John Surtees CBE 1934 – 2017
BRITISH FORMER GRAND PRIX motorcycle road racer and Formula One driver John Surtees passed away peacefully on Friday 10 March aged 83 following a short illness bravely fought.
From the moment that he was born, John Surtees was immersed in the world of speed. His father Jack had a small motorcycle business in Croydon and raced a 500cc Excelsior B14 motorcycle-and-sidecar outfit in grasstrack events. As a child he travelled with his parents to race meetings and was instantly hooked.
John Surtees had an illustrious career in motor sport and is revered as one of the most gifted and versatile racers of all time. He holds the outstanding distinction of being the only man to have won World Championships on two and four wheels, an accolade that is highly unlikely to ever be surpassed.
An out-and-out professional, with a strong independent streak, Surtees won seven World Championships on motorcycles, one Formula One world drivers’ title and the North American Can-Am Championship for sports cars.
In motorcycle racing John Surtees was in a class of his own, winning seven World Championships on Italian MV Agusta motorcycles. In 1956 aged 22, he became the 500cc World Champion and followed it up with an incredible run of six titles – three each in the 350cc and 500cc categories – in the three years from 1958 to 1960.
In his extraordinary 1960 season he accepted an impossible challenge – to anyone but John Surtees – of competing in both motorcycle grands prix and Formula 1 cars. With MV Agusta he won seven of 12 races entered and took his last two world titles. In Formula 1 he did six races and finished second with a Lotus 18 in the British Grand Prix, on only his second World Championship start. By 1963 he was racing for an elite Italian team ‘Ferrari’ in both sports cars and Formula 1 and clinched his first podium with Ferrari the same year when he won the 1963 Sebring 12 Hours for sports cars. In 1964 he became Formula 1 World Champion; his victory at Monza also won the hearts of Italian fans forever.
Ever versatile as a racer, in 1966 he bounced back after injury in a huge sports car crash to win the inaugural CanAm series in North America driving a Lola T70. Then Honda recruited him to its new Formula 1 team for two seasons that saw him win the Italian Grand Prix again.
His talents were not just confined to being a rider or a driver though. From 1969 he became a constructor, and with typical dedication ‘Team Surtees’ built 100 cars in a nine-year period at its plant in Edenbridge, Kent and successfully won titles in Formula 2 and Formula 5000.
John was the ultimate perfectionist, he brought to motor racing an abundance of courage, determination, enthusiasm and engineering skills which helped turn many into a front runner, or winner. Having lost many friends to motor sport, John was a strong advocate of improving driver safety in motor racing and often voiced his opinions about the industry – always for the benefit of the sport. As Sebastian Vettel said ‘I like the fact that whenever he made up his own opinion he never changed it, even if it was controversial’.
John felt strongly about nurturing young talented drivers (who had the talent but not the financial backing) and provided incredible opportunities for career progression. To me though, it was his work with the Henry Surtees Foundation that was even more awe-inspiring. He turned a personal tragedy into an incredible charity which has saved countless lives. The foundation works actively with Air Ambulance and Blood Bike groups throughout the country, and has helped implement the ‘Blood on Board’ scheme to enable them to carry out blood transfusions at the scene of life threatening accidents. Aside from his remarkable career ‘Big John’ will be fondly remembered by his infectious warmth, mischievous smile and his unrelenting determination and enthusiasm for all he did. From building and riding motorcycles, racing cars, owning a racing team, to being a devoted husband and father through to launching the Henry Surtees Foundation in memory of his late son Henry who was tragically killed at Brands Hatch– ‘Big John’ had a big heart and did it all with great passion.
Rebecca Leppard told CMM: “Personally I feel so incredibly privileged and honoured to have worked for John and manage the PR for the Henry Surtees Foundation. ‘Big John’ who will be forever be remembered as an icon of world motorsport. I know that his incredible legacy will live on forever. My thoughts are with his dear wife Jane and daughters Edwina and Leonora. If you would like to leave a message of condolence or make a donation to the Henry Surtees Foundation, please visit: www.henrysurteesfoundation.co.uk”
from p. 9 of issue April 2017
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