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John Surtees

Full Name:
John Surtees, CBE, OBE, MBE
11th February 1934
Tatsfield, Surrey
10th March 2017 (Aged 83)
Tooting, London
Most recent race (in database):

John Surtees was a truly remarkable motorcycle rider who followed seven world titles in the 350cc and 500cc class with victory in the 1964 Formula 1 World Championship. It is a unique achievement that will never be matched but rarely attracts the praise it deserves. Surtees, a driven and at times difficult man, then established a successful marque (although it never won in F1) before growing disillusioned with the sport.

Early career on two-wheels

Motorcycles were his life from an early age for his father Jack ran a dealership in Croydon and raced an Excelsior sidecar in grass track events. The teenage John Surtees had ridden as his passenger from time to time and was 17 when he began his own career on two-wheels in earnest while working at Vincent as an apprentice. He made his Grand Prix debut for Norton in 1952 and scored first such win three years later when riding a 250cc NSU Sportmax in Ulster.

He defected to the Italian MV Agusta concern in 1956 and turned promise into those World Championship victories. He won the 500cc title on four occasions (in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) and 350cc class in 1958, 1959 and 1960. In total, Surtees won 38 of the 49 motorcycle Grands Prix he started during that time. His success was reflected with receiving an MBE (Member of the British Empire) and winning the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1959.

Formula 1 with Lotus and as a privateer

By that time, Surtees had already taken first tentative steps into car racing – testing for both Aston Martin and Vanwall that year. He remained contracted to MV Agusta in 1960 but he drove Ken Tyrrell’s Formula Junior and his own Formula 2 Cooper-Climax when his bike schedule allowed. Second behind Jim Clark on his FJ debut at the Goodwood Members' Meeting, he repeated that result at Oulton Park in his first F2 race. That attracted Colin Chapman’s attention and Surtees raced in four F1 GPs during 1960 – finishing second at Silverstone (in just his eighth car race) and qualifying on pole position in Portugal. He led the latter and set the fastest race lap but crashed when his foot slipped off the brake pedal – ending hopes of victory in what was just his third GP start.

Surtees concentrated on car racing from 1961 but did not accept Chapman’s offer of an F1 contract for that season. Team Manager Reg Parnell persuaded Surtees to drive his Yeoman Credit Racing Team Cooper T53-Climax and the season began with victory in the Glover Trophy at Goodwood. But this was a difficult season for the British teams and Surtees struggled for speed and reliability. Fifth in the Belgian (behind the dominant Ferraris) and German GPs were the only points’ scores of the season.

There were already advances from Ferrari but Surtees remained with Parnell’s rebranded Bowmaker Racing Team in 1962. Lola were commissioned to build their first F1 car and Surtees started the opening championship round in Holland from pole position. A run of finishes in the points ended with back-to-back second places in the British and German GPs. He won the non-championship 2,000 Guineas at Mallory Park but his season petered out with a series of frustrating retirements, finishing fourth overall nonetheless.

A switch to Ferrari delivers the F1 title but ends in acrimony

Tired of racing against the works teams, Surtees joined Ferrari in 1963 although the Italian team had just suffered a humbling campaign. With Mauro Forghieri appointed as Chief Engineer following Carlo Chiti’s abrupt departure, Surtees immediately won the Sebring 12 Hours and then repeated that sports car success at the Nürburgring. With his technical input invaluable to the team, Surtees also developed the monocoque-chassis Ferrari 156 into a race winner – success in the German GP helping deliver fourth in the World Championship.

A new V8 F1 engine was introduced in 1964 and the Ferrari 158 was the class-of-the-field by mid-season. Surtees won the German and Italian GPs from pole position and team-mate Lorenzo Bandini recorded his only such victory in Austria. Second place at Watkins Glen meant that Surtees travelled to Mexico for the final race of the year in a three-way fight for the title. Jim Clark was in line to retain the championship until his engine blew on the final lap. Bandini duly slowed to allow Surtees to clinch second position and the F1 World Championship.

Surtees began his title defence by coming second in South Africa and further third place finishes followed in France and Britain. However, his season was curtailed when the front suspension on his Lola T70 sports car broke during testing at Mosport Park in September. The car hit the barrier and rolled with the helpless Surtees suffering severe back injuries, ruptured kidneys and a broken pelvis.

Finally discharged from hospital in January 1966 and only fit enough to return in the spring, Surtees won his first two races back – the Monza 1000Kms and non-championship Syracuse GP. He won the Belgian GP but that proved to be his last race for Ferrari. Surtees had endured a fractious relationship with Team Manager Eugenio Dragoni throughout his Ferrari career and he suddenly quit the team following another row before the Le Mans 24 Hours. He switched to Cooper-Maserati for the rest of the F1 season and won in Mexico as he finished as championship runner-up behind Denny Hulme. Surtees also drove a Lola T70 Mk2 in the lucrative Can-Am Challenge that year – winning three of the six races to clinch the inaugural title.

