When we read past stories about historic and legendary racing drivers, you might notice that a handful of them have started off on two wheels like motorcycles and then moved on to four wheels whether it was Formula 1, Sports Car racing, IndyCar, or NASCAR.
Notable drivers such as the brave Tazio Nuvolari, the Mexican brothers of Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez started off racing on two wheels, and John Surtees as well, who has a whole different story compared to the others drivers. Back in the 20th century, it was normal for Formula 1 drivers to go off into other motorsport categories, like endurance racing, IndyCar, and NASCAR. And even though a few drivers have dipped their toes in motorcycle racing, they were never able to succeed in it as they succeeded in four-wheel racing, except for one person…
John Surtees was a British racing driver, motorcycle road racer, and Formula 1 driver as well. Surtees was a four-time 500 cc motorcycle World Champion, achieving all those titles in 1956, 1958, 1959, and 1960. The British driver was also a Formula 1 World Champion with Ferrari, breaking many records that day in 1964 at the Mexican Grand Prix, where he achieved his F1 title. John was the son of a motorcycle dealer, and his father Jack Surtees was also a grass track competitor. Surtees grew up around motorcycles, racing, and everything cars, and was only 11 years old when he started riding and repairing his own bike. Yet, it was in 1948 when he had his first professional go at age 14, which he won alongside his father. Although, when the race officials discovered and found out John’s age, they were disqualified from the race win. But that disqualification didn’t take away from the fact that the young Britain was hooked on racing, on two wheels and on four.
After getting his first factory-sponsored ride with the Nortons in 1955, Surtees accepted an offer to race for the MV Agusta factory racing team in 1965, leaving the Nortons due to financial issues that the team struggled with. Which set out to be a great decision as he secured his first 500cc World Championship that year. MV Agusta had no chance of winning the title against Gilera and Moto Guzzi, but once both of them withdrawled towards the end of the 1957 season, Surtees and MV Agusta went on to dominate the motorcycle game and competition in the two larger displacement classes. In 1958, 1959, and 1960, John took the Championship three times consecutively and won 32 out of the 39 races, becoming the first man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT for three years in a row. And later on, he would go on to become the first man to achieve another amazing and standing record.
Surtees was still racing motorcycles full time in 1959 when he got his first drive in Aston Martin’s first Le Mans-winning DBR1, but it was after his fourth Championship title when John Surtees switched from motorcycles full time to racing cars full-time. He made his Formula 1 debut in the 1960 BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone for Lotus. And the young Britain quickly turned heads with no hesitation after securing a second-place finish in only his second Formula One World race, at the 1960 British Grand Prix. You read that right, from someone who just switched from two wheels and succeeded immensely with motorcycles, he became someone who just achieved second place and a pole position at his third race at the 1960 Portuguese Grand Prix. That is when all the manufacturers and teams looked right at Surtees way, hoping that they could sign the multi-talented driver to their team.
1960 Solitude Grand Prix – Portugal
He was a young prodigy, and right when he achieved those podiums and pole positions in his first season, people already knew Surtees was special, but they also knew that he would become even more exceptional. John would jump from team to team until he found the right fit. He saw himself with the Yeoman Credit Racing Team driving a Cooper T53 in 1961, and he was driving for Bowmaker Racing Team in 1962 until he made the move to a team that would change his life and the motorsport world forever. In 1963, John Surtees made the move to Scuderia Ferrari, a move that would help prove John’s true talents and skills. Enzo Ferrari was a massive admirer of the bravery, equal skills, determination, and passion that Surtees had and hired him as his number one driver for the 1963 season. Shortly after his signing during the German Grand Prix at the ever-so-dangerous Nürburgring, John Surtees and Jim Clark were going wheel to wheel and had a wild and fierce battle that Surtees won, giving the biker his first Formula 1 victory, never looking back from that moment on.
Nicknamed “Big John” Surtees returned to the “Green Hell” and took another brutal and astounding Grand Prix win at the frightening and dangerous Nürburgring, beating the talented Graham Hill in his BRM. Big John was on a roll after taking another race victory at Monza, Italy, putting him in the Championship fight. Although it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine when he got there as he wasn’t the only contender for the famed title, Jim Clark and Graham Hill who also won two races in that season so far were battling for the championship as well. The Formula 1 World Championship fight went down to the line and was hanging by a string for John Surtees as the Mexican Grand Prix was coming up. Graham Hill entered that weekend leading the 1964 championship with 39 points, Surtees not far behind with 34 points, and Jim Clark catching up to the both of them with 30. Ferrari led the Constructors Championship with a prominent lead, but it was Surtees time to shine and bring Ferrari home with a double Championship. For John to capture the World Title Hill had to finish no better than forth, with Surtees in first or third.
Graham could take the championship if Clark didn’t win, and if Surtees did not do better than third. It was a crazily anticipating race, and anything could happen with those types of circumstances and positions. It must have been a thrill to see who would take advantage of the circumstances and win the desired title. As the weekend went on, it seemed that Jim Clark was the Champion to be, as he finished on pole with a time of 1:57:24. The fellow Britan also had a fantastic start you could call perfect compared to Surtees who had a slow start due to a strap on his goggles flying off, but that flying goggle strap didn’t stop John from making his way up the field. Hill started sixth, already having a bad start to the race as he was battling and narrowing down the gap with Ferrari’s Lorenzo Bandini, Bandini was putting all the pressure he could behind Hill. Lap by lap the fight became more aggressive with the two colliding together on lap 32, Hill was out of the race due to damage on his car, but Lorenzo was still in the Grand Prix. That was an unfortunate moment for Graham as the title slipped away from him, but perfect for John as he set his eyes on Jim.
The fight was narrowed down to Clark and Surtees. Ferrari brought a special blue and white livery that weekend, which manifested the one-of-a-king occasion that would occur. With John Surtees in the V8-powered Ferrari 158 F1 and Lorenzo in the V12 powered Ferrari, the prancing horse duo became unstoppable during the Mexican Grand Prix. John moved up to third place after the collision between Bandini and Hill, and with only 8 laps to go in the nerve racking race, Clark overshot at the chicane sliding on some oil, the then leading Scotsman didn’t think anything of it until he noticed that the oil on the track was coming from his car. An oil line had broken, and there was nothing he could do about it but to slow down and let Dan Gurney, John Surtees, and Lorenzo Bandini pass him, finishing on the podium in that special order.
The teamwork that day was essential for John, and his teammate, Bandini slowed down during the last laps to let his teammate and the future Champion pass him. The New Yorker took the victorious win at the Mexican Grand Prix, while John Surtees took the World Championship Title. The first and so far only motorcycle champion to do so in Formula 1, he remains as the only World Champion on both two and four wheels. John Surtees is a unique double Champion who had equal skill in both forms of racing, he proved himself to the world and became a household name across the globe. His feat is insanely impressive, but the most impressive part about it is that he was such a versatile talent, not many people, if no one, can say that they succeeded as champions in both motorcycle racing and Formula 1 racing. It was versatility, his bravery, and his determination that got him through to the top and create a record that will probably never be broken.