John Surtees, the only man to be World Champion on both two and four wheels, has been awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours List for his services to motor racing.
The 81-year-old Englishman – the oldest surviving 500cc/MotoGP champion and F1 World Champion – is now a ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’, a title that will be formally presented by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Surtees was one of a handful of drivers to have dominated Formula 1 in the mid 1960s, having switched to four-wheeled racing in 1960 after winning no less than seven World Motorcycle Championship titles. He showed tremendous promise in his first Formula Junior outings and was almost immediately offered the chance by Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman to drive for his Grand Prix team when the Formula 1 races didn’t clash with his two-wheeled commitments.
He certainly didn’t disappoint. He finished a fine second on home soil at Silverstone and looked on course to win in Portugal before he damaged a radiator when he clipped trackside straw bails.
A move to Ferrari in 1963 took his career to the next level and he claimed his maiden Grand Prix win at the fearsome Nürburgring Nordschleife. More wins followed in 1964 and he headed into the season finale in Mexico in a three-way scrap for the Drivers’ Championship title. In a nail-biting race, he snatched the crown, but only after the title slipped through the fingers of Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
His championship defense was disrupted by a life-threatening sports car accident at Mosport Park when his suspension failed on his Lola, but he recovered to win the Can-Am Series in the following year while also returning to Formula 1 for Ferrari.
His particular skill was on the classic road course circuits like the Nürburgring Nordschleife and Spa-Francorchamps, and he won at the latter in 1966 after a superb battle with Jochen Rindt.
Shortly after, he had a shock falling-out with Ferrari team manager Eugenio Dragoni and exited the Italian team to see out the season with Cooper-Maserati, winning the final Grand Prix of the year.
He joined Honda’s new Formula 1 project in 1967 and – despite a famously surprising win at Monza that year – it was a difficult few seasons developing its rather short-lived tilt as a fully-fledged constructor on the Grand Prix scene.
In 1969, he moved on to BRM – a team very much on a long a long and slow decline – and made up his mind to form his own Grand Prix team, figuring that he’d had enough of seeing his own ideas on the technology and mechanical set-up being compromised by team management.
He competed as an owner/driver with moderate success for the first three years until he retired in 1972, but a permanent move to the pit wall rather created the theory that former drivers rarely make good team owners. He went through a succession of sponsors and drivers until the team closed its doors at the end of 1978.
Surtees remained active in motorsport with countless revival and historic demonstration appearances, as well as through the racing career of his son Henry, who would be tragically killed in 2009 in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch. Since then, John has kept his son’s legacy alive with charity work through the Henry Surtees Foundation.
Surtees was awarded an MBE in 1959 for his motorbike racing feats, and an OBE in 2008. His latest accolade could be considered a further step towards a knighthood, which many fans and insiders consider to be long overdue given his incredible achievements.
Image via The Guardian
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