John Surtees, Honda, Monza, 1967

John Surtees, 1934-2017

F1 historyPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Having conquered the world of motorbike racing, John Surtees embarked on a four-wheeled career which culminated in the unique achievement of becoming champion on two wheels and four.

The British racing hero’s greatest achievements came at the wheels – and handlebars – of Italian machinery, earning him the affectionate nickname ‘Il Grande John’.

By the age of 26 Surtees was already a multiple champion in the 350cc and 500cc motorbike world championship classes riding for MV Augusta. And he had already begun to sample four-wheeled machinery, setting him on a path to Ferrari and world championship success.

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Having made his debut driving for Ken Tyrrell, Surtees was picked up by Lotus who gave him a handful of grand prix starts in 1960. Second place second time out at home at Silverstone confirmed the depth of this versatile talent.

John Surtees
Surtees won seven motorbike world titles
But Surtees was wary of committing to Lotus, where Innes Ireland had been unceremoniously turfed out despite scoring a breakthrough victory. In the short term this kept him out of their competitive machinery, though given the failures they were prone to it might also have considerably increased his life expectancy.

Instead he piloted a Yeoman Credit-run Cooper in 1961, managing a pair of fifth place finishes. Matters improved the following year when he began a relationship with Lola. He started the season-opener from pole position and went on to claim a pair of second places, including one at the daunting Nurburgring Nordschleife.

Ferrari had endured a disastrous 1962 season but Surtees put his faith in them for 1963 and was soon rewarded. He proved his mastery of the Norschleife where he took his first world championship race victory on his way to fourth in the world championship.

For 1964 the team had a much-improved V8 engine which Surtees used from the start of the year. Reliability niggles meant that after four races he had just a single second place to his name. When he joined Jim Clark and Graham Hill on the podium after taking third at Silverstone it seemed unlikely he would emerge as a championship rival.

John Surtees, Ferrari, Watkins Glen, 1964
A move to Ferrari put Surtees on course for the title
But at the Nurburgring he barged past Clark on lap two and went on to win, then added a second on home ground for Ferrari a month later. Suddenly he was in the championship reckoning, and though he finished second to Hill at Watkins Glen, Surtees went to the final round still in contention.

The finale was pure drama. Hill was on course for the title when Surtees’ team mate Lorenzo Bandini knocked him off. This put Clark in position to scoop the crown but an oil line broke on the final lap. Now the title was going to Hill again, but Bandini was on top of the situation and by waving his team mate through into second secured the title for Surtees.

Team politics at Ferrari forced the new world champion out less than two years later. But a more serious setback struck before then: Surtees was badly hurt in a Can-Am crash at Mosport in 1965 and continued to suffer the after-effects for years.

Surtees won on his final appearance for Ferrari, comprehensively seeing off the opposition at another of the old monster tracks, the 14-kilometre Spa-Francorchamps. After being forced out by team manager Eugenio Dragoni, Surtees joined Cooper and won for them before the year was out.

For 1967 he was approached by Honda’s works team to pilot their Lola-fettled chassis. The RA300 was overweight but Surtees claimed a superbly-judged win at Monza, beating Jack Brabham in a sprint to the line. The project ended the following year after Surtees’ team mate Jo Schlesser was killed driving the team’s radical new car about which Surtees expressed deep reservations.

John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Monza, 1967
Victory by two-tenths of a second at Monza
Following a season with BRM, Surtees set up his own team for 1970 and introduced his own chassis at round five, held at his local circuit Brands Hatch. He took points finishes in his TS7 and TS9 over the next two seasons before stepping back to administer the team.

Following his retirement from motor racing Surtees continued to appear at historic events, piloting his former cars and bikes well into old age. He also took up the cause of young British talent through the Racing Steps Foundation.

Naturally he took a special interest in championing the efforts of his son Henry, who moved up through the British motor sport echelons until he reached Formula Two in 2009. But during a race at Brands Hatch the 18-year-old was struck on the helmet by a loose wheel and was killed.

Following the tragedy Surtees set up the Henry Surtees Foundation to help young people who had suffered accident injuries.

Surtees passed away on March 10th, 2017 following a short illness. He is survived by his wife Jane and daughters Leonora and Edwina.

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17 comments on “John Surtees, 1934-2017”

  1. I just heard this on the news as I was driving home. Deeply saddening.
    An excellent rider/driver/constructor. My esteem for him only increased with the way he dealt with the death of his son.

  2. Unfortunately we lost a gladiator in 2017. What a career!

  3. No one will ever repeat John Surtees’ feats. To win F1 and Motorcycle World Championships is an incredible achievement. A one off achievement. If there’s a Motorsports Hall of Fame he’d be one of the first names in. RIP John Surtees

  4. A father reunited with his son. Rest in Peace.

  5. one of the true legends of the sport. he really should have won a second title in ’66 but he left ferrari at a bad time and couldn’t make it work with cooper. does this now mean jackie stewart is our oldest living champion?

    1. Yes, he is. Born on the 11th of June 1939, that makes him 77 years old. The next oldest champion is Mario Andretti, who is 9 months younger than Sir Jackie.

  6. An icon, a legend, and a truly unique man, a giant of the sport we love so very much.

    His achievement in being a World Champion on two and four wheels in all likelihood will never, ever be replicated …

    Rest in peace, I’ll grande John …

  7. John Surtees’s feats will probably never be repeated. To win multiple motorcycle championships (particularly at a time when the Isle of Man TT was part of the championship, a race he won multiple times) and to win the Formula One World Championship is really something. A true legend of motor racing.

  8. A great sportsman, a true legend. RIP

  9. A friend met Surtees in Australia in the 80’s. He said he was such a nice guy

  10. This is one of the very rare people who truly deserve to be called a legend. In no small part because of his modesty while describing his own genius.

    RIP.

  11. Thank you for all you have given to motorsport and the world John Surtees!

  12. Neil (@neilosjames)
    11th March 2017, 9:25

    Surtees is rarely mentioned as an all-time great in F1, but I’d argue that his achievements across two totally different kinds of motorsport mean so much more than multiple titles in one. What he did always held a special place in my racing heart, and by all accounts he was an exceptional human being as well.

    It’s always sad to see a legend pass on, but mostly I’m thankful and happy that he survived horribly dangerous eras in two top-level motorsports to live a long and successful life.

    RIP, John.

  13. I have always considered John Surtees as one the old time greats for his achievements in both motorcylce racing and F1. As a Ferrari fan i have always enjoyed watching him talking about his stint with the team and the racing in general when he was a F1 driver. RIP John, a true legend and a great gentleman.

  14. Unquestionably one of motorsport’s all time greats. Very sad to hear but such a great life lived in spite of tragic circumstances with Henry’s death. RIP Great Champion! Your unique legacy will live on forever.

  15. Everyone here is a motor sport fan and I just want to agree with all the comments made here today. John Surtees a true legend, god bless.

  16. Piyush (@square-route)
    11th March 2017, 19:29

    Thats a big achievement, didn’t knew that. Sad on his demise.

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