John Surtees, 1934-2017, A Peerless Racer

The term GOAT - Greatest of all Time - is bandied around rather a lot these days. I have always found it a rather unsatisfying phrase, as the radical changes in every aspect of motorcycle racing make it impossible to compare the achievements of the riders who raced in very different eras. How do you compare riders who won on 15 kilometer tree-lined street circuits to riders who spent all their time racing on the ultrasafe short circuits, replete with run off and air fence? How do you compare victory on a 500cc single cylinder Norton or a four-cylinder MV Agusta or Gilera housed in a frame that was little more than some steel tubing connecting the wheels via rudimentary suspension, to the screaming two strokes of the late nineties, or the fire-breathing 990cc four strokes barely tamed by electronics, or the ultra-finicky and precise 800cc four strokes which required a deep understanding of extracting potential for electronic management? How do you compare the ability to manage the rock-hard rubber of grooved cross-ply tires to the pursuit of 64° lean angles on fat modern radials made of exotic blends of silicon and rubber?

It is impossible, yet there are some names whose achievements are so profound that they rise above the rest, regardless of circumstances, and set themselves apart in the annals of history. If they use of the phrase GOAT is questionable, there are some riders who are obviously among the most significant of all time. They made the biggest impact.

John Surtees, who died to day aged 83, was just such a rider. Others, with a greater grasp of racing history, can do his legacy much greater justice than I can - if you read just one obituary of Surtees, then make it this dual profile of the man on Motor Sport Magazine, by Mat Oxley and top F1 journalist Mark Hughes.

The fact that it is a dual profile is what marks Surtees out for greatness. Not only was Surtees a multiple world champion on two wheels, winning seven titles in the six seasons he raced in Grand Prix, he also became the only person ever to add a Formula One title to his Grand Prix motorcycling crowns. 

The reason for the switch to four wheels lies enclosed in the astonishing statistics Surtees posted as a motorcycle racer. Through six full seasons and a single race in 1952, Surtees started 49 races. He won 38 of those races, an astonishing rate of 78%. He finished on the podium in further seven races, putting his podium rate at 92%. Of every ten races Surtees entered, he would win eight and finish on the podium in the ninth.

Yet he was only competing at six or seven Grand Prix events every year, and races sanctioned by his employer at MV Agusta, Count Domenico Agusta. Though Surtees was a factory rider, this was still the late 1950s, and riders were not growing wealthy on their factory salaries. To make a good living, riders needed the extra income from start money offered at the many individual and national races held around Europe. The Count banned Surtees from competing in other motorcycle races, so Surtees jumped into cars. He proved as quick on four wheels as he had been on two, and he was soon being offered factory seats in Formula One cars.

Surtees had an immediate feel for speed. The son of a motorcycle dealer, he started in the chair of his father's sidecar, winning the first professional race he entered with his father, before being disqualified for being underage. When he switched to riding on his own, he gave the legendary Geoff Duke a run for his money at an ACU race, at the age of 17. He clinched his first premier class title at just 22 years of age, the fifth youngest rider to do so, behind Marc Marquez, Freddie Spencer, Casey Stoner, and Mike Hailwood.

He was just as quick when he jumped in a car. His first outing in a race car was at Goodwood, and he lapped there faster than F1 legend Stirling Moss ever managed in the same car. Once he started racing, he was immediately battling with legends such as Moss, Jim Clark, and Ken Tyrrell. In 1964, he added an F1 title to his 500cc and 350cc titles. As on two wheels, with an iconic Italian marque, Ferrari.

Eighty three might be considered a ripe old age, and Surtees was fit and active throughout his life to the end. He overcame the tragedy of losing a son to racing by setting up a charity in his name, the Henry Surtees Foundation, to assist people who are injured in accidents, especially victims of head and brain injury.

Yet it is still a tragedy to lose one of the true legends of motor sport. There is a certain cruel irony that Surtees should die on the same day as Barry Sheene, who succumbed to cancer on 10th March 2003, fourteen years ago. But Surtees will live on in the memory of race fans, and the annals of racing history, forever.

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Comments

A fine man whose talents and spirit have rarely, if ever, been equalled. Judging athletes and racers across eras, we always hear the qualifying comments of speed, equipment, tracks, teams, rules etc. etc...Whatever the conditions, circumstances, rules etc...they were the same for all competititors...and yet the great ones stand above and beyond and the greatest rise even higher... 

Not the kind of news I like to read David, but a nice eulogy . With every passing of these legends I can't help think that we are a little poorer without them. I also have to wonder if you could put them all in their prime together on a track  what incredible racing we would witness!


RIP John Surees (Race In Perpetuity)


I've been trying to figure out to verbalize it today. Well done.