His father, Jack Surtees, was an effective motor cyclist and a garage proprietor in Kent, and John was the proud owner of his first motorcycle aged only 11. On leaving school at 15 he went straight into the garage business as a mechanic, and in 1950 made his competition debut as sidecar passenger to his father. In 1951 he made his solo motorcycle debut on a grass track at Luton. He won his first race, at Brands Hatch, aged 17, and by 1955 he had beaten the great Geoff Duke, had won 68 out of 76 races in that season alone, and was offered a works MV Agusta ride for 1956. He ended that year as 500cc World Champion, and he would add six more two-wheeled World titles to his tally by the end of 1959.
The Italians absolutely doted on him. He became Il Grande John, and when he turned to four-wheeled racing in 1960 the English press mistranslated ‘John the Great’ into ‘Big John’ and the name stuck – even though he wasn’t a particularly big man, yet ‘John the Great’ really did sum up his contemporary sporting stature.
Early in 1960, though still contracted to MV, John was lapping Goodwood in a Vanwall Formula 1 car – provided by one of his most ardent fans, the ailing, often irascible Tony Vandervell. John was learning then how to handle a racing car – how to explore its cornering limits – and making his mistakes. He told me once, with a grin: “The big difference between a racing motor-cycle and a racing car is that if you leave it to itself, the car stands up on its own….”.