Friday, 31 March 2017

John Surtees: legacy of a legend

John Surtees, MBE, OBE, CBE

John Surtees at Goodwood Revival, 2011. 
John Surtees is a name that most fans of motor racing will be familiar with. His racing career spanned 20 years, starting in 1952, but his involvement in racing continued until the end. A regular figure at race meets, circuits, and on TV, Surtees' trademark wide smile, enthusiasm, and energy won him many friends and fans. He won no fewer than 8 title wins, achieved – remarkably – on two and four wheels: a feat that is unlikely to ever be repeated in the modern era of motor racing.

Surtees was born into a family already mad about motorsport, and his first racing appearance came in the sidecar of his father's Vincent – a race that they won … but later disqualified for, for being too young. At 15, he raced in grasstrack competition, and, a year later, went to work for Vincent as an apprentice. The following year, he caught the attention of race goers and works teams alike, by keeping Norton's Geoff Duke honest and on his toes during a race at Thruxton.

With Norton's interest piqued, he was offered sponsorship by its race chief Joe Craig, and Surtees duly responded by beating Duke at Silverstone and Brands Hatch. Despite Norton's racing success, and partly due to it, the company faced financial difficulties, so Surtees accepted an offer from the more financially stable MV Agusta.

In 1956, he won the 500cc world championship, only partly assisted by a six-month ban for Geoff Duke, incurred from Duke's support of a riders' strike for more starting money. Whilst the following year only saw a third place finish for Surtees, Gilera and Moto Guzzi's retirement from GP racing at the end of '57 saw him pilot an MV Agusta to a further three 500cc titles, in 1958, '59, and '60 – as well as the world championships in the 350cc class in the same three years.

Surtees' astonishing career, which aside from his hat trick of class doubles, had seen him claim 250 race wins from 352 starts, had also made Surtees' known to a wider audience, and in 1959, he won BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He is still the only motorcycle racer to have been awarded the honour.

Surtees at the Isle of Man TT. This was his final TT win, the 1960 Senior. When he switched to four wheels, his place at MV Agusta was taken by Gary Hocking. From Racing Line.

In 1960, and despite his initial scepticism, Surtees switched to cars, in part due to MV Agusta's refusal to allow him to ride any other two-wheel marque. Racing against Jim Clark at Goodwood in Formula Junior, a rookie error led to him losing his chance of victory – but he was noticed by Colin Chapman, who signed him up to race in F1: a jump that modern F1 racers would find incomprehensible.

Surtees was immediately competitive, aided by the Lotus 18 of Chapman, but a falling out with Chapman, and fellow driver Innes Ireland, over who would drive beside Clark in '61, saw him walk from Lotus.

Stints for Yeoman Credit Cooper and Bowmaker Lola teams over the next few seasons enabled Surtees to continue to compete. Ferrari had already contacted Surtees, who felt it was too early in his career to drive a 'cavallino rampante.' Despite being told by Enzo Ferrari that he would not ask him again, at the end of a difficult '62 season, Enzo did just that, and Surtees accepted.

Surtees' first F1 win came at the Nürbergring. It was in 1964, however, following victories in the German GP and Monza, that he won his first F1 world championship, in the new V8 Ferrari 158, wearing the livery of NART (North American Racing Team).

The 1964 Mexican Grand Prix saw Surtees take second place,
behind Dan Gurney, and just ahead of team-mate Lorenzo Bandini. From Formula One – The Real Score?

The following year was a disappointment for Surtees, with no victories on the track. In September '65, Surtees crashed whilst practicing in his own Lola T70 at the Mosport Park circuit, Canada, and was in a life-threatenting condition for several days. Amazingly, he recovered enough to be back behind the wheel the of the Ferarri by the start of the '66 season.

Political machinations, and a long-sour relationship with team manager Eugenio Dragoni, eventually led to Surtees jumping ship mid-season to Cooper, whos Maserati V12-powered T/81 took him to victory in Mexico … he even managed to finish second in the title fight to Jack Brabham.

1967 saw a switch to Honda for two seasons, with whom he gained his last world championship success, at the Italian GP at Monza. A 1969 BRM stint left Surtees frustrated, and he decided to develop his own F1 cars. With Cosworth engines, the cars showed much promise – enough to coax another two-wheeled legend, Mike Hailwood, to its team … Hailwood went on to win the 1972 European Formula Two championship.

Surtees pilots the V12 Honda RA300. From Grand Prix Ford.

The team finally closed shop in 1978, and Surtees retired from the competitive racing circuit. Surtees held the vice-presidency of the British Racing Drivers' Club, a position he used to help continue and encourage British involvement in international motor sport.

Following the death of his son, Henry, caused by a freak accident at a relaunched F2 vent at Brands Hatch, he devoted his time to supporting the Henry Surtees Foundation, an organisation that helps young people with accident injuries, and develop their capabilities.

The charity became Surtees' main work in recent years, and has raised thousands of pounds for air ambulance services, and head injury research. It was in this capacity that Surtees attended many grass-roots events such as Goodwood, leading him become one of the most familiar, popular, and loved figures, even into his ninth decade. In 1996, John was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was awarded an MBE in 1959 , OBE in 2008, and CBE in 2016.

On March 10th 2016, John Surtees passed away at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife Jane, and daughters Edwina and Leonora.

To find out more about the Henry Surtess Foundation, follow the link below:

John Surtees photo courtesy Supermac1961 from CHAFFORD HUNDRED, England (Sir John Surtees Uploaded by Sporti) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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