Farewell to a legend

SADLY MISSED: Motor sport icon John Surtees passed away last week and will be widely remembered as the only person to have won world championships on both two and four wheels. Picture: Getty Images

SADLY MISSED: Motor sport icon John Surtees passed away last week and will be widely remembered as the only person to have won world championships on both two and four wheels. Picture: Getty Images

The motor sport world lost one of the all time greats of the sport last week with the death of John Surtees, aged 83.

Surtees will best be remembered as the only person to have won world championships on both two and four wheels.

And in this day and age, it’s a feat unlikely to be matched.

Surtees was the son of a London motorcycle dealer and had his first professional race in the sidecar of his father’s Vincent when the regular sidecar passenger failed to turn up.  They won the race but were disqualified when officials discovered that the young Surtees was under age.

His first solo race was at age 15 on grass and he subsequently came to prominence two years later in 1951 when he strongly challenged dual-world champion Geoff Duke at Thruxton.

In 1955 he got the opportunity to race for the Norton factory team, beating the now five-time world champion Duke at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, before moving to the Italian MV Agusta team for 1956.

Riding in the premier 500 cc class Surtees scored his first Grand Prix victory at the famed Isle of Man circuit and followed up with wins in Holland and Belgium to score the first of seven world titles.

The year 1957 was not a good one as the four-cylinder MV Agusta was no match for the four-cylinder Gilera and Surtees battled to finish third in the championship before going onto dominate both the 350 and 500cc classes over the next three years – winning 32 of 39 GP races contested.

During a period where there were many less races than today, Surtees scored 38 GP wins from 51 starts with a total of 45 podiums winning four 500cc titles (1956, 1958,1959 and 1960) and three 350cc titles from 1958 to 1960. Surtees made the switch to GP cars in 1960 making his debut at Monaco in a lotus and then went onto display his skill by finishing second in the next race in the British GP.

He joined the Yeoman Credit team in 1961 driving a four-cylinder Cooper Climax and in the following year finished fourth in the championship for the team driving a Lola Climax V8.

He switched to Ferrari in 1963 winning his first GP in Germany and finishing fourth in the championship and in 1964 claimed the world title to make motor sport history.

Surtees with former Australian Formula 1 driver Mark Webber before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit in 2012.

Surtees with former Australian Formula 1 driver Mark Webber before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit in 2012.

The next 12 months was a year to forget with a best-place finish of second in South Africa and then after winning the Belgium GP in 1966, it all turned sour when Ferrari team boss Dragoni advised Surtees he would not be part of the team to compete in the 24 hour race at Le Mans.

Surtees promptly quit the team almost certainly costing himself another title and Ferrari the much coveted constructors title.

As it was, Surtees finished second in the championship by driving a Cooper Maserati for the balance of the year.

For 1967 and 1968 Surtees drove for the Honda team winning for them in Italy in 1967 and then moved to BRM for one year before setting up his own Surtees team for 1970.

The team spent the next nine years as a constructor competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1 enjoying success in lower categories but very little in Formula 1. Surtees retired from driving in 1972.

Surtees also drove sports cars with success winning the 1966 Can-Am series in a Lola T70 less than 12 months after a life-threatening crash in a Lola at Mosport in Canada.

Surtees’ son Henry followed in his father’s footsteps as a racing driver but unfortunately his promising career was cut short when he was killed in a freak accident while competing at Brands Hatch in 2009.

In 1996 Surtees was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame and in 2003 the motorcycle world governing body, the FIM, awarded him “legend” status.

Already a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008. Much to the annoyance of his legion of fans he was never awarded a knighthood, which he richly deserved.

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