John Surtees: The forgotten knight

Jawad Yaqub Roar Guru

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    One of world motorsport’s rare and unique talents, John Surtees, passed away last week, succumbing to respiratory failure at the age of 83.

    ‘Softly spoken’ as described by many and equally humble, the Briton is a true idol, having achieved which no other racer has in history – having been world champion on both two and four wheels.

    In one of the most treacherous eras of grand prix racing in both disciplines, Surtees established himself as a consistent force to be reckoned with.

    His grand prix motorcycling racing career which spaned nine years, yielded seven titles across the 500cc category (the MotoGP equivalent of the time), as well as three crowns in the 350cc middleweight class.

    Surtees’ feats on two wheels were achieved in a golden period for the sport, in which riders were permitted to contest multiple classes. Across that near decade that Surtees rode in, he would often challenge all three classes on the roster.

    Even three victories at the formidable Snaefell Mountain course which today comprises the coveted Isle of Mantime trialrace, is an achievement to marvel at, when delving through the rich archives that comprises Surtees’ career.

    As if success on two wheels didn’t already cement his status as a legend of world motorsport, Surtees made the bold switch to grand prix racing on four wheels – being Formula One.

    In 111 starts, the Briton was able to win six races and stand on the podium 24 times across the 12 years that Surtees spent contesting open-wheel racing’s premier category – in again, one of the most dangerous periods for the sport.

    Moving to Ferrari in 1963 was what thrusted the star on two wheels, into the fierce field of competitors in which the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and Aussie world champion Jack Brabham were present.

    The following year saw Surtees clinch his maiden Formula One title, narrowly ousting Hill by a single point on countback of the best six results of that season. Ferrari also claimed the double too, with the constructor’s trophy going back to Maranello for only the second time in the team’s illustrious history.

    From racer to team owner, Surtees formed his own outfit which operated between 1970 to 1978 across Formula One, Formula 2 and Formula 5000.

    Despite not really making an impact on Formula One as a top team, one of their highlights was the first of only two podiums achieved for the squad in 1972, by fellow motorcycle world champion in Mike Hailwood.

    The Surtees’ Racing Team has also fielded some famous Australian motorsport identities with 1980 Formula One champion Alan Jones, touring car great in Larry Perkins and renowned open-wheeler Tim Schenken all having had the opportunities to drive for the Briton.

    Most prior to his passing and perhaps the most poignant piece of work that Surtees had undertook, was his pursuit for increased safety in open-wheel racing – following the tragic death of his son Henry in 2009 in a Formula 2 event at Brands Hatch.

    With such incredible feats in racing career and even outside with the charitable work for the Racing Steps Foundation and the Henry Surtees Foundation, it has baffled many that a Briton of his stature was never knighted.

    As archaic as the entire concept of knighthoods are in today’s world, it is a title that would have cemented Surtees’ presence as a legend in the greater sphere of international sport.

    Who knows if motorsport will ever see a champion from two wheels ever cross over and attain success on four again, or vice versa. The prospect of a Valentino Rossi adding a Formula One world championship to his trophy cabinet, or conversely a Lewis Hamilton triumphing in MotoGP is truly spectacular.

    If that day ever comes, so be it. But until then we have one of motorsport’s most humble and fabled individuals to remember for achieving this astonishing feat. Vale, Sir John Surtees.

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