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Motorcycling Loses a Giant: RIP, John Surtees

John Surtees on his way to winning his first Isle of Man Senior TT in 1956. Photo courtesy Alan Cathcart

John Surtees, the only man ever to win World championships on both two wheels and four, with seven motorcycle World titles for MV Agusta between 1956 and 1960 before winning the 1964 Formula 1 World Championship for Ferrari, passed away in London, England, on March 10, aged 83.

Born in 1934, Surtees 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, riding with his dad to victory on his outfit, only to be disqualified for being under age! He began competing in grass track races at Brands Hatch, but graduated to road racing after starting an apprenticeship at Vincent and by 1951 was winning regularly on a 500cc Vincent Grey Flash.

In 1952 he rode a 500cc Manx Norton in his first World Championship race, finishing sixth in the Ulster GP. Surtees dominated British short circuit racing until 1955, when Norton’s race chief, Joe Craig, finally gave Surtees his first factory rides in what turned out to be Norton’s final season racing its increasingly outclassed singles. Surtees won 69 out of 75 races, including the 250cc Ulster GP on an NSU Sportmax for his first ever GP victory. In 1956 Surtees began a five-year association with MV Agusta, winning the Senior TT aboard the 500cc 4-cylinder MV to score his debut TT victory. He established an unassailable lead in the 1956 500cc World Championship to win his first of seven World crowns at the age of just 22.

Surtees won six World Championships in 1958-1960 in both the 350cc and 500cc classes, winning 32 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, and ultimately competed in 15 IOM TT races over a seven-year period, with six victories. 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 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 on two wheels.

Surtees made an immediate impact on four wheels with Team Lotus, scoring a second-place finish in the 1960 British GP at Silverstone, his second-ever Formula 1 race, and taking pole position at his third, the Portuguese GP in Lisbon. In 1963 he joined Scuderia Ferrari, clinching the Formula 1 World Championship for Ferarri in 1964.

In 1970 he founded Surtees Racing Organization, which competed as a constructor in Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 5000. Mike Hailwood, Surtees’ successor as Britain’s — and MV Agusta’s — two-wheeled superstar, won the 1972 European Formula 2 Championship in the Surtees TS10, the team’s greatest success. After renovating a 16th century Tudor house, Surtees turned to building up a property business, and to restoring many of the motorcycles and cars associated with his long career. 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.

Motorcycles remained his first love, and with the advent of Historic GP racing Surtees renewed his racing license for what proved to be his final competitive event, the 1986 French Historic GP at Paul Ricard. He finished third on his Manx Norton behind Dave Roper and former World champion Hugh Anderson, both on Matchless G50s, but after that decided to hang up his helmet for anything except tests and demos.

John Surtees was a hard but fair man who set high standards for himself and others, which he expected them to adhere to. He 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 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 Surtees was a fish out of water. He achieved a great deal in life, and both the motorcycle and car worlds are much the poorer for his leaving us. — Alan Cathcart