Each year, the Autosport International Show dedicates a special feature to legends from the world of motorsport. In 2014, that honour went to John Surtees – and rightfully so.
The 79-year-old is, quite literally, motor racing royalty. He is the only man to ever win world titles on both two and four wheels, winning the 500cc motorcycle championship four times and taking the F1 title in 1964 at the wheel of a Ferrari 158. This year is the 50th anniversary of that title win.
He made an immediate impact in both his bike and car racing careers. Known for his perfectionism, enthusiasm and technical skill, his versatile talent has made him a racing legend in two of motorsport’s most challenging disciplines.
Motoring has always been part of the Surrey-born racers life, as his father ran a motorcycle dealership in South London. His first race, in the sidecar of his father’s Vincent motorbike, didn’t go to plan. They won the race but when officials found out his age, they were disqualified.
He soon made his own on-track debut, racing in a grasstrack competition at the age of 15. One year later, he went to work for the Vincent factory as an apprentice and soon started racing on the race circuits. He soon rose to the top, racing on the Vincents, Triumphs and MV Augustas, and dominated to win seven world titles between 1956 and 1960.
This included three championship wins in the 350cc class and four in the 500cc class. He was still racing on bikes when the idea of trying out a race car started to take over his thoughts, after a meeting with the newly-crowned champion Mike Hawthorn and Tony Vandervell from Vanwall in 1958.
The idea was suggested and he duly decided to try it out, first testing an Aston Martin DBR1 that had previously won at Le Mans. After impressing, he was asked to drive for them but turned the offer down, declaring “no, I’m a motorcyclist.”
However, he couldn’t stay for long and decided to make the switch full-time in 1960. Unlike the current feeder series ladder, which is rather cluttered, Surtees only competed in three races at the wheel of a racing car before jumping to Formula 1. After one round of Formula Junior for Ken Tyrrell and two in Formula two, at the wheel of a car that he had brought, Colin Champman told him to “drive Formula One”.
“No, I’m a motorcyclist!” Surtees replied, once again. “Well drive Formula One when you’re not motorcycling.” His career in car racing kicked-off shortly after. While juggling some of his final commitments in the motorbike racing scene, he debuted at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix for Lotus. He retired but stood on the podium at his second race, before then famously catching the eye of a certain Enzo Ferrari.
John Surtees is one of the rare drivers to have actually turned down an offer from Enzo Ferrari. The founder of F1’s most successful team, Ferrari offered him a drive at the end of his first season in the sport. 1961 and 1962 were learning year’s at the wheel of Cooper and Lola cars, helping to build up his knowledge of engineering and the technical aspects of F1 machinery. Those two season’s helped him gain experience, with some success, and when the second invite to Ferrari arrived, this time he said yes.
With his motor bike career now well and truly behind him, he made the switch to Maranello for 1963. The start of the season was difficult as the team tried to juggle F1 with their sportscar commitments, but it yielded one win and one other podium. Then, of course, 1964 arrived and was far more successful. It was the only season that he scored multiple wins, crossing the line in first place twice – at the German and Italian Grands Prix. Four further podiums helped him to take his first and only title in the sport.
1965 started with the old 158 from the previous year, before Ferrari switched to the 1512. He couldn’t keep up with his closest rivals and dropped to fifth in the standings, before eventually leaving the team during the following season after they failed to place him on their Le Mans line-up. This was due to a back injury sustained in the previous season after crashing a Lola T70 in Canada.
After departing from the Scuderia, he switched to Cooper-Maserati and finished as the runner-up to Jack Brabham. A move to Honda beckoned for 1967 and he won the team’s second race at the Italian Grand Prix. Following a winless 1968 and one season driving a BRM in 1969, he decided to set up his own outfit – Team Surtees.
He raced at the wheel of his own car for three seasons before officially retiring from F1 in 1972. He remained at the team until 1978, when it disbanded. This was despite having a car ready to race for the following season.
Surtees has remained involved in the motorsport world, particularly with the career of his son Henry, who unfortunately lost his life while racing in the Formula 2 series in 2009. John formed the Henry Surtees Foundation to assist people with accidental injuries and to help young people develop their capabilities.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic