UPDATED: 2017 March 13

It was a truly sad day on Friday (10th March 2017) after hearing the news that Grand Prix and Formula One legend John Surtees had passed away.

He was admitted to hospital in February due to an existing respiratory condition, where he died peacefully while in intensive care, aged 83. He'll remain forever in our hearts as one of the greatest motorcycle heroes of all time.

John Surtees was truly unique in motorsport, being the only man to have won world championships on two and four wheels. This feat, which he achieved some 50 years ago, earned him much recognition.

Born in Tatsfield, Surrey on 11 February 1934, Surtees grew up surrounded by motorcycles. His father Jack, being a three-time British motorcycle sidecar champion, owned a motorcycle shop in South London, and it didn't take long before Surtees developed an interest in them. By the time he was 11, he had his own bike that he could ride and repair himself.

Obsessed with motorcycles, Surtees actually won his first ever race, aged 14, at the Trent Park speed trials, as a passenger in the sidecar of his father's Vincent. They were later disqualified when the organisers discovered his age. At 16 he began working for the Vincent factory as an apprentice, competing in his first solo race a year later and winning it.

What made Surtees stand out from many other motorcycle racers is that he had a deep interest in the mechanics behind the bikes he rode. This influence may have come from growing up with motorcycles and helping his father in his Vincent factory, but from a young age Surtees understood motorcycles and this obsession with the machinery he rode was perhaps one of the reasons he was so successful.

Surtees claimed that his first race was on a 500cc Vincent Grey Flash that he had built himself:

"I found I could relate to the bike and that it could relate to me. That first race win was the most important of my life because it was the day that it all came together – like suddenly understanding a foreign language." - John Surtees

It was an outright win for Surtees and he spent the next year, still only aged 17, embarking upon his first season-long campaign in racing. He made his first headlines in 1951 when he gave Norton star Geoff Duke a strong challenge in an ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit.

By 1953 – at the age of 19 – he had been invited to ride for the celebrated Norton Works team, where he rode to victory 68 times in 76 races. In 1955 he began spearheading MV Agusta’s 350cc and 500cc campaigns. He won the first of his world titles -  the 500cc World Championship - in his first year with the Italian team, earning the nickname figlio del vento (son of the wind).

In 1958, 1959 and 1960, he won 32 out of 39 races and became the first man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession. Surtees' seven motorcycle world championships and six Isle of Man TT races earned him an MBE in 1959 in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. Surtees quite rightly became known as something of a racing legend, and this was before he even started his career as a Formula One racer, going on to win yet another world championship in 1964.

As quick as Surtees gained motorcycle racing success, he decided to make a switch from two to four wheels. This was something he later claimed to have happened by pure incident. Surtees had connections with F1 world champion Mike Hawthorn and F1 team owners Reg Parnell and Tony Vandervell, who had all previously joked about the prospect of a blossoming F1 career for Surtees. It wasn't until a few years later that Parnell had called Surtees and offered him a test ride on Stirling's Nürburgring-winning Aston Martin DBR1 that he accepted.

"I had never been close to a race car before, my world was two-wheeled." - John Surtees

The test ride was said to have gone very well for Surtees. So well in fact, that Parnell instantly approached him with a contract, although Surtees had turned down the offer claiming "I'm a motorcyclist". He was then offered test rides from Vandervell and a further contract, which he declined. Surtees clearly had car racing skills but nobody could tempt him into racing for them. He decided he would go it alone.

What began as a few races that he had told MV Agusta he would do on the side of motorcycle racing, swiftly became a full-time job and within the year he had quit Agusta. He met with Ken Tyrrell, who put him in his Cooper-Austin F Junior car, and the rest was history. After switching to Team Lotus, Surtees made his F1 debut, managing to make it to second place after only his second F1 race.

Surtess spent the next twelve years as an F1 racing legend before retiring in 1972. He had six F1 wins and one F1 World Championship win. After setting up his own racing team, the Surtees Racing Organisation, he competed as a constructor until 1978. It was during his time at F1 that he acquired the nicknames 'Big John' and 'Fearless John".

In 1996 John Surtees was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Already an MBE, he went on to be appointed OBE in the 2008 Birthday Honours.  

"The main thing is that whatever I’ve done, I’ve done from the heart. I have loved being involved in first building and riding motorcycles and then driving cars – but above all, competing" - John Surtees

As a motorcycle or car racer, John's skill was undeniable, and he will forever be an inspiration. His photographic memoir, John Surtees: My Incredible Life on Two Wheels was released in 2014, with proceeds going to the Henry Surtees Foundation, a charity John set up in honour of his son who died in a tragic accident at 18. John continued to ride motorcycles at classic bike weekends and events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed until late in his life. When asked why he continued to ride, his answer was simple: "If I don't ride the bikes there, someone else will".

Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing career:

Active Years: 1952-1960
Teams: Norton, MV Agusta
Grands Prix:49
Championships: 350cc – 1958, 1959, 1960 500cc- 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960
Wins: 38
Podium finishes: 45
Fastest laps: 34
First Grand Prix: 1952 500cc Ulster Grand Prix
First win: 1955 250cc Ulster Grand Prix
Last win: 1960 500cc Nations Grand Prix
Last Grand Prix: 1960 500cc Nations Grand Prix

Formula One World Championship career:

Active years: 1960 – 1972
Teams: Lotus, Cooper, Lola, Ferrari,Honda, BRM, McLaren, Surtees
Races: 113 (111 starts)
Championships: 1 (1964)
Wins: 6
Podiums: 24
Career points: 180
Pole positions: 8
Fastest laps: 10
First race: 1960 Monaco Grand Prix
First win: 1963 German Grand Prix
Last win: 1967 Italian Grand Prix
Last race: 1972 Italian Grand Prix

Others from the Motorcycle Heroes series:


15/03/17 - Sir John Surtees......it should be Sir.......and that is how I will remember him.....

15/03/17 - A great man. RIP

15/03/17 - The very best of the best.

15/03/17 - Yes certainly one Gt Briton's great ' s

15/03/17 - And always a vincent man

16/03/17 - Sir John! Don't care what anyone says he deserves it more than some tossy pop. Star!

Posted by Daisy Cordell
for Wemoto News on 07 October 2014 in Features



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