If you followed motor racing in the 50s and 60s you were familiar with the talent and virtuosity of John Surtees, the only man to win both the world motorcycle GP and F1 World Championships. Surtees was motorcycle world champion in the 500CC class four times, driving for the Italian firm MV Agusta and F1 Champion in 1964 driving for another Italian company, Ferrari. Highly intelligent and extremely competitive, Surtees set a standard for performance in both two and four wheel racing that has yet to be equaled. In today’s age of specialist drivers/racers, it is highly doubtful that his record(s) will be eclipsed.
Like countryman Stirling Moss, Surtees was very quick in all forms of automobile racing. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1963 in a 12 Cylinder Ferrari 250P; was third in the same race in 1964 in a 330P, won the 1000KM of Nurburgring in 1965, won the 1000KM of Monza in 1966. In 1966 he was Can-Am Champion. In motorcycles, he won the Isle of Mann Senior TT four times, taking it three times in a row between 1958-1960.
Surtees’ skill in sportscars and F1 was no doubt finely honed by his exceptional feel for the machine and road and the sense of balance developed racing motorcycles.Highly talented in multiple areas, John Surtees was once described as motor racing’s last polymath, but Surtees’ life was not without difficulty. In 1965, he had a huge crash at Mosport which nearly killed him; when the doctors were examining him after the crash they found that one side of his body was four inches shorter than the other. They managed to “stretch him” out enough to reduce the difference to only one inch. In 2009 , his son, Henry Surtees, a rising F2 racer, was killed in a freak accident when a loose tire struck him during a session on the track. In typical Surtees fashion, he began a charitable initiative–named after his son–to care for drivers who had been severely injured in a racing accident.
John Surtees retired from automobile racing in 1972. A wonderful appreciation of the life of John Surtees was written by Giles Richard of The Guardian. You must read it to get a sense of the man and his accomplishments.
John Surtees died on 10 March 2017 from respiratory failure.
The Fine Print: Photographic Embed courtesy of our friends at Getty Images, who have the photographic history of the 20th and 21st century on file. They remain the internet’s go-to source for photos. This visual has not been altered in any way. We thank them for sharing.