The word legend is often over-used in modern society, particularly in sport, but there can be no doubt that John Surtees, who passed away on March 10th, was undoubtedly a true legend.
The only man to have won World Championships on two wheels and four, Surtees put himself in the record books forever when he added the 1964 World Formula One Car Championship to the four 500cc and three 350cc world titles he’d already won for MV Agusta, and the fact that no-one has ever come close to repeating his achievements makes his status in motorsport even more pronounced.
Born in 1934 into a motorcycling family, Surtees’ career started out in grass track in the late 1940s but he soon made the switch to tarmac and won his first Grand Prix, the 250cc Ulster GP in 1955, when aged just 21 and having already beaten multiple world Champion and Gilera factory rider Geoff Duke on his private Norton, it was little wonder that Count Domenico Agusta snapped him up to campaign his 350cc and 500cc MV Agustas.
Success came immediately with the 1956 500cc World Championship and although he had to settle for third in 1957, he bounced back superbly and between 1958 and 1960 he won the 350cc and 500cc titles every year to make it seven in total. He also won six Isle of Man TT races and his overall Grand Prix statistics make for phenomenal reading – 38 wins from 49 starts – but by the late 1950s his relationship with Count Agusta was becoming strained, due to the Italian refusing him machines for non-Grand Prix races, and he was already dabbling with four wheels.
Indeed, and remarkably, he was contesting World F1 car races in 1960 alongside his world motorcycling commitments and in just his second F1 race, took second place in that year’s British Grand Prix only a month after he’d won the 500cc Senior TT. Can you imagine anything like that happening now?
He quit bikes at the end of 1960, aged just 26, and it was perhaps the fact he moved to cars at a young age that gave him the chance of repeating his motorcycling world championship feats on four wheels. However, he still had to have the ability and talent to make it happen and the fact that it only took him four years to win the World F1 title showed that he had both in abundance.
And it was that versatility, ability and talent that captured everyone’s attention not just at the time but also ever since and whether it was fellow racers at the time like Mike Hailwood or Jim Clark or modern day greats such as Valentino Rossi or Sebastian Vettel, their respect, appreciation and admiration for Surtees was huge.
His career achievements go without saying but what was also impressive about Surtees was that he was still competitive in his 70s and 80s when despite his advancing years, he could still be seen in action, both on two wheels and four, at many of the motorsport festivals around the world, including the Isle of Man TT and Goodwood Festival of Speed.
And whether it was on his own 500cc MV Agusta or a 1960s spec Formula One car, it was clear he’d lost none of his ability or his racer’s instincts as he was still incredibly fast!
His passing leaves a huge gap in not just British motorsport but also world motosport and with the modern day honours system seemingly handing out titles and awards to some who’ve achieved little, it remains a travesty that he was never knighted.
But everyone knows that what he achieved was something truly special and he’ll forever have his place in the record books for his two and four wheel titles. And it’s highly likely that his feats will never ever be repeated which will help ensure his legacy lives on forever.
Everyone at Devitt Insurance would like to express their condolences to all the family and friends of John Surtees – a true motorsport legend.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Triumph, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Keith Amor. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.