The eldest of three children, John was born on February 11, 1934 in Tatsfield, England. His father Jack, who owned a motorcycle shop on Tamworth Road in Croydon, South London was a three-time British motorcycle sidecar champion so it’s not surprising that by the time he was 11 he had a bike of his own and could ride and repair it with equal skill.
He had his first professional outing in the sidecar of his father’s Vincent, which they won. However, when race officials discovered Surtees’s age, they were disqualified. Later he entered his first solo race, on grass, and won that as well.
At 16 he had left school and became an apprentice engineer at the Vincent motorcycle factory. His first road race was on a pre-war Triumph 250 at the, Brands Hatch in 1950. Just as it began to rain Surtees took the lead going into Paddock Bend, and promptly fell off. Later at the Aberdare Park circuit in South Wales, he scored his first win. Surtees would later comment that, “Of all the races I did in my life, that was probably the one that had the most effect on me. For the first time I was no longer just a mechanic who rode a bike. The bike and I became one. We spoke to each other, we were exchanging messages through the seat of my pants. I realized that’s what you need to get the best from a piece of machinery. It shaped the mould for the rest of my racing career.” Surtees made headlines in 1951 when he gave Norton star Geoff Duke who was known as the “Iron Duke” a strong challenge in an ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit, something that Norton race chief Joe Craig would remember four years later when he gave the 20-year old a sponsored ride with the famous British team.
Surtees would go on to win 68 times out of the 76 races he entered. From 1956 to 1960 he raced 350cc and 500cc bikes for the famed Italian MV Agusta team and won seven world championships. He was MV Augusta’s star rider and won the 350cc crown three times and the big 500cc title in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960. In addition Surtees won 6 Tourist Trophy victories on the Isle of Man.
“In fact I only got involved with cars by accident. It had been suggested to me before, but I always considered myself a motorbike rider. But then MV Augusta restricted my bike programme – I wasn’t allowed to ride my own bikes on the British circuits because the Italian media said it was me winning, not MV. I thought there was nothing to stop me from doing some car races, and in fact my first race came about through being introduced to Ken Tyrrell, who promptly told me he had already entered me for Goodwood and spoken to the RAC about my licence. What did I have to say? ‘Why not!’ recalled Surtees in a later interview.
He would set pole and finish a strong second to Jim Clark in the 1960 F3 race. Clark was then a promising beginner with Team Lotus, whose boss Colin Chapman promptly hired Surtees for the last four races of the 1960 Formula One season.
His results – a second place in the British Grand Prix where he finished ahead of his teammate Innes Ireland and just behind Jack Brabham. A pole position in qualifying and near win in Portugal – made Surtees a driver in demand. Surtees found that he had a better time of it in the fast corners than the slow ones finding the technique at least in fast corners for two wheels more closely followed that of four. He stopped racing motorcycles and considered several Formula One offers, including one from Chapman to partner Clark replacing Ireland at Team Lotus with Surtees as number one. Instead, Surtees not wanting to be part of a three into two with Ireland opted to drive a Cooper in 1961 and a Lola in 1962, neither venture producing much in the way of results. However, his twin strengths of talent and tenacity kept Surtees in the limelight, especially in Italy, where the former MV Agusta star was now invited to lead the country’s famous Formula One team.
Enzo Ferrari (who had managed a motorcycle racing team in the 1930s) was a great admirer of the passion and fighting spirit shown by Surtees the bike racer, and hired him as his number one Formula One driver for 1963. In that year’s German Grand Prix at the mighty Nurburgring a ferocious fight with Jim Clark’s Lotus resulted in a first championship win for John Surtees. In Italy, the former motorcycle hero known as ‘Son of the Wind’ and ‘John the Great’ was hailed as Ferrari’s savior. Nicknamed ‘Big John’ in English, he also became ‘Fearless John’ – particularly in 1964 after he won another brilliant victory at the daunting and dangerous Nurburgring, where he beat Graham Hill in a BRM. With another victory, at Monza, Surtees was in contention for the title. So, too, were his countrymen Hill and Clark, each of whom had also won two races. The points for the three leading drivers were: Graham Hill (BRM) with 39 points, John Surtees (Ferrari) with 34 points and Jim Clark (Lotus-Climax) with 30 points. In order to win the title Clark had to win the race and hope that Surtees would finish not higher than third and Hill not higher than fourth. Surtees could only win the title by finishing first, in each case, or second, unless Hill finished as high as third. In their Mexican Grand Prix championship showdown Clark’s Lotus was waylaid by an oil leak and Hill’s BRM was accidentally shoved out of contention by Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari, whose teammate Surtees finished second to become World Champion.
