John Surtees sadly passed away at the age of 83 years back in 2017. But his legacy still lives in our hearts, and we would’ve liked it if the best motorcycle helmet camera existed back in the day so that Surtees could’ve filmed his races from his own point of view. Nevertheless, we want to celebrate this man’s life and his many awe-inspiring moments.
John’s early years
Born on February 11, 1934, in Tatsfield, England, he was the eldest of his parents’ three children. Jack, his father, was a motorcycle sidecar champion and took his eldest son to his own motorcycle shop on Tamworth Road in Croydon numerous times. That’s how he got into motorcycles and racing a little later in life.
By the time he turned eleven, he already got his own bike and he had already learned from his father how to repair it on his own. He began his professional career as his father’s co-pilot inside the same sidecar that his father used to pilot in his prime. They initially won the race, but they were disqualified after the match officials found out John’s real age.
He entered his first solo race at the age of 15 and won that as well. When he turned 16, in 1950, he dropped out of school and enrolled as an apprentice engineer at one of the most prestigious factories of that era – none other than the Vincent motorcycle factory. The following year, he gave Geoff Duke a run for his money in an ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit.
Despite not winning the race, he still managed to impress the crowd with his performance at that young age. In 1955, the then-chief of the Norton motorcycle company gave Surtees his first sponsorship on one of their bikes. By the end of the year, John would beat the amazing Geoff Duke at Silverstone and then at Brands Hatch racing circuits.
Alas, the Norton motorcycle company were still facing a lot of financial troubles. They were uncertain about their future participation in any moto racing event ever, so they had to cut Surteese’s sponsorship. John took the news well and then signed up with the MV Agusta factory from Italy. He quickly became their favorite figure and they called him “son of the wind.”
Winning like a champ
Between 1956 and 1960, Surtees would go on to win an outstanding 68 races out of the total of 76 that he partook in. He raced on several 350cc and 500cc bikes from the MV Agusta motorcycle company and he is one of the main reasons why the company took off so well during that era. He won several world championships and at that point, he was the company’s star.
He won the 350cc crown three times and then went on to win a few 500cc titles. The first one was in 1956 and then three more followed between 1958 and 1960. Speaking of huge victories, you’ve probably heard about the Isle of Man. Guess what? Surtees won six Tourist Trophies in that famed competition.
Sadly, not long after these wins, John would leave the sport that made him famous – motorcycle racing – for a whole different beast. Despite his numerous wins for MV Agusta, there was a misunderstanding between him and the company. In an interview, he claimed that he always felt that motorcycles felt more natural to him, but he discovered his love of cars by accident.
More specifically, MV Agusta restricted his bike program on television. They didn’t allow him to ride his own bike for their races, because of the Italian TV programs claiming that Surtees won races, instead of claiming that MV Agusta motorcycles were the ones doing the magic. He didn’t take this restriction well, so he eventually ended up in Formula 1.
Taking over the car racing scene
John Surtees received numerous Formula 1 offers, one of them even begging him to partner up with Jim Clark and replace Ireland, which would subsequently give him the number one spot on Team Lotus.
He refused the offer and instead opted to drive a Cooper in 1961 and a Lola in 1962. Neither of these earned him great results, but many people still praised him because of his earlier motorcycle racing outing with MV Agusta. He was basically a major star at this point in Italy.
One lesser-known fact is that Enzo Ferrari himself managed a motorcycle racing team back in the 1930s. As such, he became one of Surtees’s biggest admirers and offered him the number one spot on Formula 1 in 1963. He won his first championship that same year at the German Grand Prix. His fame in Italy reached new heights.
He was hailed as the savior of the Ferrari company. In 1964 he won yet another important victory at Nurburgring against Graham Hill. He then had yet another won at Monza and at this point, he was already one of the favorite bets for winning the championship.
And so he did, partially because of skill and partially because of the opponents’ bad luck. Jim Clark’s Lotus had to be stopped because of an oil leak, and Graham Hill’s BRM was shoved beyond the track by Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari. This gave John Surtees the opportunity to pass the finish line first.
Retirement and death
John would continue racing in Formula 1 all the way up until 1972. He scored a total of 6 wins, 24 podiums, 180 career points, and 8 pole positions. Yes, his motorcycle racing record is more impressive, with three 350cc championships and four 500cc championships under his belt. It’s a shame he didn’t stay in the moto racing scene a little longer.
Who knows what else he could’ve achieved? Regardless, he’s still regarded as one of the best stars of this era and he still holds a special place in MotoGP and Formula 1 fans’ hearts to this day.
After his retirement, he kept close to the motorcycle racing scene more as a spectator and as a behind-the-scenes man. He was appointed chairman of A1 Team Great Britain between 2005 and 2007. His son, Henry, was old enough to compete on his own now and he seemed to be following in his father’s footsteps.
Sadly, he passed away in 2009 while racing in the Formula 2 championship at Brands Hatch. John was devastated, as you can imagine, but quickly got himself up and founded the Henry Surtees Foundation, which was meant to help victims of car accidents and educate people about the importance of road safety as well as safety on the race track.
Just eight years after this tragic incident, John died too due to respiratory problems, at the age of 83. He was buried at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Lingfield, Surrey, next to his son’s tomb. The former chief sports writer at The Guardian, Richard Williams, claimed that the lack of a John Surtees knighthood is a minor national disgrace. We agree.
In his relatively short racing career, John Surtees managed to win the hearts of millions of racing fans worldwide. It is rare for a foreign figure to become so adored by the Italian people, yet John Surtees managed to become an absolute legend among them. As we mentioned earlier, he was even hailed as the savior of the Ferrari company.
We could only imagine how things would’ve turned out if it hadn’t been for the incident between him and the MV Agusta motor company. He would’ve probably continued his moto racing career and certainly would have won a few more championships. But alas, today we have the internet, and if we ever miss watching a Surtees race, we can watch it any time.
If you’ve never seen this man in action, do yourself a favor and search for videos of his races. Or even listen to some of his interviews. The way he talks about motorcycles and cars shows that he was vigorously passionate about the subject. It’s pretty rare to see someone so dedicated to this sport that it quite literally becomes their lifestyle.
Just like his close friends and colleagues held a tribute for him back in March 2017, a little after his death, we would like to pay our respects to this legend and hope that his story will live through many more generations of racing fans.