Former F1 and motorcycle world champ John Surtees has died
John Surtees CBE, who passed away earlier today aged 83, was a true giant – and gentleman – of motorsport. Not least because his death robs us of the only man ever to win world championships on two wheels and four, accomplished in an era that was fraught with danger. It was an astonishing achievement, one that is unlikely ever to be repeated.In fact, John won seven motorcycle world titles, with MV Agusta, as well as the Formula One drivers championship in 1964, competing for that little-known Italian outfit Ferrari. Two years later, he won the first Can-Am championship, and later signed with Honda as it began establishing itself in F1.Surtees also fought back from career-threatening injuries, following an accident while racing at Mosport Park in Canada. His left side was pushed up by four and a half inches, the bottom of his spine knocked off, and he suffered internal bleeding. Friend and former team owner Tony Vandervell arranged for him to be flown home by BA, and John was mummified during the flight to minimise his movement. Three months later, he was lowered back into a racing car dangling from the A-frame that teams used to install engines…Surtees was as formidable a man outside the cockpit as he was committed behind the wheel, and his steeliness led him to forming his own racing squad in 1970, the Surtees Racing Organisation. The team competed in Formula 5000, Formula 2, and Formula One; the late, great Mike Hailwood – himself as gifted on two wheels as he was on four – won the European F2 title for Surtees in 1972.John didnt drift idly into retirement. When the team ceased operating in 1978, he remained highly active and an extremely astute observer of motor racing and the way it was evolving. Latterly, his son Henry proved himself to be a talented young racer, and had worked his way up to Formula 2 when he was struck on the head and killed, aged just 18, by an untethered wheel during a race at Brands Hatch in July 2009.His family coped with this dreadful tragedy with remarkable resilience, and John dedicated himself to fundraising for the Henry Surtees Foundation, set up to honour his sons memory. Kents air ambulances have benefited from the money raised, and many lives have been saved as a result.I was fortunate to spend a day with John at his home in Kent back in 2013, and listening to him recount tales from his career – both the high points and the low – was unquestionably one of the greatest privileges Ive had. In particular, the way in which he discussed the impact of his sons death was profoundly moving. Surtees was a tough man, and he did not suffer fools gladly. Like many of his generation, he liked things to be done a certain way. But he was also an individual of rare compassion and generosity.In his autobiography, Enzo Ferrari – a man who was pointedly unimpressed by most things – had this to say\: “My predilection for motorcycle racers is a known fact. They have experience, mechanical know-how, skill for speed, and a background of humble work. [Surtees] was an energetic fighter who never held anything back.”TopGear extends its deepest sympathies to Johns wife Jane, and his daughters Leonora and Edwina.