'Mick' Hawthorn hits the headlines

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That’s what the papers at first called the blond kid from Farnham when he swapped a pre-war Riley for one of Cooper’s latest single-seaters and began to make waves

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Graham Hill’s Formula 1 World Championship title win in the determinedly all-British BRM. It also sees the 50th anniversary of Jim Clark’s first World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix wins in Colin Chapman’s determinedly brilliant (and utterly beautiful) Lotus-Climax Type 25. And then there’s also the 50th anniversary of Carroll Shelby’s determinedly agricultural – but admittedly effective – Cobra…

But let’s add another 10 years, and not forget that 2012 also marks the 60th anniversary of Mike Hawthorn’s emergence upon the international motor racing stage as a startling new driver talent.

During 1951 the Farnham garage owner’s lanky blond son had shown serious promise at club level in pre-war Rileys, including winning the Motor Sport Championship at BARC Goodwood meetings. A logical step up seemed to be the single-seater 2-litre Formula 2 class. Father Leslie wangled Mike a winter-time trial drive with Connaught at Goodwood. He promptly tried too hard and spun. John Heath of HWM was another to give him a trial, needing a replacement for Moss who was leaving the team. Heath also tried fellow garage-owner’s son Peter Collins, who proved as quick and who also had single-seater experience, which Mike did not. So Collins got the drive instead.

Leslie had talked to his old friend and enthusiastic fellow drinker Bob Chase about finding Mike a Formula 2 drive for ’52. Chase,from the south coast, was in his
late 50s; a colourful, alcoholic dealer in military surplus and marine diesel engines who ran a powerful ex-Coastal Forces motor launch and who’d reputedly had several close calls with the Revenue men while ‘trading’ cross-Channel…

Bob Chase had been in bed suffering from ’flu when he read about the Cooper Car Co’s latest model – a conventionally frontengined F2 open-wheeler, with 2-litre Bristol six. The price would be around £1800. He’d enjoyed some profitable recent deals and decided on the spur of the moment to ask Leslie Hawthorn if buying one for Mike might be a good idea.

The Hawthorns jumped at the offer, so Chase telephoned John Cooper in the Surbiton factory. John recalled: “I knew about young Mike Hawthorn because in a meeting at Goodwood where I was driving my Cooper-MG this blond-headed bloke in a bloody old pre-war Riley had absolutely murdered me!” John had already done a deal with Jimmy Richmond to supply two Cooper-Bristols to him as semi-works cars, to be driven by Alan Brown and John’s old school friend – and effectively co-founder of Cooper Cars – Eric Brandon, with himself as third driver of a worksowned extra car. He called them to suggest they might consider Hawthorn joining Ecurie Richmond in his place. Their reaction was a dismissive “who the hell is Mike Hawthorn?”.

John accepted the Chase order largely to the disgust of Richmond, Brandon and Brown. Eric once told me: “The deal we finally did was for our mechanics, Ginger Devlin and Bernie Rodger, to assemble our cars plus Mike’s at Cooper’s, and we could have ours for £1200 apiece. Our blokes progressed our cars as quick as they could. If some shortage meant a car was going to lag behind, it was obvious which it would be…”.

So while the Chase-Hawthorn rolling chassis was delayed, Leslie Hawthorn played his trump card, visiting Bristol at Filton to ensure early delivery of a third F2 engine. He specified a special unit, with high-compression head, tuned to burn nitro-laced fuel.

The two new Ecurie Richmond Cooper- Bristols, plus a third car for John Cooper and this fourth for Chase-Hawthorn were all enteredfor the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting – but completion of all four in time seemed doubtful. Mike and Hawthorn family friend Hughie Sewell – a soft-spoken, gentlemanly bearded boffin who simply loved tinkering with quality engines – descended upon Cooper’s Hollyfield Road works to help finalise their car. The engine and gearbox were also late, but with just days to go before Goodwood, Mike and his young friend Neil McNab tore down to Filton to pay the £661 bill and collect the units.

On the Wednesday the rolling chassis with unpainted body was finally rushed to the Hawthorns’ TT Garage in East Street, Farnham, where Leslie, Hughie, and mechanics Brit Pearce and Joe Bickell hastily installed the engine and drive-train. Leslie had a wartime acquaintance who was Station Commander at RAF Odiham, and he pulled strings for the new Cooper-Bristols all to test at nearby Lasham aerodrome that Thursday.