For John Surtees, the satisfaction of becoming the first World Champion on both two and four wheels was only mitigated by the fact that he had clinched all his bike titles with race victories. Though he would win three more Formula One championship races, there were no more driving titles in his future. To some degree he was a victim of circumstances, though his feisty personality and fierce independence were also factors. He developed a reputation for being argumentative and cantankerous. Certainly, he said what he thought and did not suffer fools gladly. That being said it was this personality that may have saved his life later when working with Honda.
In 1965, when Ferrari’s Formula One cars were less competitive, Surtees ran his Team Surtees-developed Lola T70 sportscar in the lucrative North American Can-Am series but disaster struck ate in the season at Mosport in Canada, when his Lola suffered a suspension failure and crashed heavily, leaving Surtees with multiple injuries. Over the winter he forced himself to fitness and in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa he stormed through pouring rain to score one of his most impressive victories. And yet this proved to be his last race for Ferrari. Ever since 1963 Surtees had been at odds with team manager Eugenio Dragoni. Ferrari for their part was suspicious of Surtees’ relationship with Lola’s Eric Broadley whose Lola T70 competed with Ferrari’s sports cars. At Le Mans in 1966 Surtees was omitted from the line-up and when Surtees questioned Ferrari team manager as to why, Dragoni told Surtees that he did not feel that he was fully fit to drive in a 24-hour endurance race. This may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and his estrangement from the team became permanent. Eventually, he agreed along with Enzo Ferrari that their split was a disastrous mistake for both parties. “I could probably have won another two or three world championships if I had stayed with Ferrari,” Surtees later admitted.
Surtees finished 1966 with Cooper, for whom he won the season final round in Mexico. Surtees also won the inaugural Canadian-American (Can-Am) Challenge Cup.
The following two years were spent leading Honda’s new Formula One team. He helped develop the Japanese cars and was rewarded with a satisfying win in Ferrari’s home race, the 1967 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, though Honda left Formula One racing a year later.
After a frustrating 1969 season with BRM, Surtees decided to follow the lead of Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren and form his own team, though he was destined to have much less success though not for lack of trying. In nine problem plagued Formula One seasons the best results for Team Surtees were a second and a third for Mike Hailwood, himself a multiple world champion on bikes. Surtees had more luck in F5000 after taking over the failed Leda F5000 project, and constructing its own cars, winning five races, consecutively, during a twelve race season, winning the British and American Championships in 1970. Had Surtees concentrated on building cars for the lower formula that were relatively simple and dependable he may have been able to build a nice business.
For 1971 he was backed by the veteran F1 sponsor Rob Walker, in conjunction with Brooke Bond Oxo. High spot was victory in the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup, and he ran third in the German GP until his engine failed four laps from the finish. For 1972 Team Surtees ran Mike Hailwood and Tim Schenken in F1, and also put together a highly successful Formula 2 team, sponsored by Matchbox, which gave Hailwood the title of European champion. Surtees himself won the F2 Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji and at Imola. Then, after a one-off drive in the Italian GP at Monza, he hung up his helmet to concentrate on team management. Surtees spent 1973 concentrating on trying to find more performance for his cars and enough money to pay for it. Not enough of either was found, despite Surtees pushing himself mercilessly the way he did as a driver. His constant striving exacerbated medical problems (a legacy of his 1965 accident and a blood transfusion he was given) that eventually forced Surtees out of Formula One racing in 1978.
His return to health gave him a new lease on life and the former curmudgeon has mellowed considerably. He retired to the English countryside, where he developed an interest in architecture and a very successful real estate business redeveloping industrial property. Only then was the one and only champion on two wheels and four able to fully enjoy his singular achievements – of which he said: “I was a bit nuts, really.” Sadly tragedy would strike in 2009 when Surtees’ son Henry was killed at Brands Hatch when hit on the head by a wheel from another car.