John Surtees CBE 1934–2017
The British former Grand Prix motorcycle road racer and Formula 1 driver John Surtees was born in Tatsfield, Surrey, on 11 February 1934. He passed away peacefully on 10 March 2017, aged 83, following a short illness bravely fought.
From the moment that he was born, John was immersed in the world of speed. His father Jack had a small motorcycle business in Croydon and raced a 500cc Excelsior B14 motorcycle-and-sidecar outfit in grass-track events. As a child, he travelled with his parents to race meetings and was soon hooked.
John had an illustrious career in motorsport and is revered as one of the most gifted and versatile racers of all time. He holds the outstanding distinction of being the only man to have won World Championships on two and four wheels, an accolade that is highly unlikely to ever be matched.
An out-and-out professional, with a strong independent streak, John won seven World Championships on motorcycles, one Formula 1 world drivers’ title and the North American Can-Am Championship for sports cars.
In motorcycle racing John was in a class of his own, winning seven World Championships on Italian MV Agusta motorcycles. In 1956, aged 22, he became the 500cc World Champion and followed it up with an incredible run of six titles – three each in the 350cc and 500cc categories – in the three years from 1958 to 1960.
In his extraordinary 1960 season he accepted an impossible (to anyone but John Surtees) challenge of competing in both motorcycle and Formula 1 grand prix. With MV Agusta he won seven of 12 races entered and took his last two world titles. In Formula 1 he took part in six races and finished second with a Lotus 18 in the British Grand Prix, on only his second World Championship start.
By 1963 he was racing for an elite Italian team ‘Ferrari’ in both sports cars and Formula 1 and clinched his first podium with Ferrari the same year when he won the 1963 Sebring 12 Hours for sports cars. In 1964 he became Formula 1 World Champion; his victory at Monza also won the hearts of Italian fans forever.
Ever versatile as a racer, in 1966 he bounced back after injury in a huge sports car crash to win the inaugural Can-Am series in North America driving a Lola T70. Then Honda recruited him to its new Formula 1 team for two seasons that saw him win the Italian Grand Prix again.
His talents were not just confined to being a rider or a driver though. From 1969 he became a constructor, and with typical dedication ‘Team Surtees’ built 100 cars in a nine-year period at its plant in Edenbridge, Kent, and successfully won titles in Formula 2 and Formula 5000.
John was the ultimate perfectionist. He brought to motor racing an abundance of courage, determination, enthusiasm and engineering skills which helped turn many into a front runner, or winner. Having lost many friends to motor sport, John was a strong advocate of improving driver safety in motor racing and often voiced his opinions about the industry – always for the benefit of the sport. As Sebastian Vettel said ‘I like the fact that whenever he made up his own opinion he never changed it, even if it was controversial’.
Aside from his remarkable career ‘Big John’ will be fondly remembered by his infectious warmth, mischievous smile and his unrelenting determination and enthusiasm for all he did. As he said ‘The main thing is that whatever I’ve done, I’ve done from the heart.’
From building and riding motorcycles, racing cars, owning a racing team, to being a devoted husband and father through to launching the Henry Surtees Foundation in memory of his late son Henry who was tragically killed at Brands Hatch, ‘Big John’ had a big heart and did it all with great passion.
John was an active member of the Royal Automobile Club for over 20 years, attending many events across both clubhouses. He delighted us with demonstration runs up the Captain’s Drive at Woodcote Park in his Surtees Formula 1 car, and at the same venue made the grandest of entrances to a dinner in his honour by riding his MV Agusta bike through the clubhouse. The Club rightly recognised his achievements by awarding him the Segrave Trophy in 2012.
John Surtees is survived by his wife Jane and two daughters Edwina and Leonora.