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Legends: John Surtees

Submitted by on June 4, 2012


John Surtees left motorcycle racing at age 26 with the number one on his machine. It’s a fact quoted many times since Casey Stoner announced that he’s retiring.

At the end of 1960, Surtees still had a year to run on his motorcycle contract, having won four 500 and three 350 championships for the Meccanica Verghera Agusta. However, he was chaffing at MV not allowing him to ride in non-championship meetings and he had already finished on the podium in the 1960 British F1 GP at Silverstone.

Uniquely, Surtees won premier-class titles on two and four wheels. He has the best win ratio in premier-class bike GP history, with 22 victories from 34 starts.


John was the only son of leading grass-track sidecar racer Jack Surtees and served an apprenticeship at Vincent in Stevenage. As a teenage racer, he would contest two or three meetings on a long weekend, with his mother doing the driving.

After one season on factory Nortons, MV hired Surtees in 1956 and he won the world 500 crown at age 22. He was double champion in 1958-59-60, in the period dubbed the Dark Ages due to reduced factory involvement.

Surtees developed a new riding style to use the powerful MV fours to their potential. Doyen tech writer Vic Willoughby described him as “a formidable rider and the answer to a development engineer’s prayers.

john_surtees world champ

“The style had two elements; first, hanging his body well inside the bike to keep the bike itself upright and so prevent the wide engine from grounding; second, the use of controlled rear wheel drift.”

If there is a lasting image of ‘Big John’ at his peak, it was drifting the MV or a powerful racing car at Spa-Francorchamps or Monza. In 1983 he told Australian journalists those were the next most satisfying things to sex.

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