5 Reasons John Surtees Was Amazing

More than just another F1 great, British driver John Surtees stood apart even from his fellow champions.

John Surtees


If you have to pick just one reason John Surtees was a game-changing racing titan, it's this: he was, and remains, the only person to have won World Championships on both two and four wheels. In 1956, the young Surtees bagged his first 500cc motorcycle World Champion title, despite breaking his arm mid-season. He followed that up with more 500cc triumphs in 1958, 1959 and 1960. Then, having dominated motorcycling, he casually turned his attention to Formula 1, and became F1 World Champion in 1964. This unique feat sealed his place in history.


The son of a motorcycle dealer, by the time John Surtees was 11 he was already riding and repairing a bike of his own. Nicknamed "Bullet" at school, he was a confirmed speed junkie, and took part in his very first official race sitting in a sidecar racer with his father. They won the race, only to be disqualified when judges realised the 14-year-old Surtees was underage. It didn't matter: he'd been bitten by the racing bug, and nothing - not even a latter life-or-death disaster - would stop him.


In 1965, one year after becoming F1 World Champion, Surtees' career and life almost came to a savage end thanks to a crash while racing in Canada. His body was crushed by the weight of his car, causing internal organs to rupture, his pelvis to break and parts of his spine to dislodge. In fact, the collision left him literally lop-sided: four inches shorter on his left than his right.

His doctor in London was apoplectic, demanding on the phone that Surtees "not let the Americans get their hands on you". So, Surtees was duly strapped to a stretcher - or "mummified", in his own words - and flown all the way to the UK. There, the medics came up with an almost medieval solution for fixing his lop-sided body. As Surtees later put it, a "big, rugby-playing registrar" held him down while another doctor literally pulled his body back into alignment. Despite this whole shocking catastrophe, Surtees was back on the racing track as soon as he was well.


John's son Henry was a Formula 2 driver all set to follow in his footsteps as a racing great. But then, in 2009, a freak tragedy struck. During a race at Brands Hatch, a car ahead of Henry skidded off the track and smacked into a barrier. One of its wheels shot off and bounced back towards the track, just as Henry was driving past. The tyre struck him on the head, making him unconscious at the wheel. Henry's car was then seen running off the track and crashing.

Henry later died in hospital, aged just 18. It wasn't the crash that killed him, but the impact of the tyre on his head. John Surtees saw it all happen right in front of him, and was devastated, saying: "It was a freak accident, somebody else's accident, that killed him." Yet, in true Surtees fashion, he didn't let the shock overcome him, and he set up the Henry Surtees Foundation, which helps people with brain and other physical injuries to recover and return to the community.


You know you've made it in sport when you start getting really impressive-sounding nicknames. John Surtees had his share. In Italy, where his time with Ferrari made him a legend, he was hailed as the "Son of the Wind". He was also dubbed "John the Great" and "Fearless John". Fortunately, it didn't go to his head. After all, back in his day, F1 was far less glitzy and celebrity-packed than it is now. Years later, the subject of champagne was brought up, and the elderly Surtees said, "We didn't get it very often in my racing days. When we did we had a small swig, then shared it with the mechanics." A far cry from today, indeed.