John Surtees – one of motorsport’s truly great all-rounders and the only World Champion to be crowned on two wheels and four – is celebrating his 78th birthday today.
With his father being a passionate amateur motorbike racer, it was little surprise that young John took to two-wheeled competition as soon as he could. He made his competitive debut aged eighteen, and quickly became a star on his Norton bikes until he switched to MV Augusta in the mid-1950s, and it was from that point that his career took off. Between 1956 and 1960, he won an incredible seven World Championships in the 350cc and 500cc classes.
By the late 1950s, he was starting to dabble in four-wheeled competition, and even managed to impress the Vanwall and Aston Martin teams in some test outings. He made his four-wheeled racing debut in 1960, winning first time out at Goodwood, driving a Ken Tyrrell-run Formula Junior.
No sooner had he bought his first Formula 2 car, and he was offered the chance to drive for Lotus at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. Despite his lack of experience, he was sensationally quick, and finished runner-up to Jack Brabham next time out at Silverstone, and then held the race lead at the very next race in Oporto until he had a spin.
He mistakenly opted not to stay with the team for the 1961 season, and instead signed with the Yeoman Credit Racing Team, which was running off-the-shelf Cooper T53s. Not surprisingly, his results faded, and a pair of fifth-placed finished was all he could muster.
He stayed on with the team for the 1962, and its decision to work with the Lola chassis-building group paid dividends, and Surtees relished being involved in the chance to develop the new car.
His performances were strong enough to earn an offer from Ferrari, and he switched to the Scuderia in 1963, immediately pulling the dysfunctional team together. By mid-season, he’d won his first World Championship Grand Prix, and the scarlet cars were back in business once more.
When the team introduced its Type-158 for the 1964 season, Surtees was a realistic championship challenger, with his charge coming to a head late in the season. In with a shout at the season finale at Mexico, he claimed the championship when rivals Clark and Hill both hit trouble.
His title defence went awry along with Ferrari’s unsuccessful efforts to develop its flat-12 engine, and his cause was not helped with an horrific late-season accident from which he was lucky to survive.
He fell out with Ferrari management midway through the 1966 season, and so turned his attentions to Cooper, before he jumped ship to Honda’s new F1 team, which it was running in conjunction with his old Lola pals. Aside from a flukey win at Monza, the project wasn’t a success, and he quit after two seasons, going from the frying pan into the fire when he joined BRM for the 1969 season.
He then took the well-trodden route previously taken by McLaren and Brabham by building his own Formula 1 car. But two seasons as driver/owner yielded little, aside from the odd success in non-championship rounds, and he opted to step back and manage the operation from the pit wall.
But while he was a great driver, that didn’t translate to him being a good team manager, as the countless drivers who came and went will attest. He eventually opted to close the team down in the late 1970s, and he has spent his subsequent time travelling the world, thrilling racing fans everywhere with his still-razor-sharp reflexes in the historic racing scene.