John Surtees became the only man to ever become the World Champion on two-wheels as well as on four. His ability to drive motorcycles was as exciting, brave and skilled as was his ability with Formula One cars. John had always been a fierce competitor with only winning on his mind. It was this strong effort on his part that made him the ultimate competitor but also led to his later decline.
Born as the eldest of three children, John Surtees got a head start in driving motorcycles due to the fact that his father, Jack, owned a motorcycle shop in the southern half of London. By the time he was 11, John had a bike of his own to ride and repair, tasks that he carried out with equal ease. At the age of 16, he decided to give school a miss and joined the Vincent Motorcycle factory as an intern. He was 17 when he took part in his first ever solo race, and surprisingly, won it. This win propelled him in the eyes of the racing community and soon, in 1955, he got the opportunity to be a part of the Norton works team for 76 races. In those 76 races, he won an incredible 68 times. Between 1956 and 1960, John was mainly involved in racing at the 350cc and 500cc categories for the Italian MV Agusta team. He won an incredible seven World Championships in the two categories, combined.
FORMULA ONE CAREER
Once a World Champion, John was getting numerous offers to test drive their cars. He took up the offer and cars came almost naturally to him. He finished second in his very first single-seater race at Goodwood, while driving an F3 Cooper. He came second to another promising beginner with Team Lotus. This start saw him get hired by Colin Chapman for the last four races of the 1960 season. He got a second place in the British Grand Prix and a near win in Portugal put him on the top of the market. Motorcycle racing took a backseat and started rummaging through the various Formula One offers lying on his table. Surtees had an offer from team Lotus but decided to go for the Cooper, in ‘61, and a Lola, in ‘62. His talent and skill meant that although he didn’t win anything, he kept his teams in the spotlight at all times. This led to him being invited to lead the Italy’s most famous Formula One team, Scuderia Ferrari.
Enzo Ferrari was a fan of Surtees and brought him in as the number one driver for the 1963 Formula One driver. He won his first championship with Ferrari in 1963, after a ferocious battle with the Lotus of Jim Clark. “Big John”, as he came to be known in England, took a brilliant victory at the dangerous Nurburgring in Germany, in 1964, and then at Monza to get into contention for the title alongside Clark who also had two wins to his name. The title fight went down to the Mexican Grand Prix where Clark’s Lotus was struck by an oil leak and Phil Hill’s BRM went out of the race after an accidental bump by Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari. John finished second in the race and won the championship.