John Surtees: The Multi-Disciplined World Champion
When we run through biographies of famous racing drivers, we often refer to their work across a number of disciplines. A host of top class F1 drivers have worked their way through the ranks of Formula Ford and Formula Three. Others have crossed into Daytona and Indy 500 while others may have even tried their hands at rallying.
There have been some notable achievements but to date, only one man has ever been a World Champion on two wheels and on four wheels. Step forward John Surtees who, supporters may well argue, is simply the greatest all round driver who has ever lived.
Like a number of our subjects, John Surtees had motor racing in the blood when he grew up. His father, Jack Surtees, was a motorcycle dealer and would race grasstrack bikes to a high level. The elder Surtees was the 1948 South Eastern Centre Sidecar Champion so there seemed little doubt that his son would go on to pursue a career in motor racing.
John Surtees duly followed in his father’s footsteps and by the early 1950s, had begun to compete well in minor motorcycle races. At that stage of his fledgling career, the emphasis was very much on two wheels and Surtees was attached to Norton bikes. With Norton in some financial trouble, however, a switch was inevitable and by 1955, Surtees had accepted an invitation to ride for the MV Agusta company.
The rise was rapid and in 1956 at the age of just 22, John Surtees won the World 500 CC Motorcycle Championships. This was a gruelling test of endurance at the time and one that began with the Isle of Man TT. It was an incredible achievement for one so young and with relatively little experience but for John Surtees, things were only just beginning.
The 1950s were to bring further success in two different classes. On board 350 cc motorcycles, Surtees won the world title in 1958 and 1959 before moving into a new decade and enjoying another trophy in 1960.
In his original, 500 cc discipline, Surtees added to that initial 1956 success with further world championship triumphs in 1958, 1959 and 1960. He therefore dominated the two classes in the three seasons from 1958 but that dominance was to end in surprising circumstances.
It’s likely that John Surtees could have gone on to become the best motorcycle rider in the history of the sport but his head was turned by a different kind of machine. While still racing competitively on two wheels, Surtees had test driven Aston Martin racing cars and in 1960, he switched up full time.
Based on his undoubted pedigree, the British driver was able to go straight into the highest level and he earned a formula one contract with the Lotus team. Early results were steady if unspectacular: Surtees claimed a second placed finish in his second Grand Prix and he started on pole position in his third outing but it would be three years before he secured a first victory.
Surtees took the chequered flag at the German Grand Prix in 1963 but his breakthrough didn’t lead to a sustained period of success with Lotus. He was a steady and competitive driver but regular wins didn’t come until he switched to the Ferrari team. As giants in motorsport, Ferrari were able to provide John Surtees with a more competitive vehicle and he duly won the F1 world championship in 1964.
In the modern day, the Formula One circuit features over 20 races but back in 1964 when John Surtees won the World Championship, there were just ten events. Surtees would win twice - in Germany and the United States but by consistently finishing inside the points, he was able to secure the drivers’ title ahead of his rival compatriots Graham Hill and Jim Clark.
It was, admittedly, a bizarre scoring system at the time. With 41 points, Hill had actually recorded more than Surtees’ 39 but only the six best finishes counted towards the drivers’ championship. Those were the rules and John Surtees duly became the beneficiary as he became the first man to ever win the world motorcycle championship and the formula one drivers championship.
Although John Surtees continued to compete in Formula One right up until 1972, he would eventually retire with just that solitary world drivers championship. When he finally called it a day, six Grand Prix wins were to his name and while that overall record may sound relatively modest, no driver has since emulated his feat of world titles in the two disciplines and it’s likely that no-one ever will.
In retirement, he continued to build a Formula One legacy with the Surtees Racing Organisation. As a vehicle constructor, the Surtees team competed in F1 and Formula 5000 for nine seasons from 1970 and while they didn’t actually win a Grand Prix, they produced competitive machines and recorded four fastest laps in their time. John Surtees also drove in four 24 Le Mans races in his time and produced a best finish of third in 1964.
In later years, he continued to ride motorcycles in classic events and was a regular presence on the circuit. He ran a motorcycle spares shop and also a car dealership so Surtees was always looking to be involved in the sport.
Unlike a number of his contemporaries, John Surtees managed to survive the pitfalls of motor racing at a time when so many succumbed to accidents on the track. He’d experienced a near miss in 1965 when he crashed while testing a Lola but happily, he managed to live a long life and passed away in 2017 at the age of 83.
His legacy still lives on and, among many incredible drivers that we cover in these pages, the achievements of John Surtees as a double world champion remain unique.