John Surtees’ interest in bikes and racing was kindled at an early age by his father, Jack – a successful sidecar racer and motorcycle shop proprietor.
But it was a picture of 1939 Isle of Man TT winner Georg Meier that really fired his imagination. Marooned on the Yorkshire moors outside Huddersfield – well away from the blitz – John used to pore over Jack’s old race programmes and copies of Motor Cycle and Motorcycling.
One – featuring Meier hurtling down Bray Hill on his way to victory – really captured John’s attention. “I’ve never been one for hero worship but that picture made an enormous impression on me,” he recalls.
By the early 1950s he was building and racing his own machines, proving himself to be devastatingly quick from the word go. In the process, he caught the eye of the Norton works team and then, in 1956, MV Agusta.
By the end of the decade he was the proud holder of seven World Championships on two wheels and, with nothing left to prove, switched his attention to four wheels first with Ken Tyrrell and later in F1 with Colin Chapman’s Lotus team.
Over the following 12 years he demonstrated what a brilliant all-round racer he was in single seaters and sports cars, winning the F1 World Championship with Ferrari in 1964 and clinching the Can-Am Championship two years later in the Lola T70 which he helped develop.
His story from the 1940s through to the present day is charted in this timeline.
The Early Years
1945: As battle-weary Britain starts to leave five, traumatic wartime years in its wake, Jack Surtees, father of John, and a successful sidecar racer, opens a motorcycle shop in Forest Hill, South London.
1946: John attends the first post-war race meeting at Cadwell Park and watches ‘Dad’ battle it out with soon-to-be World Champion Eric Oliver in the Good Friday sidecar race. ‘Dad’ finishes second behind Oliver. At school, John earns the nickname ‘Bullet’ for his speed on the football pitch and athletics field.
1947: Hooked on motorcycles, John spends his spare time assisting Dad at the shop. He tries his hand on two wheels on the cinder path around the perimeter of the Brands Hatch grass circuit on an old Wallis-Blackburne speedway bike,
1948: John takes part in his maiden race at the Trent Park Speed Trials, Cockfosters, North London, riding as sidecar passenger for Dad. The Surtees duo wins but is disqualified because John, at 14, is under age!
1949: Competing in his first solo race – at a grass track meeting at Eaton Bray, near Luton – things do not go according to plan. John, on a TT replica 500ccc B14 Excelsior-JAP (similar to the one on which his father started racing in 1934) parts company from the bike on several occasions. Dad reckons the bike’s “a bit big for him”.
From Novice to world Champion
1950: John starts work as an apprentice at the Vincent-HRD motorcycle factory. He also takes part in his first solo road race at Brands Hatch on a 250cc Triumph Tiger 70 bought from Norton works rider Harold Daniell for £12. Battling for the lead on the last lap of the 250cc heat, he and his bike part company. Later that season, astride an experimental 500cc Vincent Grey Flash – which he has rebuilt and modified himself – he storms home to record his first motorcycle race victory at a meeting at Aberdare Park, South Wales.
1951: John embarks on his first full season of racing. At the August Bank Holiday Festival of Britain meeting at Thruxton, he finishes second behind Norton works rider and ‘man of the moment’ Geoff Duke in the 500cc and 1000cc races. Race reports describe him as “the man who made Duke hurry”.
1952: John continues his winning ways on the much-loved Grey Flash setting a new lap record on his first outing of the season at Brands Hatch. But – putting sentiment to one side – he has to sell it to raise cash for the deposit on a 500cc Manx Norton that costs £280. John races both the Norton and a factory-loaned Vincent throughout the remainder of the season. He also competes in his first World Championship event, the 500cc Ulster Grand Prix at Clady in whichh he finishes sixth.
1953: A second-hand 350cc Featherbed Norton is bought to allow John to compete in more races. The enlarged race programme includes the Isle of Man TT. John, at the age of only 19 (and on his first visit to the island) has been invited to compete in the Junior and Senior races as a member of the Joe Craig Norton works team! He has previously accepted a ride in the 125cc event as well, on an EMC entered by Joe Ehrlich. But a crash in practice for the 125cc race – caused when the front forks on the machine break – result in a broken wrist and no further racing. The accident – much to his regret – costs him the coveted Norton works ride. But – with 20 wins out of the 35 races, nine record laps and three fastest laps – it is still a successful season.
