Journal: Jack And Master Of All Trades: Remembering John Surtees

Jack And Master Of All Trades: Remembering John Surtees

Petrolicious Productions By Petrolicious Productions
March 13, 2017
10 comments

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. 

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10 Comments on "Jack And Master Of All Trades: Remembering John Surtees"

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Douglas Anderson
Douglas Anderson
I managed to squeeze myself into the crowd at Barber motor sports park and get his autograph several years ago. A prized possession by the way !! He had made a few parade laps on a bike earlier in the day, by his lines I’ll bet he would have given a good showing in the races if allowed. Later on he drove a Ferrari around a bit , the sound was amazing. When he was signing the picture for me that evening , he commented that he was always a bit amazed that anyone would stand in line just to… Read more »
RedGrey
RedGrey

GS, Surtees was a CBE which if I’m not mistaken ranks higher than an OBE.
Liked your description about the current state of F1 champs.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

… even better .. read the comments most of which coming from Brits on Joe Sawards F1 blog pertaining to the slight the F1 and motorsports community feel was done to John Surtees by denying him an OBE .

As for the online descriptions/definitions of the titles .. suffice it to say the wording doesn’t quite equate to the actual and viable status / benefits of the different titles so no worries on the confusion . If I didn’t know first hand I’d be thinking the same thing .

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
An OBE grants you knighthood which then makes you part of the ‘ club ‘ e.g. placing you within the realms of the aristocracy opening the door to potential titles etc . Whereas everything else … at least this is my understanding according to my Brit buddies … are simply honors bestowed upon those having done or accomplished something worthy of recognition . In other words the one .. OBE .. comes with a whole host of benefits including the title .. Sir .. whereas the others are and end to themselves …. as in … Yippee .. a medal… Read more »
Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

Actually an OBE ( Knighthood ) ranks well above a CBE which is why so many in the F1 and motorsports community were aghast at the fact that the Queen did not see fit to bestow the honor upon Sutrees giving him a CBE as a consolation ‘ prize ‘ if you will .Ask any of the Brits participating here and they’ll confirm what I say . But thanks for the compliment .

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
John sadly was the last of his breed . A world champion on tow wheels and four . A gentleman rather than an obnoxious celebrity wanna be . And a man who earned every accolade he received while being gracious in not getting the one [ OBE ] he deserved . So in this era of overspecialization , spoiled little lew.i.am.’s desperate to be rock stars , manufactured soap opera dramas and overbearing marketing bs .. take a moment to delve into the complete history of a man who portrayed in every aspect of his life what it means to… Read more »
RedGrey
RedGrey

I’m not an expert on the British honors rankings by any means and if I was wrong, I stand corrected. What I gather from British sources on the net is the following:

What’s the difference between an MBE, OBE and CBE?

The three most well-known awards represent different ranks in the Order of the British Empire. The highest ranking of the three is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), followed by OBE (Officer) and then MBE (Member).

Jack B
Jack B

John Surtees generously spent about 20 minutes in the Goodwood paddock a few years ago, reminiscing with me about the first race of consequence I had ever attended and, coincidentally the first race that he had started….and won….as the new team leader at the Scuderia: the 1963 12 Hours of Sebring. I will never forget that race, nor will I ever forget the time that Surtees so graciously gave me.

The 1963 race was spectacular for the incredible array of drivers and cars that participated. For those interested, a fantastic report can be found at http://www.sportscardigest.com/1963-12-hours-of-sebring-race-profile/

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

Thank you for sharing this. Well done.

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

I never got to see him on an MV Agusta but I was lucky enough to see his driving in several events at Laguna and Riverside in the late 60’s.

He certainly was a driver to watch, smooth, consistent, blindingly fast and very aggressive. Hero material.
Rest in peace Big John.

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