Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees

  • 11 May 2024
  • 3 min read
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Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees image

Photo credit: Amelia Island, Ferrari, Wheelsage

In the distant past many automotive racers started their careers racing motorcycles, just to mention one name: The legendary Tazio Nuvolari alternated a long time racing motorcycles and cars before fully devoting himself to four wheels. Englishman John Surtees, born in 1934, took a different path starting out with motorcycles until winning and dominating no less than 7 World Championships with the 350 and with the 500, which were what today are called Motogp. The myth of Surtees was so great that he was nicknamed "The Son of the Wind".

Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees - 1 John Surtees dominated in Motomondiale with the 350s and 500s, which today have become Motogp, winning 7 World Titles.

In 1960, while still racing motorcycles, Surtees felt the desire to challenge himself with single-seaters. The opportunity was given to him in Monaco and was repeated at Silverstone where he even managed to finish second with a Lotus. This success prompted him to set out to perfect his motor racing approach: As a methodical and calculating man he first drove the Cooper and then the Lola. Enzo Ferrari who enjoyed betting on talent decided to put him under contract for the 1963 season giving him the responsibility as first driver.

In addition to the single-seaters, Surtees proved to be a talent also in racing cars but his temperament did not find the desired affinity with Enzo Ferrari and relations began to deteriorate even though the English driver led Ferrari to the Formula 1 World Title in 1964. This was celebrated worldwide as it added to the 7 World Championships when he was a motorcyclist and it was achieved with a Ferrari that instead of being red had the American blue and white colors because it was registered by Luigi Chinetti's NART.

Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees - 2 In 1964 John Surtees became Formula 1 world champion behind the wheel of the Ferrari 158.

The world championship was not enough to mend relations with Enzo Ferrari, and John Surtees left the Scuderia del Cavallino Rampante in mid-1965. That was the time when he decided to be a constructor, a temptation he encountered while collaborating with his friend XY who was making the Lola T70. In 1966 he won the Can-Am Championship precisely with the T70, and behind the wheel of a Cooper Maserati he won the Mexican Grand Prix in Formula 1.

Surtees continued his career as a driver in Formula 1 thinking more and more about the idea of becoming a manufacturer. The opportunity came with the launch of the new Formula 5000, which was intended to rival Formula 1 in making the first single-seater car. The driver's talent and the quality of the car caused Surtees to win no less than five rounds of this championship, which encouraged him to develop the concept of the car for Formula 1 and Formula 2 as well.

Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees - 3 Team Surtees' adventure as a manufacturer began with the TS5, a single-seater developed for the new Formula 5000.

John Surtees became a full-fledged manufacturer by this time with the Scuderia's headquarters being located in Slough, Berkshire and later in Edenbridge, Kent. The adventure in Formula 1 proved more difficult than expected, the car, however, although very interesting in terms of chassis, originality in terms of its shape and powered by the Ford engine, never managed to win. The best results were a second and a third place in nine seasons of world championship presence from 1970 to 1978.

There was more accomplishment in Formula 2, a championship that enjoyed a large following in those years, where another motorcycling champion and great friend of Surtees, Mike Hailwood, won the European Title in 1972. Team Surtees ended its journey as a constructor in 1978, due to a lack of suitable financiers for the undertaking that forced the champion, who had not tried the covered-wheel car route, to discontinue the activity.

Retiring from racing in 1973 Surtees returned to his original passion of motorcycle racing by participating in historic events and races. He remained connected to motorsports due to his son Henry who started a career in motorsports. Life showed no mercy for this champion and former constructor: Henry died at Brands Hatch in a Formula 2 race struck by a tire lost from another car. A tragedy for John Surtees, who passed away in March 2017 at the age of 83.

Drivers becoming constructors: John Surtees - 4 Team Surtees managed only two podium finishes in nine seasons and disappeared in 1978.