Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Carlo Carluccio
– 1934: Legend of two and four wheels
It has always rankled me that the only time we hear of John Surtees is when the specialist media seeks out the frail old man and asks him the same tired old questions about someone repeating his accomplishments.
Surtees celebrates his eightieth birthday today and is still the only World Champion to have won on two and four wheels. He won seven World titles with MV Augusta between 1956 and 1960 in both the 350cc and 500cc classes and was awarded the MBE in 1959. It was a chance meeting with Hawthorn at an awards ceremony in 1958 which sparked his interest in racing on four wheels.
His final year of motorbike races coincided with his first events in cars. His debut was in a Formula Junior finishing behind a certain Jim Clark. He would also finish second in his first F2 race and after a debut in Monaco, finished second at the British GP. His third Grand Prix should have resulted in victory after pole position and fastest lap but his Lotus retired due to mechanical reliability.
Surtees was offered team leadership by Colin Chapman for 1961 but found him unethical in conduct and joined Reg Parnell’s team.
“Il Grande John” had been competing for Ferrari in sports-car races and was offered a seat with the F1 team for 1963. The team had been in disarray since a number of engineers and Phil Hill had left and Surtees set to work to turn the organisation around.
By the German Grand Prix that year, Ferrari were back in the winners circle with Surtees winning his first Grand Prix – beating none other than Jim Clark in the Lotus 25.
The following season he made history by taking the crown with two victories in Germany and Italy and four other podium places.
Surtees had survived a near fatal crash in a sports-car race in September 1965 but was sufficiently recovered to triumph in terrible conditions in the 1966 Belgian GP.
Surtees understood Italian racing politics better than most after his years with MV Augusta and Ferrari but Ferrari’s team manager – Eugenio Dragoni – had become jealous of Surtees influence and set about discrediting him. He was omitted from the Ferrari line up for the 1966 Le Mans race and he left the team acrimoniously joining the Cooper-Maserati team. A further win, second and a third were insufficient to win the title and he finished second behind Jack Brabham.
“The parting was costly to Ferrari and me. I believe we lost one or two World Championships as a result.”
His final victory came in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix with Honda when he slipstreamed past Jack Brabham to win by a mere 0.2 seconds.
For most of the seventies he ran his own team in F1, F2 and F5000 with differing success before he turned his attentions to building a property company. To this day he still enthusiastically takes part in historic motor-sport events.
It’s fashionable to not consider him in the Top 20 drivers in history. There is always a feeling that he was a biker and not a ‘proper’ racing driver, therefore somehow he was fortuitous in Formula One.
And yet his contemporaries included Clark, Hill, Brabham, Moss, Stewart, Ginther, Gurney and Mclaren