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.

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