But while the Richmond cars ran quite well, the Chase-Hawthorn Cooper-Bristol warped its valve-seats. Brit Pearce: “Leslie had only an old and blunt seat cutter, but he got on with that job. Joe Bickell ground-in the valves and Mike and I had all the wheels off and checked the brakes and shockers. We finally got the engine started again at about half-past-four next morning. Then we took it back to Lasham and it went like a dingbat!” In fact its pace steadied the Richmond boys who were also there that Good Friday giving their new cars a final shake-down. Alan Brown was impressed, evercompetitive Eric Brandon less so, dismissing the new kid as “a flash in the pan”. Leslie had a fine reputation as a carburettor tuning specialist so they attributed Mike’s pace to his Dad’s touch.

However, Leslie’s use of nitro-laced fuel – permissible at that time – had more to do with it. Brit Pearce: “We got the stuff in drums and mixed it up at the garage, and kept it quiet. I don’t think even Bob Chase knew we were using it”.

Early on Easter Saturday, Goodwood practice day, the TT Garage crew winched their new car, still unpainted – into an ex-War Department six-cylinder Austin transporter that Leslie had borrowed from Connaught. Brit chocked the Cooper’s wheels with timber, but just a mile outside Farnham, heading steeply downhill towards ‘The Fox’ pub, “there was a rumble and bang – the car had run up over the timber. There’d have been hell to pay if Leslie had found out; he had a terrible temper!”.

Once at Goodwood, Brit and Joe hastily straightened the new car’s bent nose and grille before Leslie arrived. It’s all familiar history now how Mike practiced sensationally, setting second-fastest time behind only the 4½-litre ThinWall Special V12 Ferrari. Juan Manuel Fangio was at Goodwood to drive a V16 BRM. He was fascinated to see the new cars, and after some encouragement from BARC organiser John Morgan, John Cooper offered him the prototype Cooper-Bristol to drive on Monday, should the expected BRM default. The Chase-Hawthorn team carefully reprepared their new car at Farnham that Sunday, before returning it to Goodwood for the Monday race meeting. Mike later wrote: “I was on the starting line when I realized that I had never practiced a racing start in the car. I had no idea what revs or how much wheel spin to expect.

Suddenly there flashed into my mind something I had read in Motor Sport. It said somebody at the Brighton Speed Trials took the revs up and then held them instead of blipping the throttle. Down went my foot, the flag dropped, I let in the clutch and away I went. When I got a chance to size up what was going on behind I simply could not believe it. I was well in the lead…”.

In those days Goodwood still ran Brooklandsstyle sprint races, and Mike promptly won thesix-lap Lavant Cup to give both the new Cooper-Bristol and himself this sensational debut. In the six-lap Formule Libre Chichester Cup Mike won again after another steady-rev start. The meeting’s feature race was the 12-lap Richmond Trophy, including Formula 1 cars, and Mike actually led Froilan Gonzalez in the ThinWall Special before it got into its stride and thundered past. He still finished second to complete this fantastic day. Alan Brown then won a Handicap race in his Richmond Cooper-Bristol, and so this front-engined model from the pioneering rear-engined manufacturer had most sensationally arrived.

In the Chase car, tuned and fed fuel brewed by father Leslie, Mike Hawthorn went on to win his heat and lead the final at May Silverstone, then came fourth against Ferrari and Maserati opposition in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, third in the British GP at Silverstone, fourth in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort and showed Gigi Villoresi the way round Boreham in the wet, until a drying track let the Italian’s 4½-litre factory Ferrari muscle its way by. By the time of the Italian GP Enzo Ferrari was offering the English boy a driver test, and for 1953 he would join Ascari, Villoresi and Farina as their works team-mate.

But I still suspect that the most fun he had all year in a Cooper-Bristol was not in the Bob Chase car at all, but in the exworks prototype (as driven by Fangio at Goodwood) which had been bought by Archie Bryde. Partly because they didn’t have a spare engine, Leslie arranged for Mike to drive this car on loan while Chase’s was being prepared for the major GPs. Mike drove the Bryde car at Dundrod and at Reims where it overheated. The engine was rebuilt at Cattaneo’s in Paris, and Mike then drove the car on the public road to the French GP meeting at Rouen, escorted by the owner in his Bentley. Archie Bryde laughed at the memory as he told me how they “…came up to a rather flash white Packard convertible, driven by a young man with a very pretty dolly sitting on his right. Mike first came level on the correct overtaking side, did a doubletake, and continued to pass. He then slowed right down, and the Packard went to pass him. Mike allowed him alongside, and at this point the bird was next to Mike. This went on for two or three kilometres; it’s the only time I’ve ever seen somebody trying to chat-up a bird while driving a single-seater…”.

Doug Nye

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