1954: No offers of Norton works rides this year, so John gets two new short-stroke Manx Nortons of his own. (Team boss Craig is still annoyed that John went against his wishes and rode the EMC at the previous year’s TT, depriving the Norton team of his services.) But Craig – having warned him off accepting an invitation from rivals AJS to ride a works Porcupine – does loan him two 1953 works bikes towards the end of the season (as an incentive to stay loyal to Norton!)
1955: The busiest season yet. John rides a Vincent-loaned NSU Sportmax in 250cc races, his own Manx Nortons in 350 and 500cc national events and Joe Craig-run Manx Nortons in selected races. On the NSU in the 250cc Ulster GP at Dundrod, he records his first World Championship win. He also beats World Champion Duke on the multi-cylinder Gilera twice…a remarkable achievement on the single-cylinder Norton, And for the 500cc German GP at The Nürburgring he receives an invitation to ride for BMW. His performance on the German ‘twin’ attracts the attention of the legendary MV Agusta team.
1956: Norton refuses to mount a full World Championship campaign. As a result, BMW, Moto Guzzi and Gilera make tentative offers for John’s services…but he signs for MV Agusta. In England for the early-season national races, he wins his first seven events. He also wins his first Isle of Man TT (the 500cc Senior) and the 500cc Dutch TT at Assen. The TT wins help secure his first world title, the 500cc World Championship – despite having to retire mid way through the season with a broken arm!
1957: John overcomes the after effects of the broken arm to win first time out at Barcelona. But mechanical problems during the season hold him and MV back, putting a second World Championship beyond reach. Racing the NSU and Nortons at Crystal Palace in August, he wins the 250, 350 and 500 races – all at record speeds – prompting reports in the Italian newspapers that “Surtees does not need an MV to win”. The reports annoy MV. John tackles the Count over engine reliability and the need to improve handling.
1958: MV discourages John from riding his own bikes in national events. The scaling down of his racing programme frustrates him…but improved frames, which he worked hard to develop, and more reliable engines on the MVs help soften the blow. In the Belgian GP he sets a record lap of 120.17mph / 193.39kph. In totally dominant form, he wins every Grand Prix he enters to capture both the 350 and 500cc World Championships.
1959: A first-time-out win at Imola is followed at Silverstone with another – and a crash! Back in the saddle for the French GP, John conceals the after-effects of the accident and wins the first of 13 World Championship races in a row. In doing so, he wins the 350 and 500cc World Championships for the second year running and is voted ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’. Britain’s sportswriters also name him as their ‘Sports Personality of the Year’, as does the Daily Express. Meanwhile, F1 luminaries give him a try-out on ‘four wheels’ at Goodwood…and like what they see!
From Two Wheels to Four
1960: John is offered ‘four wheel’ drives in Formula Junior, F2 and F1 races. For the remainder of the season he divides his time between motorcycle and motor racing. On two wheels he wins seven out of 12 rounds to capture the 350 and 500cc World Championships again. And in the Isle of Man Senior TT he becomes ‘the first race winner to average 100mph’ (160.93 kph) with an actual average race speed of 102.44mph (164.86kph). On four wheels Lotus boss, Colin Chapman, urges him to sign as team No. 1 for 1961. John – concerned about potential driver friction – turns him down. But – frustrated by his restricted two-wheel race programme – he quits MV and joins the F1 Yeoman Credit Cooper team instead.
1961: Signing on with the Yeoman Credit Cooper Team turns out to be a mistake. Despite engine and bodywork developments carried out by the team on their ‘customer’ T53 Coopers, the cars are no match for the works Coopers, let alone the other works teams. An early-season win at Goodwood is John’s only win. Ferrari makes an approach but John tells the Scuderia ‘not now, thank you’. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours list he is awarded the MBE for services to motor cycle racing.
