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John Surtees – champion motorcyclist and Formula One Champion in 1964

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes, Technology on Friday, 30 December 2011

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This edited article about sport originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 887 published on 20 January 1979.

John Surtees, picture, image, illustration

John Surtees in a Honda V12 at the 1967 Grand Prix at Monza (top) and the 1000 kilometre race at Monza (bottom), driving a V12 for Ferrari, by Graham Coton

Crouched low over the handlebars, John Surtees swung his Norton motor cycle into Druids hairpin bend at Brands Hatch to increase an already impressive lead.

The gigantic crowds that thronged to the European circuits in the mid-fifties knew that John Surtees was a future world champion in the making.

John Surtees was born in 1934, in a Kentish village. His father, Jack, was a keen racing motor-cyclist, and young John was soon encouraged to ride in the “hot seat” as passenger in the sidecar of the bike Mr. Surtees rode in local events.

After leaving school, he joined the Vincent motor cycle firm as an apprentice.

While working with Vincent, Surtees built his own 500 cc short-circuit racing bike and dubbed it the Grey Shadow. On the track and off it, John Surtees continued to work hard, scratching out a living in any way he could and battling it out with any worthy competitor on all the British short circuits.

He gained his first victory at Brands Hatch in 1951, then exchanged his beloved Grey Shadow for a Norton, upon which he developed his crouching riding style. Rarely would a weekend pass without Surtees journeying to one of the major circuits and improving his fast-developing skills.

In 1955 he joined the official works Norton team and, at the end of that year, he signed to ride for the Italian MV Agusta firm.

He then proceeded to win the 1956 senior world championship for them and followed through with a hat-trick of double championships, mounted on the famous MV racer.

Surtees had tried his hand at racing cars a few years earlier, first in an Aston Martin. He impressed everyone at his test drive at the Goodwood circuit with his smooth, yet fast, handling of the somewhat temperamental Aston, but declined the offer of a full-time place in the team. He also tried the rear-engined Grand Prix Vanwall and decided almost at once to announce his retirement from motor cycle racing to join Ken Tyrrell’s privately-run team for the 1960 season in Formula Junior.

Formula Junior was the 1950s and ’60s equivalent of today’s Formula 3 category, serving as it did to provide rising young stars with a competitive stepping-stone to Grand Prix level. Surtees soon worked his way up to the occasional Formula One race.

After only four months in car racing, Surtees finished a fine second in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and many tempting offers began to flow in from the giants of Grand Prix racing, including Ferrari. But Surtees insisted on an extended period in Formula 2 in order to ensure that he was absolutely ready for Formula One. Only when he was quite sure that he had the necessary degree of experience did he finally accept Ferrari’s repeated offer to join their world-renowned Grand Prix team for the 1963 season.

Surtees worked as a development engineer as well as a driver, working doggedly on the new V6-engined Ferrari Dino 156 Formula One car to win the German, Mediterranean and Rand Grands Prix. It was, however, the 1964 season that must go down in the record books as John Surtees’ time of greatest triumph. He won the world championship for Ferrari that year to become the only man in history to take the highest honours on both two and four wheels.

The following year, 1965, brought disaster. Surtees crashed heavily during a race in Canada and was severely injured. Doctors, fighting for his life, announced to a shocked press and public that he would never walk again. However, Surtees had other ideas and not only fought his way to a complete recovery, but went on to form his own team.

John Surtees continued to drive his own team cars for the next six years, before settling to the equally demanding role of team manager and occasional test driver.

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