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The Spirit of Surtees

The only racer to have won a world championship on two and four wheels

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In the world of today’s hyper-developed and (dare I say it) partitioned motor sport, the topic of “the greatest” is always brought up. Greatest car. Greatest driver. Greatest design. On and on the endless argument goes. Most of these conversations centre around one discipline of motorsport.

F1 fans don’t include drivers from Indy, MotoGP, the Isle of Man TT, endurance racing, etc. But are our drivers today as adrenaline crazed as the heroes of old? What happened to the glory days of a driver competing in any and every discipline they could? Mansell racing in the BTCC was riveting even after his departure from F1. Valentino Rossi came tantalizingly close to driving in F1 with his tests for Ferrari. Unfortunately, that deal never came to fruition so we will never truly know how competitive he would have been on four wheels.

Throughout Formula One’s history, many people have raced in multiple series. Graham Hill raced in the 24 hours of Le Mans essentially his entire time in F1 as did Mario Andretti. Even Kimi Raikkonen raced rally and even snowmobiles under a fake name the same year he won his world title. On and on the cross over racer list goes. Yet one name towers above them all to embody what we are missing in today’s world of driver control and contractual over bearance. John Surtees.

Obituary: John Surtees

Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

Most of our readers will be aware of the mind-boggling levels at which Surtees raced. The coolest stat in the world is his alone: The ONLY person to have won a world championship on two and four wheels. He was the 1964 Formula One world Champion, 350cc Motorcycle champion 58-60, and 500cc in 1956, 58-60. He finished third in the 1964 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He ALSO won the Isle of Man TT three years in a row from 1958-1960. Not only was his willingness to compete in any and every race he could get a ride in something to admire, but the level at which he did so should leave those in the know in awe.

This desire to compete endeared him to generations of racing fans the world over (in multiple series). So why don’t we see that anymore?

The plain and simple answers are time and money. The level of training necessary to properly pilot a Formula 1 car is staggering. Drivers spend YEARS gaining the experience and super-license points to even be allowed to drive them by the FIA and the teams. The teams also wield a much greater control over the drivers. Yes, having Lewis Hamilton drive for his Extreme-E team would be fascinating to see. Or Max in Formula-E. But these drivers are highly specialized investments for the teams and they simply can not risk the loss of revenue to consider blessing off on a race weekend outside of their direct control.

Plus the schedule is so ludicrously packed (thankfully for us) that the time needed to acquaint with other teams and machinery simply doesn’t exist like it did in the olden days. We’ve seen a shift through the course of F1’s history. Juan Manuel Fangio didn’t even enter Formula One until he was 39. Meanwhile our current drivers normally start working their way through the FIA karting series as young 12. Graham Hill was twice that age when he got his DRIVER’S LICENSE.

People like me will just have to be content to rely upon history and context to keep our desires based in reality. I would love to see our drivers mixing it up in every single race format imaginable. The glory days of the jet set driver are essentially gone. Unless you find yourself in a Nico Hulkenberg super sub situation for everyone who needs a backup, the sheer logistics make it almost impossible. We must always remember where our sport originated and how it has evolved. Sometimes it’s disappointing to remember to rest of the racing world has too. But as with every debate around our sport: it sure is fun to imagine and argue over as well.


Headline Image: Getty Images

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