1962: Bowmaker takes over Yeoman Credit. Meanwhile, John persuades Eric Broadley to design a Lola-Climax forr the exclusive use of the team. John is often the quickest ‘4-cylinder driver’ around. After a ‘customer’ V8 Climax arrives, he establishes himself as one of the grid’s ‘top four’. But poor reliability and an under-strength chassis rob him of top place finishes. Additional bracing solves the chassis problem and John finishes second in the next two GPs. He takes fourth place in the World Championship and – having served his F1 apprenticeship – prepares to join Ferrari.
1963: John finishes his stint at Yeoman Credit with two wins in the pre-season Tasman Series in a 2.7-litre Lola before taking up his Ferrari seat full time. But first time out with the Scuderia, he argues with team boss, Eugenio Dragoni. The self-important Dragoni hands the 250P sports car prepared by Surtees and Scarfiotti to team rivals Mairesse and Vaccarella only hours before the start of the Sebring 12-hour race. John prepares to walk out but is persuaded by Scarfiotti to compete. The pair wins. On the F1 front, John experiences mixed fortunes in the V6 156 with five retirements, a second place at the British GP, victory in Germany – his first GP win on four wheels – and fastest laps at Monaco, Silverstone and The Nürburgring.
1964: Ferrari lacks the resources to mount successful challenges in both sports cars and F1. But it continues to compete in both. As a consequence, its F1 campaign suffers from insufficient development and testing. This is underlined by one finish out of the first four GPs. But by mid-season, with Le Mans out of the way, team performance picks up. John finishes third in the British GP, first again in Germany, first at Monza and second in the USA and Mexico. The result in Mexico clinches the World Championship for John and Ferrari. John becomes the only man to win World Championships on two wheels and four.
1965: John gets Ferrari’s permission to form Team Surtees to mount a sports car racing programme of his own in parallel with the Scuderia’s. The team – a tie-up between John and Lola Racing’s Eric Broadley – produces the highly successful Lola T70-Chevrolet. At The Nürburgring 1000km, John and Scarfiotti win in the Ferrari 330 P2 prototype. But an under-powered V8 and a late, under-developed flat-12 wreck the F1 campaign. Following wins in the F2 Gold Cup race at Oulton Park in the UK and, 24 hours later, in the Player’s Quebec sports car race at Ste Jovite, John’s season comes to a premature and life-threatening end. In practice for the follow-on Canadian GP for sports cars, the suspension on his Lola T70 fails at 125mph resulting in a horrendous crash and near-fatal injuries.
1966: At the Monza 1000km – John’s post-accident comeback – he and Mike Parkes win in the 330P3. But Ferrari’s F1 car for the new 3.0 litre formula is behind schedule. The V12 312 is “overweight and gutless”. John wants to run the 2.4 litre V6 Dino 246 Tasman car until an improved V12 is ready. Team boss Dragoni – rattled by John’s increasing influence in the Ferrari camp – mounts a ‘dis-information’ campaign to discredit him. Regardless of a Surtees win in appalling conditions in the Belgian GP, the scheming continues at Le Mans. Dragoni sabotages his race plan and John walks out to join the Cooper-Maserati team. He wins in Mexico and clinches second place in the World Championship. In the Can-Am series he scores five wins in the Lola T70 to become Can-Am Champion.
1967: John joins Honda to race and develop the RA273 V12 from his Team Surtees HQ. The engine is under-developed and the car is overweight. But John perseveres and gets permission to develop a new chassis with Lola’s Eric Broadley. The resultant RA300 is lighter and more aerodynamic. John clinches a first-time-out, last-lap win at Monza. The Surtees / Broadley duo also develops a Lola T70-based coupé for Le Mans and front-running Lola T100 F2 cars. The coupé’s Le Mans test weekend times scare Ferrari but the Aston Martin engines don’t last the distance in the race.
