EN ROUTE TO WORD TITLES
The world in his hand – world champion at just 22 – and then came the immovable Count.
To temporarily leap forward to the end of the 1955 season is to glimpse at just how hot a property John Surtees had rapidly become. With Norton’s end-of-season retirement from racing about to happen, a trio of motorcycle manufacturers were courting Surtees to ride for them; Gilera, Moto Guzzi and BMW. That 1955 season was so impactful in how the world saw John, that things would never be the same again. It started when Norton’s race boss Joe Craig gave in to Surtees’ demands for a proper racebike and gave him a 500cc Manx Norton. The decision was to be proved almost instantly prudent with John taking his factory Norton to 69 wins in the 75 British races that he took part in. Whilst the Nortons under Surtees were decimating the competition on short circuits – and even beating reigning 500cc World Champion Geoff Duke on the Gilera twice, once at Silverstone and then at Brands Hatch, the archetype British bikes weren’t the only make of motorcycle that the quickening star was competing on that year. In the Ulster GP at Dundrod he won the 250cc race on an NSU Sportmax, his first GP victory. It was an amazing year of racing and competition. After finally getting his hands on factory Nortons, having competed in 1954 on customer bikes that he’d bought himself, Surtees had upped his value on the racing scene. He was hot property and if he made the next move a right move, he’d be set to contest for the crown.
In 1956 John Surtees signed up to ride for MV Agusta, and it was going to be one of the most productive and rewarding partnerships in motorcycle history, delivering seven world titles in all – the first coming at just 22 years old. Surtees said: “When I first went to MV it was after I’d been with Norton and Norton had not been doing the World Championship. I went to them with a proposal at the end of 1955 for me to do the World Championship, if possible, with works support. I’d had three good races with the Norton against Geoff Duke on the Gilera, wherein two of them, at Silverstone and at Brands Hatch, I’d been able to beat him. “What I wanted to do with a Norton was to put streamlining on it because this would make all the difference in the same way as with Moto Guzzi. But the company considered it, I went to them and I said: ‘Look, a newspaper will give me support, all I need is perhaps Charlie Edwards and the support of the works team and I’ll go along and try to challenge for the World Championship again.’ “The answer I got from Mr Gilbert Smith was that they’d considered it, they thought it was possible to win a championship, they thought it was possible! Particularly if we had the odd wet race. So they considered it but said that they couldn’t do it because if I actually did win the world championship, I would earn more than I could at Norton.” So the potential for Norton to take on the world and possibly win the crown with an on-form Surtees was passed over, not least because Norton itself was winding down global competition efforts. But there were many other offers on the table: “Norton was in a situation with potential tie-ups and it was a difficult time. So then there was a possibility I would ride for BMW. “BMW had asked me to race for them but then found they hadn’t a budget to run two bikes – and they had Walter Zeller. “I wanted to go to Gilera as I thought that was the best bike but though there started to be talks, that stopped and Bill Webster, who was an English agent for MV, said ‘look, Mr Agusta wants to speak to you.’” John then packed up trying to find another ride and promptly few to Monza in the mid stages of an Italian autumn. The season might not have felt impactful at the time but it turned out to be enough to stop a first exploration on the MV racebike. “So I flew to Monza, the leaves were coming off the trees at the circuit by this time of year and I sat on an MV for the first time. I thought it was a bit ungainly because it was very high, very perched up and I went out. I liked the noise, I thought the sound was beautiful but I had to stop because the leaves problem became too big. “So we went to Modena and I hadn’t realised that in later years I’d see an awful lot of that circuit. I went to Modena and it was rather reminiscent of what we experience in England, the heavens opened and it rained. They said we can’t test, so I said ‘I’ve come to Italy, I’ve come here, we are going to have wet races, so let’s test!’ So I went out and went round and round in the rain and the people at the track made a phone call, they said that ‘Count Agusta wants to see you’. I went back and via an interpretor Mr Calatoni, I had a chat with Domenico Agusta and went through the routine there and agreed to join them. “That was it; it was agreed that I would have two machines to come to England with, to race before the season opened, to get more acquainted with them. They gave me a 203 for the 250 class, super little bike, fully streamlined and everything and they gave me a 500. I took it to Crystal Palace and started my first races on MV Agustas at Crystal Palace in the 250 and 500 class.”
Above: Surtees in full flight at Aberdare Park on the 350cc Norton.
Below: A rare crash shot. This was in 1952 during the Hutchinson 100 at Woodcote Corner.thankfully John was unhurt.
Top right: Away from the track and having fun on a Tiger Cub with George Wilson in the mud.
Right: John heads out on the Manx at the Brands Hatch Super Prix meeting.
Left, main image: 21-year-old Surtees with his Norton before travelling to the Isle of Man.
Left, inset: Tucked in on the Norton at Silverstone 1955