March 10th saw the demise of a Motorcycle and Car racing legend. John Surtees CBE.
John Surtees died at the age of 83 on the 10th March. He was much more of a local hero to me and many of my generation who followed motor cycling and car racing and he was the only person in history to win World Championships in both Motor Cycling and Formula 1 Car Racing.
Crystal Palace racing circuit was a regular haunt of ours as a family, it was close to where we lived and we spent many a weekend there enjoying the variety of events the organisers put on.
Of all the British circuits it was a fantastic place to be a spectator there. It had a natural, open environment which put everyone attending events at ease. Just watching the excitement of so many racing machines competing on its wonderful sweeping bends was a real pleasure. Being a very tight course made the racing very exciting and challenging for both riders and drivers alike.
Crystal Palace had a racing circuit built around 1899 and was one of the oldest of its type in the world. Being of that age meant it which required several ‘re-engineerings’ to keep it fit for purpose for high speed racing events particularly as peoples enthusiasm for racing venues grew and with it competition from other circuits.
It considered itself a peoples racetrack, proclaiming itself as’ London’s own circuit.’ The course was closed for around 13 years from the start of the Second World War and went into decline but it reopened in 1953 when it exploded back to racing life.
As youngsters in that 50’s era we were privileged to watch many of the iconic 2 and 4 wheel racing names and particularly a young man by the name of John Surtees. From our regular viewpoint on the hill and bend following the straight watching Surtees heading the motorcycle race pack at full speed and gracefully sweeping around the bend almost touching the ground with his knee was the purest form of mechanical and human expertise fused into one high speed blur.
The rising thrill of hearing the approaching screaming and whining noise of engine revolutions and gear changes as he approached the tight chicanes, gently tilting with the lean and direction of the track. The sheer grace of his movement typified the moulding of man, machine and racing skill.
In the hot, smelly, chaotic world of Motorcycling mayhem John Surtees in the saddle was an art form in itself, admired and revered amongst all madcap racing addicts. That was the magic of the man and his enormous appeal. He was known as a quiet deep thinking and polite person, unlike so many of the overpaid and largely egotistical ‘super stars’ of this modern era. Amazingly, he was able to switch his competitive racing brain and skills onto four wheels becoming a World Champion Formula 1 driver as well as rider. To be able to follow your hero in, effectively two different sports was an immense bonus for us. Sadly for us our spectatorship of Surtees at Crystal Palace racetrack came to an abrupt end when Reg Parnell approached ‘our’ bend a little too fast, hit the barriers and lifted off before his car landed on our picnic rug. It was Reg’s last competitive race and ours too. The hill we watched from was deemed a major safety hazard and the loss of our, and many other regular spectators, position was lost for ever. It was also regarded as a little too much excitement by our Mum who, after losing our picnic rug to the car, oil and petrol of Parnell’s lift off decided that enough was enough and our picnics at the Palace stopped. Crystal Palace closed in 1972
Surtees parents ran a South London Motorcycle dealership in Croydon which no doubt gave him a distinct edge with motorbikes. It was the ending of an age when Britain was the powerhouse of motorcycle engineering giving way to the Italians and Japanese imports and the demise of many British marques. It was in the shadows of the famous Crystal Palace racing circuit where john developed many of his racing skills. He was our local man on the track. We loved him and followed his exploits everywhere.
The 1950’s and 1960’s was the start of a decline of British involvement in motorcycling racing and Surtees , being fully immersed in the family business went on, with the support of his parents, into Motor Cycle sidecar racing. Surtees father, Jack, riding the motorcycle: John in the sidecar. Anyone who has ever ridden in a speeding sidecar let alone hanging over the sides applying corrective human weight to stop the machine from leaving the track around the bends a mere fraction of inches from the speeding ground will know just how dangerous and frightening that is, particularly if in the early teenage years!
They won their first professional event although were later disqualified because John was underage to race. On leaving school at 16 years old he was given an opportunity to work for Vincent Motorcycles as an apprentice. His parent’s dealership was a Vincent supplier at that time. He quickly developed as a rider and came to public notice in a race at the Thruxton racing circuit in Hampshire where he had the audacity to present himself as a very strong challenger to top motorcycling star Geoff Duke who rode for Norton at that time.
John Surtees won his first race in 1950 in South Wales. He eventually joined Norton’s in 1955 and completed his first year with them by beating then World Champion Geoff Duke at Silverstone and at Brands Hatch. When Norton hit financial problems he joined MV Augusta where in 1956 he won the 500cc world championship but his win was overshadowed by a 6 month ban on Geoff Duke for a riders strike. In 1958, 59 and 60 he was unbeatable winning each years 350cc Championships and the 500cc Championships. In all winning 32 races and becoming the first rider to win the Senior TT races in the Isle of Man for the 3 successive years. In all John Surtees won seven motorbike world championships riding for MV Augusta.
At 26 years of age and at the top of his motorcycle career John Surtees switched to car racing for Team Lotus. In only his second Formula 1 race in the British Grand Prix he managed an amazing second place. Changing teams a number of times he moved to Ferrari in 1963 and won the World Championship with them in 1964.
In 1965 in Ontario, Canada John Surtees had a serious accident during a practice session which left his body lop-sided by 4 inches. Medics repaired much of the damage without surgery effectively having to stretch his body to address the differing side body lengths. They achieved a 75% correction but he was to remain an inch undersize on one side for the rest of his life.
He stayed with Ferrari driving their new Formula 1 cars competing with Jack Brabham and Jackie Stewart but in 1966 Ferrari refused to let him drive in the Le Mans 24 hours citing fitness worries over the 24 hours race following his 1965 accident which caused him to quit Ferrari. This most likely cost John Surtees and Ferrari the FI World Championship. He finished second to Jack Brabham and Ferrari finished second in the manufacturers championship. Surtees signed for Honda at the end of 1966 but despite bringing them their second Formula 1 victory he finished 4th in the 1967 Championship. In 1970 he started running his own team, Surtees Racing Organisation. The company competed in Formula 1 & Formula 2 as a constructor. He retired from competitive driving in 1972 when his SRO team won the European Formula 2 championship with Mike Hailwood who also made the switch from motorcycling to car racing. Surtees Racing Organisation closed in 1978.
In retirement Surtees ran a number of car and motorcycle businesses but continued his involvement in both car and motorcycle classic events. He was inducted into the international motor sports Hall of Fame in 1966. He was awarded an MBE and in 2008 was given an OBE. His CBE was awarded in the 2016 New Years Honours List for services to Motor sport.