John Surtees, the only man to have won World Championship crowns on both two wheels and four, has died at the age of 83 after a brief illness.
The Englishman will forever be ranked as one of the greatest all-round racing drivers in history.
Born into a motorcycling background – his father Jack was himself an amateur racer who also ran a motorcycle dealership in South London – John started racing bikes competitively in 1951. Initially a star on Nortons through to the mid-1950s, he then switched to MV Augustas and truly flourished. From 1956 to 1960, he was the greatest rider in the sport, with an astonishing seven World Championship titles in the 350cc and 500cc classes.
He started to dabble in four-wheel racing in 1959 – he had trials for Aston Martin and Vanwall – before taking up a more earnest focus in 1960. He won his first car race at Goodwood in Ken Tyrrell’s Cooper Formula Junior.
Having purchased his own Formula 2 Cooper, he was almost immediately offered a Formula 1 drive by Lotus boss Colin Chapman, who was in the process of scouting a number of new talents to join his team.
He proved immediately quick despite his inexperience, finishing second to Jack Brabham in just his second Grand Prix and led in Portugal. Unhappy with Chapman’s terms for a new contract, Surtees unwisely opted not to join the team’s ranks as teammate to Jim Clark in 1961.
Instead he moved to the Yeoman Credit team, running customer Coopers, but his results were thin. Once the team secured investment from Bowmaker and switched to a Lola chassis in 1962, Surtees sought to involve himself in the engineering of the car and the results started to follow.
The lure of a contract from Ferrari proved too great, and Surtees’ arrival in 1963 immediately transformed a team that had seemingly lost its way after the success of its ‘sharknose’ design in the early 1960s. With his input on the development of the team’s monocoque chassis proving instrumental, Surtees claimed podiums at Zandvoort and Silverstone, and peaked with victory at the German Grand Prix.
When the team introduced its new 158 V8 engine in 1964, Surtees at last had a car that was capable of challenging for the World Championship. Victories in Germany and Italy propelled him into contention by the finale at Mexico City, where he won out in a spectacularly tense battle against his rivals Jim Clark and Graham Hill, who both struck trouble.
His title defense started off with podiums in South Africa, France and Britain, but the team’s switch to a flat 12-cylinder powerplant proved to be a misstep. He enjoyed better results in Ferrari’s sports car division -winning the Nürburgring 1000km – while he also started to dabble in team ownership by forming his own outfit to compete in the North American sports car scene.
It was at one of those events at Mosport where Surtees suffered a frightening accident during practice, emerging with serious back injuries and a lengthy stint in hospital.
He bravely returned to the grid in 1966, winning the Belgian Grand Prix, but had a bitter falling out with Ferrari in the mid-season and switched to Cooper, with whom he was victorious at Mexico to finish as championship runner-up.
His former motorcycle connections proved the impetus for Honda to try its hand at Formula 1, and he headlined the Japanese company’s debut campaign. The season was difficult and development was slow, save for an unlikely victory at Monza in the hastily-prepared Lola-based ‘Hondola’. The second year of the partnership didn’t propel him forwards, and the marriage dissolved at year’s end. His 1969 season spent with the ailing BRM concern is best forgotten.
In 1970, Surtees followed the example of his peers, Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, by forming his own team. Initially running a customer McLaren chassis while his own design was being built, Surtees showed he could still run at the front, but the arrival of the Surtees TS7 rarely allowed him to repeat his former glory aside from the odd non-Championship success against thinner opposition.
The 1971 season saw a new chassis, the TS9, but it too made little impression. Fielding fellow bike ace Mike Hailwood as his teammate in 1972 made Surtees realise that his best racing days were behind him, so he stepped out of the cockpit and concentrated solely on team management.
A succession of drivers – good, bad or otherwise – had varying stints with the team, but almost universally they failed to cope with Surtees’ exacting standards. If ever there was the adage that great drivers don’t necessarily make great team owners, then Surtees certainly fitted the bill.
He eventually sold up and retired, remarrying and becoming a family man. Motorsport wouldn’t leave him behind, however, as we was a frequent and popular visitor at historic events where he would demonstrate his two- and four-wheeled talents to a new generation of fans.
He had a second crack at team leadership when tempted back to headline the Team GB entry in the A1GP series, and then later guided the promising racing career of his son Henry. Tragically, he would die in 2009 after being struck in the head by a flying wheel during a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch.
The family rallied in terrible circumstances to donate Henry’s organs and founded the Henry Surtees Foundation, raising vital funds for the charity in his son’s honour.
Having been awarded an MBE for his motorcycling achievements, he was later made an OBE in 2008 and a CBE in 2016, although many in the motorsport community felt it a disgrace that he was never awarded a knighthood.
Surtees took ill shortly after his 83rd birthday in February with a respiratory condition, and passed away peacefully with his wife, Jane and daughters, Leonora and Edwina, by his side.
Motorsport has lost one of its giants.
Images via Column M, Pinterest and Scuderia Ferrari