surtees’ unique achievement
how amazing was John surtees’ ability to win World championships on two
wheels and four? We asked another bike ace about the (re-)learning curve.
alentino Rossi seriously considered it;
Giacomo Agostini tried it too late in his
career; Mike Hailwood was good; so, too,
was Eddie Lawson. But only John Surtees
switched from racing motorcycles to racing
cars and maintained the same dedication,
the same determination to do justice to his
talent. It’s only right, therefore, that he
reached a similar level of success in each.
Surtees was brilliant and bull-headed,
fast and forthright, and fifty years after
he became the 1964 Formula 1 World
Champion, the magnitude of his unique
achievement is undiminished. In ’ 56, aged
22, he earned his first 500cc Motorcycle
World Championship. He’d win three more,
along with three 350cc titles, by the time
he quit bikes…just four seasons later.
“We’re talking about a hero of mine,”
says 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin
Schwantz, when asked about Surtees’
standing in motorsports. “Even if he’d just
done what he did on bikes, he should be
a hero to anyone who’s road raced.
“Think about it: this is a guy who’d
reached the top of his sport, won everything
there was to win – many times over, in fact –
by his mid-20s! Then he looked around and
thought, ‘OK, done that. What’s next?’”
What was next for Surtees was a
startlingly swift transition to cars. In
1960, the same year he scored his final
500 and 350 titles, he ran three F1
Grands Prix. He qualified 15th at Monaco,
finished second at Silverstone, and
started from the pole in Portugal.
Schwantz, who ended his bike career
three races into the 1995 season, just
before he turned 31, thereafter tried to
get a similar fix on four wheels and recalls
the transition – in his case, to occasional
drives in the Porsche 911 Supercup – as
a mixture of fun and frustration.
“It was entertaining,” he recalls, “but it
was hard to find the balance of a Porsche.
The 911s of the ’90s were very tail-happy!
Also, I think I was driving like I’d been riding,
at least in the races – sling it up the inside,
then improvise from whatever situation
I put myself into. But in cars, that doesn’t
work; you lose too much momentum.
“So that’s one of the most impressive
aspects of Mr. Surtees’ move from two
wheels to four – it seems like he just
immediately got it, y’know? Whether that
was instinct or just super-rapid learning,
1964 World Champion for Ferrari, Surtees
also scored a win with Maserati power.
Even his win with Honda came at Monza.
Surtees’ seven world championships ( 4 x
500cc, 3 x 350cc) came on MV Agustas,
and include six wins at the Isle of Man TT.
itAliAn job pt. 2 tHE itAliAn job pt. 1
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