John Surtees: Il grande John

Rider Profile

John Surtees pushes off to start the 1957 Junior TT at the Isle of Man on his MV Agusta.

From our Old Bike Archives – Issue 65 – first published in 2017.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook

“Speed is not something you find, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.” – John Surtees

The Italians called him “Il grande John”, not just for his physical stature, but because of his indomitable character, and his tenacity in getting what he wanted, even if it meant creating a tense atmosphere with his constituents. This trait stayed with him from his early days with Norton right through to running his own Formula One Team. Australian World Champion Alan Jones, who drove for Surtees briefly, described him as “one of the most stubborn bastards I’ve ever met.” Surtees, who died in London on 10th March 2017, aged 83, had incredibly high standards, and he demanded nothing less of those around him. 

The only man to win both motorcycle and Formula One World titles – a feat that surely will never be emulated – Surtees came into this world in 1934 and spent his pre-teen years hanging around his father Jack’s motorcycle shop. At age 14, he jumped into the sidecar of Jack’s grass track outfit for the Trent Park Speed Trials at Cockfosters, North London, and was promptly disqualified for being under age. Jack sold Vincents at his shop, and this led to young John taking an apprenticeship at the factory at Stevenage, where he discovered a partially dismantled and incomplete 500cc Grey Flash which his father subsequently purchased for John to race. He was immediately successful and was soon aboard a 500cc Manx Norton and competing in selected World Champions events as well as racking up dozens of wins at home. He gained a place in the Norton works team for 1955, but the once dominant singles were now in decline and when Norton quit at the season’s end, Surtees moved to MV Agusta. The Senior TT of 1956 marked the first of John’s six Isle of Man wins, but there were none better than his 1959 triumph when he again won the Senior, held in continuous rain and freezing conditions over a mammoth seven laps. 

In the race where he clinched the F1 World Championship, Surtees drives the US-entered Ferrari at Watkins Glen, New York.

However despite the dominance of the MVs in 1956, Surtees was continually at loggerheads with the team management as the bikes became uncompetitive against the revamped Gilera fours. He seemed set to quit MV, but had no choice but to stay when both Gilera and Moto Guzzi pulled out of racing at the end of 1957. As a result, he racked up six more world titles to add to his 1956 Senior title, but again locked horns in 1960 when Count Agusta refused to let him race his own bikes in non-championship meetings. As a result, Surtees decided to spend his spare weekends car racing. After just one race – a Formula Junior event at Goodwood in April 1960 where he nearly beat Jim Clark after leading most of the way – he jumped in at the deep end, driving a spare Formula One Lotus in the Monaco GP. Although this race ended in retirement, he had impressed Lotus boss Colin Chapman, who put him in the car again for the 1960 British GP at Silverstone where John finished a remarkable second behind Jack Brabham. In his third F1 start in Portugal he qualified on pole and led the race until a leaking fuel tank doused him in petrol and he slid off the road. Nevertheless, his performance was praised by BRM team boss Louis Stanley as “masterly”, and it came as no surprise that at the season’s end Surtees concluded his motorcycle career for a full-time F1 stint, although not with Lotus after yet another personality clash between Surtees and Chapman. 

John Surtees with Mike Hailwood in 1972, when Mike won the European Formula 2 Championship driving for Surtees.

By 1963 he was in the Ferrari team, and fighting with team manager Eugenio Dragoni, as he had done at MV. Still, he snatched the 1964 World Championship at the final race by a single point, and could possibly have added a second title in 1966 had relationships within the Ferrari team not soured to the point that he packed his bags and left the team, ending up at Cooper, winning the final GP in Mexico and ending up second to Brabham in the championship. Despite his somewhat irascible personality, Surtees’ skills in developing machinery, both on two wheels and four, were by now legendary, and he was snapped up by the Honda F1 team, who had made little progress, and spent a considerable amount of money, since joining F1 in 1964. With Surtees’ input (and a Lola chassis), Honda became quite competitive, and he narrowly beat Brabham to win the 1967 Italian GP at Monza. Perhaps inevitably, Surtees decided to become a racing car constructor in his own right, building F5000, F2 and eventually F1 cars. Fellow two-wheel exile Mike Hailwood brought the Surtees team the 1972 European Formula Two Championship. But the outfit was perennially short of funds and wound up in 1978, after which Surtees rediscovered his passion for motorcycles, restoring many of his own bikes as well as for others. 

Tony Gill (76) leads John Surtees (S), Alan Burt (obscured) and OBA Editor Jim Scaysbrook – Amaroo Park, 1983.

He built a very special Manx Norton that incorporated his own ideas, and brought this to Australia in 1983 for the All Historic Meeting at Amaroo Park. (see: While in Sydney he attended a dinner hosted by stalwart Barry Ryan and was asked if he thought the Triumph Bonneville would still have a place in modern motorcycling. “I doubt that it would be possible to engineer that many faults into a modern motorcycle,” was his laconic reply, which brought the house down. When the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix moved from Phillip Island to Sydney’s Eastern Creek in 1991, the organisers brought Surtees and his own MV Agusta 500/4 to the meeting, but high-handed FIM officials allowed him to do only one lap, starting and finishing from pit lane, which meant the vast crowd in the main grandstand did not even see him. The officials cited the fatuous excuse that the MV may drop oil as the reason for the truncated appearance, despite the fact that it had cost the organisers a small fortune to bring Surtees and the MV to Sydney and his appearance had been widely publicised. 

Left: Surtees waits in pit lane for his single lap at the 1991 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Eastern Creek. Right: John Surtees in Sydney, 1983.

Surtees was a regular guest at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed where he demonstrated numerous motorcycles and cars until just one year ago. He had been in declining health for many years, lingering effects of a life-threatening crash in Canada in September 1965 ultimately sending him into hospital for a lengthy period with viral pneumonia and leaving him with on-going respiratory problems.  

Surtees (white hat) visits the Horner pit prior to their assault on the Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy at Goodwood in September 2014.

Tragically, his 18-year-old son Henry, who was showing considerable promise in various open wheel formulae, lost his life at Brands Hatch in 2009 when he was struck on the head by a wheel from another car in a Formula 2 race. Following the accident, John Surtees set up a charity, the Henry Surtees Foundation, to assist accident victims and provide funding for the air ambulance service, and he also supported several other not-for-profit organisations. Surtees was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008. In 2016 he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), however, much to the great annoyance of his fans and the powerful lobby within the British motor sport industry, he was never knighted. With 38 Motorcycle GP wins and seven world titles, plus six F1 GP wins and the 1964 championship, Surtees holds a unique place in the annals of motor sporting history. He rated Jack Brabham as his most respected rival, saying “ Jack was an aggressive racer and he never gave up on anything. He would try anything, although nothing unfairly.” 

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 65. You can still purchase this back issue by clicking the cover for more info.