1968: Team Surtees and Honda co-develop a new chassis, the RA301, to take an updated Honda V12. John feels the team is on the verge of becoming a real championship contender. A smaller, all-new V12 is to follow. But, without any consultation, Honda cancels the project and sends over a top-secret substitute, the RA302. John declares the radical air/oil cooled V8 “unfit to race” without further development and soldiers on with the RA301. Cruel luck deprives him of almost certain wins in the Belgian and Italian GPs. In between the two events, Honda independently enters the type 302 for the French GP with disastrous consequences. The car spins off the track and catches fire, killing Jo Schlesser, its driver. At the end of the season Honda pulls out of GP racing. Outside of the F1 programme John purchases the Leda Cars Formula 5000 project for American actor James Garner who has plans to start his own race team.
1969: John is installed as No. 1 at BRM but runs into difficulties from the start. On paper the BRM V12 produces the right sort of muscle but on the track it fails to deliver. Progressive power loss is traced to poor water circulation …but not until late on in the season. Another wasted year! At Team Surtees, the enterprise takes on the role of car constructor in its own right after Leda’s ‘customer car’ design is found to be in need of substantial development and the James Garner deal falls through. The team rectifies the design and construction shortcomings and renames the car as the Surtees TS5. Despite only competing in half the races, David Hobbs wins four rounds in the US Formula 5000 Championship in a Surtees-entered TS5 to finish runner-up in the series.
Going It Alone 1970s
1970: John has taken sole control of his destiny and is building a GP car of his own design. At new premises in Edenbridge, Kent, work is underway on an F1 car, the TS7, and an improved F5000 contender, the TS8. John races a ‘customer’ McLaren M7C while the TS7-Cosworth is readied for its debut at the British GP. Engine failures plague the team but John dominates the Gold Cup meeting at Oulton Park and finishes fifth in Canada. At the insistence of Shell he also climbs behind the wheel of a works Ferrari again, finishing in third in the 1000km races at Monza and The Nürburgring in the ill-handling 512S.
1971: Team Surtees signs Mike Hailwood to drive its TS8 F5000 car. Mike takes it to a win first time out at Mallory Park and finishes runner-up in the Rothmans F5000 Championship. On the F1 front, the TS9 is rolled out and much needed sponsorship comes in from Brooke Bond Oxo. The car is on the pace from the start, Rolf Stommelen capturing pole position in Argentina, John challenging for the lead in South Africa and Hailwood finishing fourth at Monza…just one-tenth of a second behind Gethin’s winning BRM. But, despite strong finishes in non-championship races, a GP win evades the team.
1972: The strain of testing and development, competing, and management is taking its toll. John cuts back on competitive driving and focuses on developing the 1973 TS14 F1 car. Hailwood takes over as No. 1 partnered by Tim Schenken and Andrea de Adamich. Driving the new TS9B, Schenken finishes fifth in Argentina, de Adamich fourth in Spain, Hailwood second in Italy and Carlos Pace (a late recruit from the F2 team) second in the World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch. John completes his illustrious racing career with F2 wins in Japan and Italy in the team’s Hart-engined TS10 while lead driver Hailwood runs away with the European F2 Championship. Driving a TS8/11, Hailwood also comes second in the Tasman Cup Series. In F5000, Sam Posey finishes runner-up in the US series while Gijs van Lennep wins the European Championship. Both drive customer TS11s.
1973: The new TS14 is wheeled out for Surtees drivers Hailwood and Pace. But – due to a late relaxation of previously agreed design regulations – the car is disadvantaged from the outset, A winding down by Firestone of its tyre development programme also hampers the team. Nevertheless, Pace demonstrates its potential with fastest laps in Germany and Austria where he finishes fourth and third respectively. In South Africa, Hailwood rescues Regazzoni from his blazing BRM and is later awarded the George Medal for his bravery. In F2 the Team Surtees TS15-Hart driven by Jochen Mass is relegated to second place in the championship by the more powerful BMW-powered March.
