It can be hard to give what feels like adequate respect to someone you’ve never known personally, and especially so when that person is as towering and well-known a figure as John Surtees. Last week the world of motorsport and the world at large lost a special person. Surtees was 83 years old, and leaves behind a legacy during those years that’s full of impressive feats of motorsport as a rider, driver, and manager.
Derek Bell, who drove sporadically for Surtees in the 1970s—including one of the team’s strongest finishes in F1 at Watkins Glen in the first Surtees car—and as a young teenager admired his motorcycle racing prowess, remembers the highly-distinguished racer as someone who was a little hard to get to know, but worth the effort in trying. “He was someone who was opinionated, and he never suffered fools.”
Recalling what it was like to race on a team led by Surtees, Bell says he was the kind of person who knew what he wanted and pursued it with unbound determination. Surtees was, like many with ambitious goals set out before them, “Rather insular. Not rude or impetuous, just someone who wanted to win, and did what was needed to get there.” Surtees was a rider, a driver, a team leader, and an engineer, and his consistent success was a product of an attitude that can be mistaken for domineering, but Bell believes this was just the product of the deep drive instilled in everything Surtees attempted.
Surtees, the only person to have become a world champion on two and four wheels, began an illustrious career of racing on a motorcycle, winning his first world championship riding an MV Agusta in 1956. A short time later, he would go on to win back-to-back-to-back championships from ’58-’60, kicking off a string of unbroken wins for the Italian motorcycle manufacturer that would stretch for 17 seasons of dominance. To add to his impressive list of moto accomplishments, Surtees also made an indelible mark on the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy as the first person to win the Senior TT (not referring in any way to age, think of this as the bikes in this category being the big brothers of the slower TTs) 3 times in a row.
Somehow not content with his ascendant command of 2-wheeled racing, Surtees began driving full-time in racing cars in 1960 at age 26. Most of us by that time were experiencing perhaps the beginnings of a first career, while John had already completed one as a highly distinguished talent on a motorcycle on an international stage. After only a few years of racing in F1, John went on to sign with Ferrari in 1963, and would become the F1 World Champion the next year.
John Surtees had that rare quality that allowed him to speak his mind candidly while still managing to remain endearing, and the even rarer one that saw his actions follow in accordance with his words. So, following disagreements with Ferrari surrounding the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, Surtees left the team, and, of course, went on to handily win the Can-Am season in its first year of running, 1966. Clearly his prowess behind the wheel was undeterred by a change in scenery.
Following a career dotted with championships, Surtees left the driver’s seat and underwent the arduous tribulations of team ownership with the creation and management of his Surtees Racing Organization. Leading efforts in Formula 1, Formula 2, and Formula 5000, Surtees was dedicated to, and remained heavily involved in competitive international racing. After the last of his teams closed up in 1978, Surtees still did not abandon the racing world, as he continued in vintage motorcycle and car racing events for much of his life.
After the tragedy that took his son Henry’s life—a racer like his father—John Surtees would go on to establish the Henry Surtees Foundation in pursuit of giving care and recovery to those who have suffered from brain, head, and other injuries. The man may be gone now, but his goodwill and compassion will endure, and his contributions to the sport go much further than podiums.
When the world loses someone as charismatic and just plain old interesting as John Surtees, it can be tempting to pick one or two of his public life’s major moments and build up an entire person from that, and that’s not necessarily inappropriate or “wrong.” There’s just no way to know someone completely; the important thing is to recognize and respect every piece of them that you can get though, and with John Surtees, those pieces will continue shining brightly.