How Surtees became a motorcycling and F1 World Champion

Told by the late, great John Surtees, part two of this exclusive feature interview on the MotoGP™ Podcast is now available

It’s time for the fascinating part two of the MotoGP™ Podcast feature with the late, great John Surtees and after the origin of the British motorsport star’s story in part one, you can now hear John delve into his greatest successes, beginning with the story of how he took his first World Championship on two wheels in 1956 – from a hospital bed in Stuttgart.

“I suppose it’s back to the TT and the 350 class,” begins Surtees. “I lost that TT and the possibility of winning after we ran out of fuel. And the 350 World Championship, I had the opportunity of also possibly getting it but I had very strong opposition from Moto Guzzi and in the race in Solitude, Germany just outside of Stuttgart, I was dicing for the lead which meant I was giving it a little bit more, little bit more, little bit more… and I’m not entirely certain what happened but I probably clipped the edge and got some sand because I lost the front end.

“It chucked me off, I rolled over and I’d had been already but there happened to have been a loch there by the side of the road and I broke my arm! In fact, I wasn’t quite sure of the day this happened but I came into hospital in Stuttgart and the doctor said, ‘you have broken your humorous!’

“I didn’t find it funny at all. He said ‘that bone on the right and we are going to nail you’ - which of course meant a pin. So here’s me leading the 500cc World Championship, having lost the chance of winning the 350, and the Ulster Grand Prix still to take place - if Walter Zeller or Geoff Duke won those races, then they could have beaten me to the championship. You didn’t have television or anything like that so with my mother who had stayed out, we got a little radio to listen to it and pick up the Ulster Grand Prix to find out how the results went. Fortunately, neither of them did, so I got the World Championship!”

From there, we hear about his two-wheeled highlights during the period he took six World titles in just three years. In 1960, he made the bold switch to four wheels and Formula One in what was true Surtees style.

“It was all by accident, like a lot of things in my life. A lot of things turn out and lead in one direction. I hadn’t thought about it… I’d enjoyed driving my 507 and driving cars but they were largely transported between A & B because remember we used to drive to most of the races in those days. The question of motorcycles and my continuing was a case of where I hadn’t of thought anything different until Agusta had said that I can’t ride any other bikes and my race programme would be reduced to a very small number.

“Now, I loved riding my bikes and racing, I didn’t want to sit around twiddling my thumbs and so when I couldn’t also ride perhaps in the 250 class, which I asked to do, I looked to other things! That was when I thought having tried a race car one year beforehand, I thought ‘why not? There’s nothing in my contract to stop me driving a car. When I’m not racing my motorcycle, I’ll race something else, which is a four-wheeler!’...”

Even for a talent like Surtees, making the switch from two to four wheels wasn’t easy. Here’s an excellent quote from John about an F3 Goodwood race: “I made a big mistake in that race for a moment where I forgot I had four wheels and tried to go through a gap which was too small and ended up going out onto the grass. But I managed to recover enough to finish 2nd!”

And later on, we hear about the crucial move to Ferrari and taking that four-wheeled world title in 1964. Finishing off the episode, we hear about John's later life, particularly his work with the Henry Surtees Foundation, the charity set up in memory of his son who tragically died in a motor racing crash at Brands Hatch back in 2009.

Listen and enjoy part one and part two of the Surtees feature now!

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