John Surtees, GP and F1 Champion, Dies at 83

The only man to win world championships on both two and four wheels dies at the age of 83.

Grand Prix and Formula 1 champion John Surtees dies at age 83
John Surtees in 1985, on Wayne Gardner’s Honda NS500 flanked by Alan Cathcart (left) and the Honda Britain team Snetterton.Photo: Alan Cathcart Collection

John Surtees, who passed away in London on March 10 aged 83, was the only man to be crowned World champion on both two wheels and four, scoring seven motorcycle World titles for MV Agusta before winning the 1964 Formula 1 World Championship for Ferrari.

Born in 1934, John grew up working in the South London motorcycle shop owned by his father Jack, a sidecar racer with whom 14-year old John made his competition debut in 1948 by riding with his dad to victory, only to be disqualified for being under age! On leaving school at 15, he began competing in grass track races at nearby Brands Hatch, but graduated to road racing after starting an apprenticeship at the Vincent factory, for which his father was a dealer. By 1951 John was winning regularly on a 500cc Vincent Grey Flash he’d prepare himself, establishing himself as a future two-wheeled star.

Graduating in 1952 to a 500cc Manx Norton on which he competed that year in his first World Championship race, finishing sixth in the Ulster GP, John continued to dominate British short circuit racing until 1955, when Norton’s race chief Joe Craig finally gave Surtees his first factory rides in what would be the British manufacturer’s final season of racing its now outclassed singles. John won 69 out of the 75 races he started in Britain that year, including the 250cc Ulster GP on an NSU Sportmax to record his first ever GP victory. With Norton’s end-of-season retirement from racing, John began a five-year association with MV Agusta in 1956, winning the Senior TT aboard the 500cc four-cylinder MV to score his debut TT victory. He’d compete in 15 IoM TT races over a seven-year period, with six victories. He duly established an unassailable lead in the 1956 500cc World Championship to win his first of seven World crowns at the age of just 22, despite suffering a season-ending broken arm in a German GP crash.

MV Agusta and John Surtees
John Surtees signing his first MV Agusta contract with Count Agusta in 1955.Photo: Alan Cathcart Collection

In 1957 the MV Agustas were no match for the Gileras, and Surtees battled to finish third behind these in the 500cc championship, and fifth in the 350cc. He’d urged Count Agusta in vain to improve engine reliability and the four-cylinder bikes’ handling – especially with the full ‘dustbin’ streamlining that was by then universal. This led John to envisage leaving MV Agusta for Moto Guzzi, to the extent of agreeing a test ride on the firm’s increasingly competitive 500cc V8. But just before setting a date for this, Guzzi announced it was joining Gilera and 125/250cc double World champions Mondial in withdrawing from racing.

MV Agusta had originally agreed to join its three fellow-Italian companies in retirement, but Count Agusta thought better of it, thus opening the door to his bikes’ successive GP race victories against privateer competition mounted on aging British singles, and a two-decade run of uninterrupted World titles for his four-cylinder ‘fire engines’. John Surtees was the beneficiary of this, winning six World Championships in 1958-60 in both 350/500cc classes by scoring victory in 32 out of 39 races, while also becoming the first man to win the Senior TT three years in a row. He won every GP race he started in 1958 and 1959, a total of 25 victories in succession.

Frustrated by Count Agusta’s refusal to allow him to race other motorcycles in non-championship events, in 1960 Surtees decided to combine both bike and car racing instead, making his Formula 1 debut for the Lotus team in the Monaco GP, retiring from the race with a broken transmission. Flying from there to the Isle of Man for TT practice, Surtees led all the way on his MV Agusta to win his final Senior TT, becoming the first person to average over 100mph in riding to victory on the TT Course, with an average race speed of 102.44mph and a new lap record of 104.08mph. It was an apt swan song, leading to two final World titles before turning his back on MV Agusta and motorcycle racing – but not however before competing in both a car and a bike race on the same day. This came on July 24 that year, when Surtees rode his MV to victory in the 500cc German GP on the Solitude circuit outside Stuttgart, before driving Rob Walker’s Porsche in the Formula Two race held later the same day, in which he spun into retirement with a dead engine four laps from the end!

John Surtees had made an immediate impact on four wheels with Team Lotus, scoring a second-place finish in the 1960 British GP at Silverstone, in only his second-ever Formula 1 race, and taking pole position at his third, the Portuguese GP in Lisbon. But it was only after served his F1 apprenticeship with a smaller, private team that he agreed to join Scuderia Ferrari in 1963, clinching the Formula 1 World Championship for the Italian team in 1964. This was achieved despite the copious intrigue inseparable from going racing with Ferrari - for which his five years at MV Agusta had been good preparation! - not to mention the general disorganization partly caused by perennial strikes in Italy, a lack of testing and the thin spreading of resources over both Formula 1 and sports car race programs. So at the British GP at Silverstone Surtees was obliged to put his workshop skills to good use as the only team member able to wield a welding torch, fabricating an auxiliary fuel tank that enabled his car to run the full race distance without stopping to refuel!

John Surtees F1 1964
1964 F1 world champion John Surtees.Photo: Alan Cathcart Collection

After a two-year spell with Honda in F1, in 1970 John founded the Surtees Racing Organisation which competed as a constructor in Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 5000, without ever quite winning a Formula 1 GP. But John's successor as Britain's – and MV Agusta's - two-wheeled superstar, Mike Hailwood, convincingly won the 1972 European Formula 2 Championship in the Surtees TS10, to register the team's greatest success. After a frequently troubled nine-year existence in the Formula 1 paddock, not helped by a perpetual funding crisis, Team Surtees was disbanded in 1978 . Having renovated a lovely 16th century Tudor house near Lingfield, Surrey, John now turned to building up a property business, and to restoring many of the motorcycles and cars he'd collected or had on loan that were associated with his long career on both two and four wheels. He enjoyed demonstrating these and other Classic machines at numerous events all over the world, but especially at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed, where he rode historic BMW motorcycles and drove Mercedes-Benz cars alongside Nortons and MV Agustas from his own stables, with equal aplomb.

Motorcycles remained his first love, though, and with the advent of Historic GP racing, John Surtees renewed his racing licence for what proved to be his final competitive event, the 1986 French Historic GP at Paul Ricard, run as a support race to the 500cc French GP. In that he finished third on his Manx Norton behind American Dave Roper and Kiwi former World champion Hugh Anderson, both on Matchless G50s, but after that decided to hang up his helmet for anything except tests and demos – though it didn't stop him from sampling Wayne Gardner's factory Honda NS500 two-stroke triple at Snetterton, and impressing Honda race engineers with his perceptive questions and grasp of detail after riding it.

John Surtees was a hard but fair man who set high standards for himself and others which he expected them to adhere to. He absolutely knew his own mind, and wasn’t afraid of irking influential people, stubbornly sticking to his guns even if it meant ruffling feathers. If he’d been prepared to compromise or go back on his word on various occasions, he might have achieved even more than he did, especially in the murky world of the Formula 1 paddock where a straight-shooter like John was a fish out of water. He achieved a very great deal in life in spite of his humble origins, and both motorcycle and car worlds are very much the poorer for his leaving us.