The world in his hand – world cham­pion at just 22 – and then came the im­mov­able Count.

Classic Racer - - HOW IT BEGAN -

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

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