If you think motorsport today is demanding, then going back more than half a century would enlighten you more about what the true challenges racers held for themselves. It was a different era – the 1950s and 1960s. In a post-war world that was picking up the pieces of what was left over, racing was quickly becoming a popular sport to reclaim the minds and hearts of people with thrill, entertainment and a sense of freedom post the apocalypse of the wars. The 50s and 60s are regarded as the “Golden Age of Racing” due to the sheer enthusiasm for the sport, participation and glory that it brought to the entire industry. This was the time responsible to create some of the greatest racers in the history of the sport. John Surtees was one such man, who’s accomplishments are yet to be undone, more than six decades from when he was in his prime.
John as a kid grew interested in motorcycles and the sport after spending time with his father, who back then owned a Vincent Motorcycle showroom in south London. His appreciation for the sport kept growing and his first professional motorsport participation came in a sidecar, racing alongside his father. His fascination growing, Surtees started racing solo by the age of 15, where his first competition came in the form of a Grasstrack race. In 1950, Surtees aged 16, started working as apprentice at the Vincent factory. His eye for competition always sharp, John’s first headlining race came in 1951 when he gave Norton racing star Geoff Duke a tough challenge at the ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit. It was’nt long before Norton boss Joe Craig realised the talent in young John and appointed him as one of the racers to race for the factory team in 1955. The same year John went on to beat the reigning world champion Geoff Duke, first in Silverstone followed by another victory at Brands Hatch.
Unfortunately these were tough times for Norton, with the company hanging in a balance, there was uncertainty if they could continue racing. Sensing the volatile situation, John left the team and went ahead to accept MV Agusta racing team’s offer… one of the most important and crucial decisions of his career that would go ahead to win him multiple World Championship titles.
While MV Agusta’s 350 and 500 cc motorcycles were good, they were no match for the Gileras which were lighter, faster and more nimble in comparison. As it turned out, Gilera and Moto Guzzi decided to pull out of world championship racing after the 1957 season, lending MV Agusta a strong position in world series racing. Before where John struggled aboard the MV Agusta 500 Quattro during the 1957 season, finishing third, 1958 presented no challenge to him at all after the departure of Gilera and Moto Guzzi. Everything was on his side, he had the strongest motorcycles to compete in the races and the talent to back it up. During 1958, 1959 and 1960 John with the MV Agusta 350 and 500 cc competition machines showed relentless domination, winning 32 races out of 39… becoming the only man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession.
While all this while success was coming his way on two wheels, many suggested him to move to four wheels. John’s first attempt at four wheel racing came with the Aston Martin DR1 and Vanwall at Goodwood. With both the camps impressed, ready to sign John, he refused, wanting to continue racing for MV Agusta. Only after the championship season of 1960 where John won his third 350 cc championship and fourth 500 cc championship, he decided that he would look into switching to four wheel racing, putting in a few races for Ken Tyrrell in Formula Junior and with Colin Chapman in Formula One with their Lotus team.
John was a natural talent in racing, two- and four-wheels both. During 1960, he put in a total of nine wins for MV Agusta in seven World Championship events, while simultaneously finishing second in the Formula Junior race as well placing second in the Formula F2 race and second in his second Formula One Grand Prix.
With his success rate, it wasn’t long before he got Ferrari’s attention. At a time when the Italian marque was not doing specially well and with no championship win for almost three years, John Surtees was brought in. Surtees did not disappoint and the first victory came at the 1963 German Grand Prix, Ferrari’s first championship victory since 1961.
With John’s help in developing the cars, Scuderia Ferrari slowly rose back to the challenge and John Surtees finally lifted his Formula One World Championship trophy … earning him the title of “Grand Master” – the one and only who had command over both the two and four wheel world.
John Surtees who is 81 years old as of 2015, has yet to meet his match. While he retired from racing in 1972, his spirit for the sport and competition was a unique one that can never be forgotten and in most probability never be matched.
John Surtees Major Racing Achievements
350 cc Motorcycle World Championships: 1958, 1959, 1960
500 cc Motorcycle World Championships: 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960
Isle of Man Senior TT Wins: 1958, 1959, 1960
Formula One World Championship: 1964