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John Surtees: Former F1 world champion was a ‘towering figure’

John Surtees earned the nickname ‘figlio del vento’ for his blistering speed

John Surtees, who has died aged 83, is the only man to have won a grand prix world championship on two and four wheels.

A brilliant motorcyclist who dominated the top 500cc class for much of the late 1950s, Surtees moved on to cars and immediately established himself as a leading figure, winning the Formula 1 championship for Ferrari in 1964.

Through the mid-1960s he was one of the towering figures in F1 along with Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Dan Gurney.

The son of a south London motorbike dealer, Surtees was a teenage prodigy on racing bikes and, after making his name in national races, he took the world championship by storm when he was given a factory MV Agusta ride in 1955.

His blistering speed earned him the nickname ‘figlio del vento’ – son of the wind – and he won the world title in 1956 and again from 1958-60.

Surtees had already made a name for himself while still competing on two wheels. He finished second in only his second Formula 1 race, the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix while driving for Lotus, and at the end of the season he switched to cars full time after winning his fourth bike title.

Two years in privateer teams followed, in which he did enough to catch the eye of Enzo Ferrari, who drafted him into his team in 1963. Immediately Surtees became a major contender.

Sports Personality: 1959 winner John Surtees

His first win came in his first season with Ferrari at the German Grand Prix, held at the daunting Nurburgring, and he won the title the following season in a close fight with fellow Englishmen Clark and Hill, who drove for Lotus and BRM.

The championship went down to a remarkable decider at the final race in Mexico City. Hill went into the race as the favourite, five points ahead of Surtees and nine ahead of Clark.

But Hill was delayed by a collision with Surtees’ team-mate Lorenzo Bandini. Clark was then on course to win after dominating from the front, but was forced to stop on the last lap with an oil leak.

Surtees won his first Formula 1 World Championship in 1964, one point ahead of Graham Hill

Seeing the Scot’s problems, Ferrari ordered Bandini to let Surtees by into second place, which gave him the title by one point from Hill.

Through the mid-1960s, Surtees was one of the leading drivers of an era particularly rich in talent.

His Ferrari could not compete with Clark’s dominant Lotus in 1965, and despite 1966 starting well with a win in the second race of the season, Surtees walked out on the team following a row with team manager Eugenio Dragoni.

Surtees was Ferrari’s team leader, but Dragoni dropped him from the line-up for the Le Mans 24-hour race after a rule change demanded only two drivers per car.

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When Surtees asked for an explanation, Dragoni told him that he did not think he was fit enough to race for 24 hours as a result of injuries he had sustained in a serious accident in a Can-Am race in the US in late 1965. Surtees quit on the spot.

The decision was perfectly understandable in the context but it almost certainly cost him a second world title, for the Ferrari was more than competitive enough in his hands to have beaten eventual winner Jack Brabham.

Instead, Surtees found a temporary home at Cooper, before moving to the new factory Honda team in 1967.

He won for them in Italy and finished fourth in the championship, but the team left F1 at the end of the following year, partly because of the death of Frenchman Jo Schlesser in one of their cars.

Surtees had counselled against racing a new car with a body made of magnesium for lightness and an engine cooled by air rather than water because he felt it was unsafe.

But the team overruled him and gave the car to Schlesser to drive at his home race. He crashed at a fast downhill right-hander after just two laps. With almost an entire race’s worth of fuel onboard and made of magnesium, the car caught fire immediately and Schlesser had no chance.

After two years with BRM, Surtees formed his own team in 1970, initially as a driver-cum-team boss, before retiring from full-time racing at the end of 1971 to concentrate on running the outfit.

John Surtees’ own team, Surtees Racing, had less successful ventures than its boss. The team’s best finish was third in the 1973 US Grand Prix

But it was not a success. After several uncompetitive seasons the team failed to find enough sponsorship to continue after 1978 and was disbanded.

Surtees stayed involved in motor racing, competing in classic events for cars and bikes, and in 2005-7 was chairman of the British team in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series.

After that, he helped guide the nascent career of his son Henry, who was killed aged 18 in an accident in a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch in 2009.

In the wake of his son’s death, John set up the Henry Surtees Foundation to help people recovering from brain and physical injuries return to society and to support motorsport-related educational programmes.

He was widely admired as a warm character who was generous with his time, and many will echo the words of Damon Hill, who has known him well since childhood. “Such a lovely man. We have lost a true motorsport legend,” said the 1996 world champion.


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