Talking Motors: Surtees was rightly held in highest regard
Whichever branch of motorsport gets you waving your arms in animated discussions, one person we can all agree deserves a place at the top table is John Surtees.
News of his death was described by former Formula One commentator Murray Walker as ‘an absolute hammer blow for me and for British motorsport in general,’ and most of us will have felt a degree of sadness as tributes rolled in.
Surtees was rightly held in many racing fans’ highest regard and, as you know, was the only person to have won the Grand Prix World Championship on two wheels as well as four.
He won 500cc motorcycling titles four times, in 1956, ‘58, ‘59 and ‘60, as well as the F1 title with Ferrari in 1964.
Supplementing this already impressive record is the fact he was also the first man to win the Senior Race at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession – 1958, ‘59 and ‘60.
As the son of a south London motorbike dealer, it was probably no surprise when Surtees emerged as a teenage prodigy on the machines, and in 1955 he was given a ride with MV Agusta, for whom he would win his championships with 22 victories at the top level, earning himself the nickname ‘figlio del vento’ – or ‘son of the wind’ – before switching to cars.
His F1 exploits were more remarkable for the fact he was new to the sport in an era absolutely drenched in talent, including other shiver-inducing names such as Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
In his championship-winning year, Surtees won at the notoriously-perilous Nürburgring, and it was a year which also saw him race for Ferrari at Le Mans, where he took third place.
Two years later, if his achievements weren’t already enough, Surtees won the CanAm Championship in a Team Surtees Lola.
In 1959, the year of Surtees’ third bike championship, he won the Sports Personality of the Year award and was awarded an MBE.
He went on to collect an OBE in 2009 and a CBE in 2016 – though most fans agree it is a disgrace he was never knighted.
After climbing out of the cockpit, Surtees set up his own team, which debuted at Brands Hatch in 1970 but failed to score a win before folding in 1978.
His son, Henry, followed Surtees into motorsport, but was killed in an accident in 2009, aged just 18, while competing in Formula Two – a striking twist of fate given his father had survived the most dangerous circuits in the most dangerous years of motorsport.
That Surtees died peacefully after a long life will provide at least some comfort to his family.