Honda and BRM

Surtees joined Honda for the 1967 season and finished a lapped third on his debut in South Africa. However, the V12-powered RA273 was initially overweight and it was only when the Lola-built RA300 was introduced that the team took a significant step forward. The “Hondola” appeared for the first time at Monza and Surtees defeated Jack Brabham by 0.2 seconds after Jim Clark’s Lotus ran out of fuel on the last lap.

A second season with Honda was blighted by poor reliability although Surtees did finish second in the French GP at Rouen-les-Essarts. However, that day was marred by the death of team-mate Jo Schlesser after crashing the experimental air-cooled Honda RA302. Surtees qualified on pole position in Italy but Honda withdrew from the sport at the end of a disappointing and tragic campaign.

The 1969 F1 season with BRM was something of a disaster as the Louis Stanley-managed team struggled to develop its new V12 engine. They missed the French GP while trying to sort various technical and organisational problems although Surtees at least finished third in United States GP. His Can-Am campaign was no better with the Chaparral 2H-Chevrolet so unpredictable that Surtees left the team before the end of the season.

Team Surtees is formed

Team Surtees had begun in the 1965 sports-racing season with its proprietor winning the Can-Am title a year later. A Formula 5000 chassis followed and now Surtees decided to turn F1 constructor as well. Surtees began the 1970 F1 season driving a McLaren M7C-Ford before the Surtees TS7A-Ford was ready for the British GP. He won the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup and finished fifth in the Canadian GP. Now 37 years old, 1971 proved to be Surtees’s last full season as a driver. He finished fifth in Holland and won the Gold Cup for a successive year.

Mike Hailwood won the 1972 European F2 Championship for the team and finished second in that year’s Italian GP on the day that Surtees himself started a GP for the last time. Hailwood’s result at Monza proved to be as close as the team would come to winning a GP. His cars started 118 F1 World Championship races before Surtees grew tired of the unequal struggle and withdrew after 1978.

Surtees returned to the sport as Great Britain’s Team Principal in the short-lived A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. By that time, his son Henry had graduated from karting to car racing and Surtees set about guiding him through the junior categories. Tragically, the 18 year old was killed in 2009 when hit by a lose wheel from another competitor during an FIA F2 race at Brands Hatch. That prompted Surtees to set up the Henry Surtees Foundation to raise money to support people who have suffered accidental brain and physical injuries.

In addition to his MBE for services to motorcycle sport, Surtees became an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008 and was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1972 F1 World Championship
Team Surtees
1 (1) 0 0 0
0% win rate
1972 European F2 Trophy
Team Surtees
2 (2) 0 1 1
50% win rate
1972 John Player British F2 Championship
Team Surtees
3 (1) 0 0 0
0% win rate
1971 F1 World Championship
Team Surtees
11 0 0 0
0% win rate
18th 3
1970 F1 World Championship
Team Surtees
11 0 0 0
0% win rate
17th 3
1970 International Championship of Makes
Scuderia Ferrari
3 0 3 0 14
1969 F1 World Championship
Owen Racing Organisation
9 (1) 0 1 0
0% win rate
11th 6
1968 F1 World Championship
Honda Racing
12 1 2 0
0% win rate
7th 12
1967 RAC British F2 Championship
Lola Racing
4 (1) 0 2 1
25% win rate
3rd 13
1967 F1 World Championship
Honda Racing
9 0 2 1
12% win rate
4th 20
1967 European F2 Trophy
Lola Racing
3 (1) 0 2 0
0% win rate
1967 International Championship of Makes
Lola Cars
1 0 0 0 0
1967 USAC National Championship
Mecom Racing Enterprises
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
1967 Can-Am Challenge
Team Surtees
1 0 1 1 0
1966 Can-Am Challenge
Team Surtees
3 1 3 3 1st 0
1966 International Championship of Makes
Scuderia Ferrari
1 1 1 1 9
1966 F1 World Championship
Cooper Car Co
Scuderia Ferrari
9 2 4 2
23% win rate
2nd 28
1965 F1 World Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
Eugenio Dragoni
8 0 3 0
0% win rate
5th 17
1965 International Championship of Makes
Maranello Concessionaires
Scuderia Ferrari
4 1 3 1 21
1965 Autocar British F2 Championship
Midland Racing Partnership
Tyrrell Racing Organisation
3 1 1 1
34% win rate
5th 9
1964 F1 World Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
North American Racing Team
10 2 6 2
20% win rate
1st 40
1964 International Championship of Makes
North American Racing Team
Scuderia Ferrari
3 3 3 0 14
1964 South African Drivers Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
1 1 1 1 0
1963 F1 World Championship
Scuderia Ferrari
10 1 3 1
10% win rate
4th 22
1963 Speed and Endurance World Challenge
Scuderia Ferrari
3 1 2 2 20
1962 F1 World Championship
Reg Parnell Racing
9 1 2 0
0% win rate
4th 19
1961 F1 World Championship
Reg Parnell Racing
8 0 0 0
0% win rate
11th 4
1960 F1 World Championship
Team Lotus
4 1 1 0
0% win rate
12th 6
1960 World Motorcycle Championship 1st -
1959 World Motorcycle Championship 1st -
1958 World Motorcycle Championship 1st -
1956 World Motorcycle Championship 1st -