To win a world championship in any sport is special. But to win it at the highest echelons of motor racing in both two and four wheels is an unparalleled achievement. The motorsport fraternity had the privilege of having just such a jewel of a man in their midst, and he was one hell of a racer – his name was John Surtees.
Surtees was the son of a motorcycle dealer and part-time racer in Surrey, England. One day, his father came up to him with a large box filled with motorcycle parts and told him, “Put it back together, and you can ride it.” The parts were for a Wallace Blackburn speedway bike, which he painstakingly rebuilt – and it ignited the spark within him.
In 1950, Surtees began competing in various motorcycle races, and, by 1952, his professional career had well and truly begun. In 1956, Surtees was approached by MV Agusta, and after numerous tests Surtees was nearly accepted into the team but had to wait for final clearance. In his final, and most important meeting, he sat across the table from Count Domenico Agusta. Suddenly, in came a woman in a black dress and a veil and whispered something into the Count’s ear and left the room. Following this, Surtees was told he had been accepted into the family. The woman in the black dress was the Count’s mother, who had come to give her approval of the Englishman.
In his debut season with the MV Agusta team in 1956, Surtees won his first ever Motorcycle World Championship – at the age of 22. Surtees continued to race for MV Agusta until 1960, and, during that time, he won the title thrice more. Surtees also won the Isle of Man TT on four occasions – giving the team a list of wins and titles.
While his contract with MV Agusta stated that he could only participate in a certain number of races a year, his hunger for racing led him to move on to cars. After a few test outings with numerous manufacturers, it was Colin Chapman who persuaded Surtees to race for the Lotus Formula One team in 1960 when he wasn’t racing motorcycles. In 1961, Surtees retired from motorcycles and made his full transition to racing on four wheels. In his debut season for Ferrari, Surtees won the 1964 Formula One world championship, which made him the only racer to win world titles in both two and four wheels. The English driver continued to race for Ferrari for two more years before leaving to race for three more squads until 1972 – when he eventually raced for a team bearing his own name.
On March 10, 2017, Surtees passed away at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife Jane and two daughters. He also founded the Henry Surtees Foundation, in the memory of his 18-year-old son who lost his life during a Formula Two race in 2009.
Since October 25, 1964, John Surtees’ record of wining world titles in two different sport categories remains intact. Though Surtees always believed that records are meant to be broken, this one appears to be quite secure for the moment.
He will be missed.