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John Surtees

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John Surtees on the MV Agusta 4 on which he won his World Championship in – I believe – 1958, which is owned by the Barber Museum.  From the Barber’s display at Pebble Beach in 2011

(Note; I wrote this remembrance for Cycle World magazine, where it originally appeared)

He wasn’t a showman with movie star looks, like many World Champions; John Surtees had a sparrow’s physique, with a modest but intense demeanor, who suffered autograph hounds with a friendly noblesse oblige. No doubt he treated his rivals the same, giving very little away, his attention seemingly elsewhere…like memorizing every braking point at the Nurbrurgring or Isle of Man circuits. If you were close enough to observe his expression on the track, it meant you were about to lose your race to the most stylish and disciplined rider of the 1950s. 

Surtees on a 250cc MV Agusta in 1957, at a Crystal Palace meeting.

John Surtees’ father Jack was a south London motorcycle dealer, with strong connections to the Vincent factory. John’s very first race, as the monkey in his father’s Rapide sidecar outfit, was duly won, but as he was only 14, they were afterwards disqualified. It was better publicity than the win, and John’s canny father pushed his talented son into the spotlight early and often, sponsoring him in grass track races from age 15. John took his apprenticeship at the Vincent factory at 16, which gave him access to race shop, and the opportunity to race a Vincent Grey Flash 500cc single to good effect. By 17 he was harassing World Champion Geoff Duke on British circuits, and making headlines while riding a variety of interesting machines, including an NSU 250cc Sportmax, and the inevitable Norton Manx in the 350cc and 500cc classes. In 1954, for Unlimited class racing, he slotted a 1000cc Vincent Black Lightning motor into a Norton Manx chassis, which could have been a world-beater, but he was tapped to join the Norton factory race team before his creation was anything but the world’s first NorVin. 

 Norton team manager Joe Craig was notoriously hard, and squeezed several years of life from the single-cylinder, DOHC Norton Manx racers John rode. They were past their sell-by date, as sophisticated multi-cylinder machines from Italy and Germany had been flying past them on straightaways since the 1930s. During the War, a fortuitous meeting between Craig and Leo Kuzmicki, a Polish refugee with a degree in combustion theory, kept Nortons plenty fast, but foreign factories inevitably dusted off their prewar designs for post-war racing once they’d rebuilt their factories. John Surtees reached a pinnacle of British ambition in 1955 by joining the Norton team, and bit hard at the heels of Geoff Duke, who had defected to Italian machines just like his predecessor Stanley Woods had done in the ‘30s. As those men had found, a single-cylinder racer was no match for an Italian thoroughbred multi. Duke’s elegant, lightning fast, and good-handling Gilera Quattro was designed by Piero Remor, and had won six 500cc World Championship between 1950-57, and for good measure held the World Land Speed Record in supercharged form before WW2. 

Surtees in 1957 aboard the MV 4, looking amazingly menacing in this photo (the bike that is). How must the Norton rider have felt beside such a machine? 

Count Domenico Agusta had watched Surtees take his Manx to the limit in pursuit of Duke, and admired his style. He offered an astronomical sum (by Norton standards) to jump the British ship, and join the MV Agusta team for 1956. Agusta’s business was primarily aeronautic, but he loved motorcycles, and no doubt expended all the profits from his street motorcycle manufacture into making his race them the best in the world. He’d already secured the 125cc World Championship in 1952, but wanted the big prize, so had lured Piero Remor away from Gilera to design a new DOHC 4-cylinder racer. The MV four still needed development, and Surtees struggled against the better-handling Gilera Quattros in ’55, taking 3rd in the World Championship. In 1956, Geoff Duke was punished by the FIM for supporting a riders’ strike against dangerous conditions (and more start money) that year, halving his season, and Surtees snatched his first World Championship. 

Surtees aviating the MV4 at the Isle of Man TT in 1957 – no ‘waggle’ here!

At the end of the 1957 season, on another ‘day the music died’, Gilera, MV Agusta, Moto Guzzi, BMW, NSU, and Mondial all bowed out of GP racing, citing increasing expense and falling motorcycle sales. Count Agusta, the sly fox, changed his mind when he realized the benefit of greatly diminished competition; MV Agusta racked up a string of 37 World Championships, until formerly obscure Japanese companies like Honda and Yamaha demonstrated what a corporate budget and a simple two-stroke engine (respectively), could do. 

John Surtees discussing a Ferrari F1 car from the Barber Museum with George Barber at Pebble Beach in 2011

John Surtees won his 7 World Championships in 4 years with MV Agusta between 1956-1960, in both 350cc and 500cc categories. The Italians loved his riding style, naming him ‘ figlio del vento, – son of the wind. He was eel-slippery and one with his machine in the years before ‘hanging off’ was the norm, and simply tucked in behind his screen, making it all look natural. 

When Grand Prix racing was a mix-country affair; Italy, (two MV4s) Germany (BMW RS56), and behind them, Britain (Norton Manx)

During a Sportsman of the Year banquet in 1959 he met F1 legend Mike Hawthorne, who suggested Surtees ‘try a car sometime; they stand up easier.’ He did try a car, in spite of the fact he’d never even seen an F1 race or watched one on TV! His natural talent was instantly recognized by Lotus boss Colin Chapman after a few practice laps, and in his first F1 race (the 1960 Monaco GP) he caused quite a stir. On his second F1 race, at the British Grand Prix, he came 2nd, and nearly won his third race at Estoril. Another Italian racing legend, Enzo Ferrari, noticed his talent, and offered a spot on his team. It proved a prescient move, and he won the World F1 Championship for Ferrari in 1964. While Surtees was cool, he also spoke his mind, and his relationship with the Ferrari team was never easy. Tensions with team manager Eugenio Dragoni blew up in 1966, while Surtees was en route to a second World Championship; he quit Ferrari, and refused even Enzo’s entreaties to return. 

Surtees in a Ferrari F1 racer c.1961

He carried on F1 racing through 1972, but his 1964 championship remained his, and the world’s, only World Championship Formula 1 title from a motorcycle World Champion. In the 1980s, Surtees inspired a new generation of riders, restorers, and builders with the revival of his interest in the track for vintage racing. He rebuilt his old Vincent Grey Flash, and put that 1955 Black Lightning-based NorVin back together, with remarkably gorgeous brutality. He also collected the crème de la crème of vintage racing machinery, and was happy to demonstrate George Meier’s 1938 TT-winning BMW RS255 kompressor, or Ray Amm’s Norton streamliner, at events across Europe. 

A very young John Surtees with his original Vincent Grey Flash racer

He encouraged his son Henry in the racing game as well, until tragically he was killed in an F2 race in 2009, when a competitor’s tire struck him. In remembrance, he established the Henry Surtees foundation to help people with brain injuries. I was lucky enough to meet John Surtees at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2011, where his World Championship Ferrari and MV Agusta were on display, and he obliged a few photographs on his old ‘Gallarate fire engine’. His heyday was over before I could watch him race in anger, but one needn’t have seen it to understand the monumental talent it took to assume the World Champion mantle in two very different sports. It’s unlikely we’ll see that achievement matched anytime soon, and we will never see his like again.

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