Most famously known for winning world titles on both two and four wheels, John Surtees’ legacy will be remembered far beyond his achievements on the racetrack. Jennie Gow pays tribute the man fondly known as ‘Big John’, whose impact on British motorsport is long set to continue after his death.
There’s an old man standing at the bottom of the hill. He’s putting on archaic leathers as he looks to relive his youth. His once supple bones just about allow him to climb aboard his MV Agusta. He puts on his blue-banded helmet and his old style racing goggles and man and machine are united once again. Age is suddenly irrelevant as his shoulders round and he squirts the throttle… The old man isn’t any old man though, he is the only man to have won the World Championship on both 2 and 4 wheels. The old man is John Surtees. This old man is a legend.
I first met John Surtees at Silverstone in 2010, when I was presenting MotoGP for the BBC. It was one of THOSE moments, when someone you have read about, watched and respected for your whole life is suddenly standing in front of you and you have to attempt to open your mouth and form some sort of meaningful sentence. John smiled at me and gave me a reassuring tap on the shoulder. In that moment, I felt like he had welcomed me to the world of motorsport. John Surtees was like that – accepting and friendly, and never short of a good story.
Fast forward a couple of years and navigate yourself to the hill I spoke of at the start of this article: It is the Goodwood Festival of Speed and John is keen to get on his bike and race to the top of the hill, but it takes a considerable time to do this… not because of his age or the considerable number of years the bike has been around but because – old or young, famous or not – everyone wants to talk to John. Sebastian Vettel was there that year, having just won his second F1 world title the year before. The young German stood for ages talking to John about his bike, his cars and what it was like to do the impossible; to win a World title in a car and a bike at the very highest level.
A couple of years later and John had managed to fascinate even Kimi Raikkonen, who spoke with the British legend as the pair prepared to race their respective Ferraris up the hill.
John’s story was not just one of success and victory, though – It was cruelly touched by the greatest sadness one can face: the death of his son, Henry. In 2009, Henry was taking part in a Formula 2 race when he was struck by a loose tyre. His parents, John and Jane, were there at Brands Hatch watching the race…watching their son die in the most horrific manner.
It was a heartbreak that would have seen many walk away from the sport forever. But John decided he wanted to remember and pay tribute to his son by setting up two charities: ‘Headway’ and the ‘Henry Surtees Foundation’, for recovery from head injuries and for the training of young people.
Up until very recently, John could still be seen at various motorsport events. And every year, we would push for John to become ‘Sir John Surtees’, something that for the life of me I have no idea why it never happened.
John was a four-time 500cc motorcycle World Champion – winning that title in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960 – the Formula One World Champion in 1964, and remains the only person to have won World Championships on both two and four wheels. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire at the end of 2015, but the knighthood never came. Perhaps it will now.
One final thought that brought a tear to my eye as I read the news that John had passed away… The thought that Henry will be waiting for him. No doubt, the two of them will now be able to have a blooming good catch up about the last few years. And that made me smile, a lot.