1974: Serious health problems, which first surfaced in 1972, continue to plague John. He finds it increasingly hard to keep up the frenetic schedule needed to run Team Surtees and concentrates solely on F1. A funding crisis, caused when Bang and Olufsen reneges on its sponsorship agreement, adds to the difficulties. The planned pyramid-hull successor to the TS14 – elements of which eventually surface in the 1976 TS19 – has to be cancelled. In its place a less advanced, less costly TS16 is rolled out. It is based on the 1973 TS15 F2 chassis and, due to the lack of resources, is powered by 1973-spec Cosworth DFV engines, Pace drives to a strong fourth place in Brazil – the team’s best showing of the year. The Ill-feted season ends on a tragic note when Jochen Mass replacement Helmut Koinigg, is killed in a crash, caused by tyre failure, at Watkins Glen.
1975: The team, still struggling for resources, soldiers on with the TS16. Sole championship entry is former Team Surtees F2 driver John Watson. Eighth in the Spanish GP, second in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch and fourth in the International Trophy at Silverstone are as good as it gets. With two races to go, a despondent and below par Surtees withdraws the team from the championship to focus on its 1976 F1 campaign.
1976: An all-new, pyramid-hull TS19 is debuted. Drivers are World Champion in-the-making Alan Jones and heir to the Du Pont family fortune, Brett Lunger. Team sponsor is male contraceptives manufacturer Durex. Lunger runs in a Chesterfield-sponsored car. First time out, Jones drives to second place in the Race of Champions meeting at Brands Hatch. Subsequent robust drives by the Australian put the team back on the constructors’ scoreboard with points finishes in Belgium, Britain and Japan.
1977: The court action against Bang and Olufsen drags on. The TS19 is wheeled out again – this time for Vittorio Brambilla and Hans Binder. But insufficient funding is still a problem despite continued sponsorship from Durex and new money from Beta Tools brought by Brambilla. This rules out the possibility of outright wins but Brambilla produces spirited drives to finish in the points in Belgium, Germany and Canada.
1978: Brambilla stays on as No 1 and is joined by Rupert Keegan. They race the TS19 while its successor, the TS20, is readied. The new car – a conventional design – finally debuts at Monaco but is no match for the better-handling ground effect cars. A TS21 ground effects car is being developed but the best Brambilla can produce in the TS20 is sixth in Austria. Meanwhile, a seriously ill and exhausted John has to fly home from Long Beach and Canada without even making it to the track. A 12-week stay in hospital follows. René Arnoux takes over the TS20 for both North American races and – despite an offer from Renault – is keen to stay with the team for 1979. But John – unable to produce the financial package needed to run at the front – decides to withdraw from F1. The one highlight in a grim year – the arrival of the MV Agusta on which he won the 1956 Isle of Man Senior TT. An appreciative Count Agusta promised him the machine back in 1960!
1979: Peter Briggs, John’s former F2 boss, runs two TS20s under the Team Surtees banner in the national Aurora Championship. In a bid to find additional performance, the team marries the prototype TS21 ground effect side pods to one of the TS20s to create the TS20+. On its first outing at Silverstone in October, Gordon Smiley takes the chequered flag. His lap times would have put him on the third row of the grid at that year’s British GP. The performance is an indication as to what might have been if Team Surtees had continued in F1 with Arnoux (and possibly Keke Rosberg) behind the wheel of the axed TS21. The race is the last in which Team Surtees competes. Meanwhile John lays the foundations for his present day property business. With a mixture of relief and sadness, he leases the once bustling Team Surtees factory to a Swedish television company.
1980’s to Present Day
1980-2000: John channels his energies and skills into developing his newly-founded property business and to the car and motorcycle restorations for which he is renowned around the world. He also throws himself into motorsport activities and consultancy including personal appearances and demonstration rides and drives.
2001-present: As a Vice President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, John works tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that Britain maintains its position at the centre of international motor sport. He also devotes a considerable amount of time to initiatives designed to encourage and develop up-and-coming British racing talent. Activities include as a consultant to Buckmore Park, the international outdoor kart circuit in Kent, where he is pioneering a motorsport training and technology centre designed to take motorsport into the community.