John Surtees was an exceptional polymath with petrol running through his veins

John Surtees was an exceptional polymath with petrol in his blood
John Surtees completed the transition from Motorcycling to Formula One Credit: EPA

Il Grande Gianni, the Italians called him. Big John. Actually, John Surtees was a man of sparrow-like leanness all his life, but his feats behind a wheel belonged in the realm of the monumental. His distinction as the only driver ever to win world titles on two wheels as well as four, one likely to be retained long beyond his death yesterday at the age of 83, is one before which even the stars of Formula One melt in deference.

“It was great to meet you, legend,” wrote Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, pointing to a picture of the pair of them shaking hands on the podium at the 2014 British Grand Prix. Murray Walker, voice of the sport for over half a century and a fellow racer with Surtees when Brands Hatch was still a grass track in the 1940s, described his friend’s passing as an “absolute hammer blow”.

Try to imagine it today: a motorcyclist, a seven-time world champion admittedly, hopping into an F1 car and seizing the title four years later. It is motorsport’s equivalent of a concert pianist discovering that he can also play violin to the standard of Yehudi Menuhin. Of course, plenty of the skills are complementary, but Surtees, an incorrigible perfectionist, reached a consistency of excellence without equal.

Damon Hill, like Surtees, began his career on motorbikes but found his ambitions stymied when one reporter wrote that he “did not look destined for great things”. Valentino Rossi, such a maverick genius on a Yamaha, has long hinted at a reinvention in F1, but the transition has never come to pass. It is one thing to talk about such a daunting sea change, quite another to accomplish it. Surtees mastered it with alacrity.

Only the very few can convince Italian aficionados of their driving prowess, and Surtees, who treated his sleek MV Agusta with a subtlety that made it seem almost an extension of his body, was heralded as figlio del vento, the son of the wind.

John Surtees was a seven-time world motor cycling champion  Credit: Getty Images

The shock of this loss is magnified by the lucidity with which he was recalling his greatest glories just four weeks ago, on his 83rd birthday. Nothing animated him, it appeared, quite like romantic recollections of how he became smitten by his sport.

At the earliest juncture, there was petrol in his veins. His father, Jack, has made his name as a sidecar racer, and Surtees spent much of his childhood as the self-described “trainee mechanic”, even piecing together his first bike, a cherished old Wallis-Blackburne Speedway, when he was 11.

Even while he was not allowed anywhere near a track, he would ride his creation on the cinder footpath that surrounded it.

His first race, Surtees would cheerfully admit, was not exactly a harbinger of greatness. It was a filthy wet day, and he found himself flung from his 500cc Excelsior “in every way you can imagine”. Surtees snr was perturbed, but not prepared to thwart the dream. “Lad, I think that it’s a bit big for you,” he advised.

F1 legend John Surtees reunited with Can-Am wining Lola T70 F1 legend John Surtees reunited with Can-Am wining Lola T70
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Determined to channel his setbacks constructively, Surtees morphed into quite the prodigy. Having prevailed in his first championship race in 1954, he reeled off a stunning sequence of dominance in Italy, where he moved after being approached by Count Domenico Agusta at the team’s factory in Gallarate. The switch was not without its stresses. At one point, Surtees found himself inspected up and down by an elderly lady in a veil, who turned out to be Agusta’s mother. The count, breaking into a reassuring smile, informed him at last that he had been accepted into the family.

His talent was so self-evident that the Italian press wrote that Surtees did not need an Agusta to win. The verdict infuriated Agusta himself, who banned him from entering any races outside the world championship. However uneasy the rapprochement, their relationship worked: by 1960, Surtees had amassed seven titles in four years, with both 350 and 500cc engines.

The gravitation to F1 nearly did not happen at all. Lacking a television, he had never even watched a car race by the time the opportunity arose. But it was over dinner at a Sportsman of the Year function on Park Lane, where Mike Hawthorn, just anointed world champion with Ferrari, was at the same table. “John, try a car sometime,” Hawthorn suggested, mischievously. “They stand up easier.” Making his debut for Lotus in Monaco in 1960, in what was also his first visit to the principality, he had an instant impact. Runner-up at the British Grand Prix, just his second race, he ought to have won at his next outing in Estoril, where he led by 26 seconds before an unfortunate clip with some straw bales on the back straight.

John Surtees in conversation with Bernie Ecclestone Credit: Getty Images

Ultimately, his gifts would be brought to the fruition they deserved.

Surtees claimed the 1964 title in an extraordinary denouement in Mexico City, where the chances of rival Graham Hill were derailed by a collision with Lorenzo Bandini. He could have won a second with Ferrari in 1966, had he not been embroiled in an ugly falling out with team manager Eugenio Dragoni, which prompted Surtees to quit the sport on the spot.

His last years were disfigured by tragedy, after the death of his son, Henry, in a Formula Two race in 2009. And yet even amid unspeakable pain, he turned his grief to some good, establishing the Henry Surtees Foundation to help those recovering from brain injuries. The continued success of that charity would represent the richest tribute to motorsport’s most extraordinary polymath.

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