works Norton. It was a great honour to be given the works Norton but Joe Craig was so upset with me because I didn't give up the EMC ride so I was in his bad books. He was going to let me join the factory team in 1954 but in the end they only gave me some '53 bikes.'

Surtees finally got a Norton works ride in 1955 and proved to be virtually unbeatable. Of the 72 races he entered on his Nortons and a private 250cc NSU, he won 65 of them and rounded out the year by beating Geoff Duke at both Silverstone and Brands Hatch to establish himself as Britain's number one rider. 

With Norton in financial trouble, Surtees signed to ride for MV Agusta in 1956 and won his first word title in the 500cc class. And when Gilera and Moto Guzzi withdrew from GP racing after the 1957 season, Surtees went on to dominate the 500cc and 350cc classes in 1958, '59 and '60 winning an astonishing 32 out of 39 races. He also became the first man to win the Senior TT in three consecutive years. 

By the end of the 1960 season, Surtees had seven world titles (four in 500cc and three in the 350cc class) and six TT wins to his name and had little left to prove on two wheels. Still just 26 years old, he took up the challenge of racing on four wheels and immediately proved his motorcycling talent could readily be transferred to cars. Having never even been a spectator at a car race, Surtees turned up at Goodwood in March, 1960 and briefly led the race from future world champion Jim Clark before eventually finishing second. Four months later - and while he was still racing bikes - he finished second in the British Grand Prix driving a Lotus.

Eventually signing for Ferarri in 1963, the seven-times world champion motorcyclist made history the following year when he won the Formula One world championship to become the first man in history to win premier world titles on both two and four wheels. 

Surtees won a total of six Formula One races between 1960 and 1972 with his last victory coming at the Italian GP in 1967. In 1970 he formed his own team and continued to take part in F1, F2, and Formula 5000 as a constructor up until 1978. Somewhat fittingly, it was another motorcycling great who delivered the highlight of Surtees' career as a constructor when Mike Hailwood won the Formula 2 European Championship in 1972. But the same class brought heartache to Surtees in 2009 when his son Henry was killed racing in a Formula 2 Championship race at Brands Hatch. He was just 18 years old. 

Bikes and cars continued to play a central role in John Surtees' life right up to the end. A gifted engineer, he enjoyed restoring bikes and took part in countless parades and classic events on two wheels and four. In 2008 Surtees was awarded the OBE (Officer of the British Empire), having already been honoured with an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1959. In 2016 he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the New Year's Honours List, making him the most decorated motorcycle racer of all time. 

Records are made to be broken but Surtees' unique achievement of winning the 500cc motorcycle world championship and the Formula One world title is likely to stand forever in memory of a quiet man who conquered the world in not one, but two, entirely different disciplines. 

SURTEES' TOUGHEST RACE

'The 1959 Senior TT was probably the worst conditions I’ve ever ridden in. You didn’t only have the rain but also the sleet. And the sleet came down and it was as big as marbles and it actually damaged the fairing on the MV. It took the paint off. I was actually not able to use my fingers, I could only keep them clasped together and was pulling them in en masse to operate the clutch and brake levers. All I had on was my normal race leathers. We didn’t have one-piece suits underneath - I just wore my vest and pants! But I never thought about giving up. I just struggled on and hoped the others weren’t doing any better and were finding it just as difficult. I was very concerned because I thought the weather played into the hands of the Nortons, particularly when we were starting with such a heavy fuel load. It was a bit of a concern but it all turned out okay. I certainly had a hot bath in the Douglas Bay Hotel after that one!'

THE GREATEST CHALLENGE: SURTEES ON THE TT COURSE

‘The TT circuit presented an entirely different challenge to the normal circuits. One from the fact that it was so long, two that it was just standard roads, and three that there were all the other factor which you had to learn about the Island; about the changing weather conditions and what can affect one part of the course and what can affect others - where you are on the road when this happens and that happens. It’s a learning curve and the more you ride on it the better you become on it. 

The TT is something that one needs to have very, very special respect for. It needed a different style of riding and you needed to switch on to a slightly different mentality. You had to get the TT rhythm, and the TT rhythm is all about being in the right place on the road at the right time. Whereas you scratch here and you scratch there on a short circuit, what you do at any one point on the TT course controls what you do for the odd mile or so up the road. I didn’t have a vast surplus of power so I had to carry speed through corners and to do that you had to be very much on the right line. By scratching through corners, you would actually scrub off speed. The Isle of Man, for me, was very much about rhythm and positioning on the road and when I went to the Island I switched into the Island mode. It didn’t mean that you didn’t ride just as hard. There were times when the front end would get light in places, even in those days, and that was another factor you had to consider but when you get all that right then the lap times come. 

The most satisfying thing about the TT for me was getting the job done and winning there. The challenge was enormous and particularly because lots of people like to put riders into boxes. They would categorise you as a TT rider or a short circuit rider or a Grand Prix rider. That may have been true in some cases but really you had to be an all-rounder, and I certainly considered myself to be an all-rounder who took on whatever was there.'

ON TWO WHEELS AND FOUR: SURTEES RACING ACHIEVEMENTS

BIKES

Isle of Man TT Wins

1956: Senior TT (MV Agusta)

1958: Junior TT, Senior TT (MV Agusta)

1959: Junior TT, Senior TT (MV Agusta)

1960: Senior TT (MV Agusta)

World Championship Titles

1956: 500cc word 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)

CARS

Surtees won a total of six Formula One Grands Prix and scored a further 18 podiums as well as eight pole positions, and ten fastest laps from 111 starts. 

1964: Formula One world champion (Ferrari)

Third in Le Mans 24 Hour race (Ferarri)

1966: Can-Am (Canadian-American Challenge Cup) champion (Lola Chevrolet)