It is with great sadness that I must report the death at the age of 83 of John Surtees, the only man to be a World Champion on both two and four wheels. He died earlier this afternoon, having been in hospital for the last few weeks, having been admitted with a respiratory condition soon after his birthday on February 11. His wife, Jane and daughters, Leonora and Edwina were by his side.
Born in Surrey in 1934, the son of Jack Surtees, a sidecar racer who opened a motorcycle shop in Forest Hill, in south London in 1945, John grew up surrounded by bikes and inspired to race reading old race programmes and motorcycle magazines. He did his first race as his father’s sidecar passenger in 1948 in a race at Cockfosters, but they were disaqualified because John was only 14. He did his first solo race the following year on a grass track at Eaton Bray, riding a TT replica Excelsior-JAP. While working as an apprentice with the Vincent-HRD motorcycle firm he did his first road race at Brands Hatch in 1950 on 250cc Triumph, bought for £12. His first win came a few months later on a 500cc Vincent he had modified himself in a race at Aberdare Park in Wales. The following year he did his first season his racing and soon came to the attention of the Norton works team and then, in 1956, MV Agusta. By 1960 he was the holder of seven World Championships on two wheels and, having nothing left to prove, he decided to switch to four wheels. He did his first tests at Goodwood in 1959 and the same year was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. In 1960 he began the year splitting his time between bikes and cars beginning his career at Monaco with Team Lotus and finishing second at the British GP. He then decided to join the Yeoman Credit Cooper Team for 1961 and stopped bike racing completely. This was not a great success and at the end of 1962, by which time he had been awarded an MBE for services to motor cycling, he signed for Ferrari. He won his first Grand Prix in Germany in 1963 and in 1964 won the World Championship in a spectacular showdown with Jim Clark and Graham Hill in Mexico City. He stayed at Ferrari until the middle of 1966, fighting back to fitness after suffering a badly broken leg when he flipped a CanAm Lola T70 at Mosport Park, but in the middle of 1966 he fell out with team manager Eugenio Dragoni and left, moving to the Cooper factory team. That year he won the CanAm Championship in a Team Surtees Lola. He raced for Honda in F1 in 1967 and 1968 and then BRM in 1969 before launching his own Team Surtees F1 team in 1970.
He retired from F1 after one final race in 1972 but the team went on. although it won a Grand prix, until it closed down at the end of 1978. Surtees went on to run his own motorcycle shop and a Honda dealership in Edenbridge, kent and competed in classic bike races and in the 2000s he was chairman of A1 Team Great Britain between 2005 and 2007. His son Henry was climbing the racing ladder when he was killed in a freak accidient at Brands Hatch in 2009, when hit on the head by an errant wheel. He worked tirelessly after that to raise money for The Henry Surtees Foundation. He was made an OBE in 2008 and a CBE in 2016, although many in the racing community believed it was a scandal that he was never knighted.