John Surtees’ Death Will be Felt Across Motorsport

The death of John Surtees will unite the two biggest motorsport communities in a way that no other could. Only the death of Mike Hailwood over 40 years ago comes close.

To say that Surtees, who died at the age of 83, packed a lot into his life is a masterpiece of understatement. “Big John” was already a seven-time motorcycle World Champion before Formula One came calling in 1960, when he was 26.

It didn’t take him long to conquer that either, as he won the 1964 Formula One world championship for Ferrari to emulate fellow countryman Mike Hawthorn six years before him. He was one of the bright lights in a decade of British greats that included Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jacki Stewart to name just three.

Surtees was a big name in his own right before he joined the F1 circus. He took his first title aged just 22 on a factory Augusta to become one of the feared names on the motorcycle scene. John would go on to completely dominate between 1958-60, the year he began his F1 career. During that period, he only failed to win five races, finishing on the podium in three of those and winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1959.

In just his second Grand Prix he took second place at Silverstone driving for Lotus at the 1960 British Grand Prix. That woke the F1 world up, but it wasn’t until 1963 that he was snapped up by one of F1’s biggest names – Ferrari.

He won during his debut season with the Scuderia around the fearsome Nurburgring, making the podium on another two occasions. Despite Clark winning his maiden World Championship, the foundations were set for Surtees to make history.

He had to do it the hard way in 1964. Surtees only finished once in the first four races – a second place at the Dutch Grand Prix – and seemed well out of contention on just six points back in seventh place.

But, assisted by the resurgence of Ferrari in the middle of the season he put together an excellent run of four podiums in the next five race races, including wins in Germany and at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix to leave himself five points behind Hill going into the deciding Mexican Grand Prix.

Clark, the outsider nine points back, dominated the early exchanges as Hill was slowed down dramatically after an incident with Surtees’ teammate Lorenzo Bandini. Clark looked all set to win the title until he retired on the last lap with an oil leak, which left Surtees in third behind Bandini when he needed to finish second.

Ferrari saw this and ordered Bandini to allow Surtees through in an early show of their now regular team orders. Surtees ended up taking the championship by one point to achieve a feat that will never be achieved again and become World Champion of the premier class of car and motorcycle racing.

While Clark ran away with the title in 1965 to regain the championship, Ferrari were more competitive in 1966. However, Surtees left the team following a falling out with team manager Eugenio Dragoni over being dropped for the Le Mans 24 hours when he had every chance of a second world title.

Ironically it was to be Jack Brabham, another man with a unique F1 achievement to his name, who took the title. No other man has won a World Championship in a car bearing their own name since the Australian achieved that feat 51 years ago.

For 1967 Surtees joined Honda and over a two-year stint took one victory, although the Japanese marque left the sport at the end of 1968 after Jo Schlesser’s death at the French Grand Prix. After two years at BRM, he formed his own team in 1970.

Team Surtees was to never hit the heights that their owner managed to and John retired, barring one race in 1972, from F1 in 1971 to focus on running the team. After a lack of sponsorship, it folded after the 1978 season.

Tragedy was to strike for Surtees after nurturing the career of his young son, Henry. The 18-year-old was killed in a tragic accident in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch in July 2009, when he was struck on the head by a wheel from an incident ahead. After that, he was to set up a charity in his son’s name to help people recovering from injuries.

Surtees possessed records enviable to most of those who only compete in either Formula One or MotoGP. His feat of winning World Championships on two wheels and four is unlikely ever to be matched. But it is important to remember his warm and endearing character, as well as the history-maker he was.

Jack Prentice @JPrentice8


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