The 61st Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance will play host to a uniquely successful racer when John Surtees, the only man to win world championships in both motorcycle racing and in Formula 1, is reunited with two of his championship rides on Sunday, Aug. 21.
“I was able to relate to machinery quite well, whether it was two wheels or four wheels,” said Surtees, who won the Formula 1 title in 1964 after capturing seven motorcycle world titles from 1956 to 1960. “I had my heart in exactly what I was doing, and I was totally emotionally involved in my activities.”
Comparing the two genres, Surtees said, “As a motorcyclist you can probably have a greater effect on the machine than perhaps you do with a car. With a motorcycle, the shifting of weight can change the characteristics of how the vehicle is performing. You have a little more potential to control things with a bike than you do with a car.”
While in California, Surtees will participate in a number of Pebble Beach Concours activities, including the pre-event news conference the morning of Saturday, Aug. 20, where he will be featured in conversation with Stirling Moss.
In 2008 he was honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1996, Surtees was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama.
The son of an English motorcycle dealer and British sidecar racing champion, Surtees’ first racing experience came at age 14 in his father’s sidecar. At age 21, he accepted his first factory-sponsored ride aboard a Norton motorcycle. He performed well, even defeating Geoff Duke, the reigning world champion, at Silverstone and Brands Hatch.
From 1956 to 1960, Surtees raced 350 cc and 500 cc motorcycles for famed Italian manufacturer MV Agusta, winning seven class world championships in that span. In 1958 and 1959, Surtees won every Motorcycle Grand Prix event he entered in 350 cc and 500 cc classes. He posted 12 straight Grand Prix wins in the 350 class during that time, and from 1958 to 60, he won 17 consecutive Grand Prix events in the 500 cc class.
It was during this time that “Big John” began test driving automobiles and was hired by Team Lotus for the final four races of the 1960 Formula 1 season despite his relative lack of experience in auto racing.
“My biggest challenge was I had never seen a car race until I took part in my first car race,” said Surtees, now 77. “By the time I’d done four races total I was driving Formula One. I was a bit green. It all came from the heart.”
By 1963, Enzo Ferrari hired Surtees for the Scuderia Ferrari team when he notched his first F1 race win at the German Grand Prix at the famous Nürburgring circuit. He finished fourth in the F1 points standings that season. Then, in 1964, behind the wheel of a V8-powered Ferrari 158 that will be at Pebble Beach along with one of his winning MV Agustas, Surtees scored wins at the German and Italian Grand Prix events, and captured the F1 driving championship, edging Graham Hill by a point (40-39) for the title.
Surtees later formed his own racing team, which competed for nine seasons. Surtees retired from competitive driving in 1973.