6 Reasons Why John Surtees Was So Incredible

6 Reasons Why John Surtees Was So Incredible

We take a look at some of the things that made John Surtees such a motorsport icon.

The late John Surtees will forever be known as the only man to win world championships on both two and four wheels, but there was so much more to him than that.

He was a racer, team owner, enthusiast, philanthropist and a gentleman (among so many other qualities). The words ‘legend’ and ‘hero’ can sometimes lose their meaning through overuse but for ‘Big John’, they simply don’t do the great man justice.

Here are just six reasons why.

He was a truly incredible motorbike rider

Surtees was a multiple winner of the Isle of Man TT
Surtees was a multiple winner of the Isle of Man TT

It’s common knowledge that Surtees won championships on bikes before he switched to cars, but it can be easy to underestimate just how good he was on two wheels.

Between 1956 and 1960 he won seven world championships, which puts him joint sixth on the all-time list. Four of the those championships were in the top 500cc class, and to date only three people have more. In 1958 and 1959 he entered 25 world championship races…and won all 25 of them.

In 1960, his last year of motorbikes, he won both the 350cc and 500cc championships (of course), but at the same time he was embarking on his car racing career. He’d be on a bike one weekend and in car the next, but he was always fast. That’s some serious versatility.

He was fast in cars from the start

John finished second at Silverstone in 1960, only his second Grand Prix
John finished second at Silverstone in 1960, only his second Grand Prix

In 1960 Surtees decided he wanted to try racing cars in order to fill some of his free weekends, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how quickly he’d get the hang of it.

The first racing car he drove was a Le Mans Aston Martin at Goodwood, and he set times quicker than Stirling Moss. The following day an F1 Vanwall was at the track and again, he lapped faster than Moss. Stirling Moss was widely considered to be the fastest driver in the world at the time, so it’s fair to say he was doing pretty well.

After getting his eye in with some low level races he found himself on the grid at Monaco that same year, driving for Lotus. It was an unspectacular debut but in his second race – his home Grand Prix – he finished second. In the next race in Portugal he qualified on pole and was dominating until some oil leaked on to the brake pedal, his foot slipped off and he hit the bales.

This wasn’t just some guy who was there to make up the numbers. Surtees was a special talent.

He had some incredibly talented team mates... and he beat them

'Il Grande John' usually had the measure of his team mates. Here he's ahead of Bandini at Mexico in 1964, the race where he clinched the the championship
'Il Grande John' usually had the measure of his team mates. Here he's ahead of Bandini at Mexico in 1964, the race where he clinched the the championship

Surtees wasn’t the only talented young driver to make waves in 1960 – his Lotus team mate, a chap by the name of Jim Clark was too.

Surtees had raced against Clark a few times in various races in 1960 and he often came out on top. In fact at the end of the season Colin Chapman was so convinced of Surtees’ talent that he wanted him to be the number one driver for Lotus and gave him a choice of having Clark or existing Lotus driver Innes Ireland as his team mate. Surtees chose Clark, which made Ireland so furious that Surtees left the team as he felt uneasy about the politics of the whole situation.

But that’s how good he was. Jim Clark is widely considered to be one of, if not the greatest F1 driver of all time but at that time, and for that year, Colin Chapman thought Surtees was better. And Colin Chapman knew a thing or two about drivers.

After a couple of years racing Coopers and Lolas he joined Ferrari and in 1964 won the championship. He also generally had the beating of his talented Italian team mate Lorenzo Bandini. John left Ferrari a couple of races into 1966 after a disagreement with management at that year’s Le Mans 24 hours, and immediately joined Cooper for the rest of the F1 season where his team mate was future world champion Jochen Rindt. Despite the team switch he still managed to finish second in that years championship – one place ahead of Rindt in third.

He wasn't just a winner in F1

Surtees was very successful in Can-Am
Surtees was very successful in Can-Am

As was common for F1 drivers at the time, John Surtees also raced a lot in other series, notably in sportscars. During his time at Ferrari he also took part in some World Sportscar Championship events. On two occasions he won the Nurburgring 1000km and he was also a winner in the Sebring 12 hours.

At the end of 1965 he was almost killed in a crash while practicing for a sportscar race in Canada. He was hospitalised for months and his first race back after injury was the Monza 1000kms in 1966, which of course he won. Later in the year he took part in the first ever Can-Am championship in a Lola T70, where he won three races and the championship.

Le Mans success always eluded him, though he did finish third in the French classic for Ferrari in 1964. I guess you could say that was a pretty good year for him all-round!

His own team was quite successful

Fellow bike racer Mike Hailwood had success with Team Surtees
Fellow bike racer Mike Hailwood had success with Team Surtees

John Surtees was a formidable engineer who was prized by teams for his mechanical knowledge as much as he was his driving skills. He’d raced bikes he’d engineered himself in national events back in the 1950s, and when he won the Can-Am championship in 1966 it was with his own team. He’d also been having success running drivers in his own cars in Formula 5000, so after a tough season with BRM in 1969 he decided to take Team Surtees into F1.

The results were pretty good initially. Another legendary former bike racer Mike Hailwood had dominated that years Formula 2 championship in a Surtees, and he finished second in the 1972 Italian GP (also John’s last Grand Prix), and Team Surtees finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship.

Plenty of big-name drivers drove for Surtees over the years, such as John Watson, Alan Jones and René Arnoux, but sponsorship was frequently an issue over the years and at the end of 1978 the team was disbanded.

There is an interesting aside to the Team Surtees story though. In 1971 John drove one of his own cars to victory in the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup. That was the last time an F1 race was won by someone driving a car he designed.

So, along with being the only driver to win world titles on two and four wheels, that’s two records Surtees has that will probably never be broken…

The Henry Surtees Foundation

John was a huge part of his sons career
John was a huge part of his sons career

In 1991 John Surtees had a son: Henry Surtees. When Henry decided that he’d like to get into motorsport, John gave him his full support. As Henry progressed through the ranks it was clear that he was very talented, with success coming in Formula BMW and Formula Renault.

Tragically, Henry Surtees was killed in a freak accident in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch when a wheel from another car bounced into his path and hit his helmet. In the wake of the awful tragedy that befell the Surtees family John set up the Henry Surtees Foundation.

He remained a huge driving force behind the efforts of the charity, which has worked on providing improvements in areas such as the air ambulance service, blood transfusions, head injury rehabilitation and getting young people into careers in motor racing and the motor industry.

For all the success he had during his career and for all of his unique achievements, for me it is this which will be the lasting legacy of John Surtees. A great rider and a great driver but more importantly, a great man.