“My sympathies are known for former motorcyclists, who have experience, mechanical knowledge, are used to speed, have a competitive sense and, last but not least, are industrious and humble. John Surteeswas one of these and summarised all these qualities I have listed.” That’s how Enzo Ferrari summed up the driver born in the small Surrey village of Tatsfield, an amazing motorcycle champion who was also a phenomenon in a car and is the only man to have won the world championship on two and four wheels.
Born in 1934, Surtees knew Italy, the Italians and their ability to build winning machines. He loved challenges and his initiative meant he had the courage to go against the flow, for example when he left the English Norton team to join the Italians at MV Agusta. It immediately paid off, because in his first year in 1956, he won the biggest prize, the 500 class championship. In 1958, ’59 and ’60, Surtees dominated the 500 and 350 classes, collecting six world titles in three years.
In 1960, it was time for a new challenge: Formula 1. At first it wasn’t full time and John made his debut in the top four wheeled category, immediately showing great talent, in a works Lotus-Climax in the second race of his career in England where he came second. Then in Portugal, he started from pole for the first time. At the end of the year, Surtees was contacted by Enzo Ferrari, who offered him a drive, but the Englishman said he felt he was not yet ready to drive for such an important team. An agreement was reached at the end of 1962 for the following season.
His association with Ferrari got off to an excellent start when John on his first outing for the Scuderia, teamed with Lodovico Scarfiotti, won the Sebring 12 Hours at the wheel of a 250 P. In Formula 1, in the 156 F1-63, in the first five races of the season he came second in Great Britain, third in Holland and fourth in Monaco. The German Grand Prix was held on 4 August at the Nurburgring. The track surface was in a very poor condition after a particularly hard winter and pushing flat out was even riskier than usual. The condition of the road led to far more suspension failures than usual, with very serious accidents such as the ones that befell Bruce McLaren and Belgium’s Willy Mairesse, which cost the life of a Red Cross volunteer, Gunther Schneider.
Jim Clark took pole position in the factory Lotus-Climax in 8’45”8. In 1963, the Scotsman had won all the races up to that point, apart from Monaco which went to Graham Hill in the BRM and he was on the verge of taking his first world title. Surtees was second fastest in 8’46”7, while third was the promising Lorenzo Bandini in the Scuderia Centro-Sud BRM, although he was no less than 8”5 slower than the quickest.
Clark got away well, unlike Surtees who was fifth by the first corner, behind Richie Ginther in the BRM, Tony Maggs in the Cooper and Bandini. But it only took a few laps for the battle for the win to come down to a fight between the Scotsman and the Englishman. The Ferrari man realised that the Lotus was suffering with ignition problems and would sometimes cut out. Surtees overtook Clark several times but, when his car was working well, the Lotus driver was peerless at the Nurburgring and each time he got ahead again. Surtees was clever enough to know that it was not worth taking too many risks on such a dangerous and bumpy track, so he settled for pushing his rival whenever he could.
At half distance, Clark gave best, realising after being passed by Surtees yet again that it wasn’t worth risking his life and his car with even more acrobatic moves just to stay ahead of the Ferrari and he could see it was not easy to push the seven times motorcycle world champion into making a mistake. It was unprecedented and Germany would turn out to be the only race in which he came second in his entire amazing career.
From then on, Surtees just had to manage the situation and despite the annoying rain that began to fall on the final lap nothing jeopardised his taking of his maiden victory in the sport’s top category. It was the very first time that a motorcycle world champion had won a Formula 1 Grand Prix. The newspapers duly wrote of the “hero of two worlds” but Surtees had much greater ambitions for his future that he would put into place from the very next season.