The Maverick who refused to play the game

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H

e was racing’s blue-eyed boy: effortless speed, natural confidence, a Grand Prix driver at 19. Mike Thackwell had talent to throw away – and that’s what he did, to go surfing instead.

If you knew him then, you would not know him now. He is a different man in a different world. A maverick, intellectually restless, a loner, blessed from birth with a prodigious talent. A man of many and complex parts. The swagger of youth has gone, but the inner confidence remains. Those famous blue eyes are the giveaway, the limp in the left leg, the long blonde hair under a woolly hat. The intelligence and determination, while undiminished, have long ago been applied far away from racing cars.

Remember the dashing power slides, the red helmet with the big white ‘T’ on the front? If you were there, you do.

Famously the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix, until Jaime Alguersuari came along, Thackwell somehow missed out on the top-line Formula 1 seat that surely should have been his. Having gone through Formula Ford, F3 and F2 like a comet across a night sky he was pipped to the 1985 Formula 3000 title, before moving into sports cars with Mercedes and Jaguar, and briefly Indycar with Penske. Then, at the age of 26, he walked away. Just like that, not a glance over his shoulder.

Why, I often wondered, had he done that? And where was he now, this enigmatic New Zealander who turned his back on what was surely destined to be an exceptional career? By some strange quirk of fate, I discover he’s living very simply, and very happily, a mere few miles from me down by the sea in the South of England.

“I b at pub in couple o minutes…..m.” reads the text on my phone. And sure enough, two minutes later, he parks his bicycle – he no longer has a car – and joins me at the bar. We’d tried to meet before but he was up in London on a protest march against cuts in education. Mike Thackwell 2012 is a special needs supply teacher (he has a severely autistic son) and also a part-time barman. And surfer. A good southwesterly swell has long been more important to him than a perfect lap. This is an all-round interesting bloke who, I learn, no longer has any passion for motor racing and is happiest in the sea, or buried in a book.

“Nope. Can’t remember the last time I saw a race of any kind. Just doesn’t interest me any more. Seems to me it’s all about money – and technology. But I’m happy to chat about the old days because the whole point of it for me was that it was fun, that it was an amusing and enjoyable thing to be doing,” he says, taking a sip of his whisky and water.

“At least it was until I saw the inside of Formula 1 – and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t interested in the money, the politics, the sponsors and the safety campaigns – always thought it was too safe anyway. Perhaps I was too young.

Maybe I should have been born earlier, raced in the 1950s, before the war even.
People like Rudi Caracciola, Tazio Nuvolari, Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve were my heroes. Now what they did was dangerous, quite extraordinary, amazing. That’s how I thought racing should be.” Maybe we should go back a few steps, I suggest? Born in New Zealand, then a move to Australia, then over to England, a waltz through Formula Ford at just 16 years old, into F3 and on and on. What does he remember of those early days?

“You know, it was so easy for me, right from when I started racing bikes and karts in Australia.” He looks at me a little diffidently. “I’m not being arrogant, but the speed came so easily, it was such a great crack, good fun. I had no fear, none of it was difficult for me, and I learnt how to race in karts. There were always cars around; my dad was an amateur racer when he had some money, and we were always making things, mending things, messing around with cars. It was part of my childhood but my dad never pushed me; there was no desperate ambition, we just had a good time – bit of racing, bit of surfing – it was good. Then we went to England to have a crack at Formula Ford. My dad found some sponsorship, and things began to go well.”

Have a crack he certainly did, immediately on the pace and on the podium. People sat up, made a note of the name.

“It was fun, and I knew I could beat the other guys,” he smiles almost apologetically. “I’d already said to myself – ‘there’s 25 guys in the world racing F1 cars and, if I could do that, then I should do that.’ We looked after our own cars; I was teamed up with James Weaver, and we taught at the Scorpion Racing School together. He could build engines, fix just about anything, and we were always experimenting with stuff. James was the master of what we called the ‘big send’, attacking a corner at right angles, big slide on – probably not the most technical way to do it, but he was the master of that. He’d fly past me, throw his car into a huge slide right in front of me, crazy. They were good times.”

Thackwell’s early career was nothing less than meteoric. In1979, at the age of just 18, he was instantly a front-runner in the Vandervell F3 series, taking five wins in a works March 793, beating the likes of Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Kenny Acheson. When times were hard Alan Jones helped him out with some cash and he was the talk of the town. Predictably, March took him into F2 for 1980, in the works BMW-powered 802, where he impressed again but with frustratingly few results and too many retirements. But he’d put in some brilliant drives, attracting F1 offers from Ensign when Clay Regazzoni was injured – which he turned down – and from Arrows which he accepted, standing in for an injured Jochen Mass at Zandvoort.

“That was tough,” he laughs. “I’d never sat in the car before practice and the ground effects, with those skirts, made it so heavy to drive. My neck was all over the place and I struggled to hang on to it through the long right-hander on to the straight. But I loved that run down and into Tarzan, a great corner, and we only just failed to make the grid.”

By half a second in fact, and 1.32sec behind Riccardo Patrese who’d driven the car all year. This performance came to the notice of Ken Tyrrell who offered Mike a third car for Montréal and Watkins Glen at the end of the year.

“Yeah, it all happened so quickly, and maybe I hadn’t grown up enough at that stage – I mean, I was 19 years old, for God’s sake – and there I was on the grid for the Canadian Grand Prix. But I deserved to be there, I knew I was quick enough, I had the respect of the other guys and I was confident I could do the job. Anyway, I sat on the back row in the Tyrrell, and there – just two places ahead of me – was Gilles Villeneuve, an absolute hero of mine. He was how a racing driver should be, head and shoulders above the rest of them, I reckoned. In the drivers briefings he didn’t pay much attention to all the talk of safety… He kind of sat there looking a bit bored, slightly amused by it all. Anyway, it was the time of a tyre war, and so the grid was all mixed up. The Michelins weren’t working well in the cold weather, and Villeneuve should have been way further up the grid. Jody Scheckter didn’t even qualify and I thought ‘this F1 is crazy’ – both Jody and Gilles were way more experienced than me.

“Anyway, at the start, there was this big accident, cars all over the road, so I slowed down, drove around it, and thought I was in with a chance. Then the race was stopped. Ken said he’d have to take the car off me as both [Jean-Pierre] Jarier and [Derek] Daly’s cars were too badly damaged to take the re-start. OK, Ken was a good man, very straightforward, and I understood there was pressure from sponsors and he needed the points. But it was disappointing and I wondered if I really wanted to get involved in all that kind of stuff, the politics, the money and the blinkered world they lived in. Maybe I was too young, maybe should have taken advice from someone like Stirling Moss, an older and more experienced person for whom I had enormous respect.”

At Watkins Glen he retired early in the race but had made his mark. For 1981 he returned to F2 with Ralt where he began a long and fruitful relationship with Ron Tauranac. The Honda-powered RH6/81 was the class of the field, Thackwell was hot favourite to win the title, and he duly won the opening round at Silverstone from pole. This was followed by a third at Hockenheim. After his flirtation with F1 he was back in his element.

“I enjoyed being at Ralt, working with the mechanics, working with Ron. These were the guys that kept me in the sport for as long as I stayed, people like Alan Howell and Ian Dyer who looked after my car. I can’t mention them all but it was such a good racing team and Ron was a real hands-on guy, a great draughtsman. He’d come along with his pencil, make a mark exactly where he wanted a setting on a pushrod, or a track rod, and he always knew exactly what he wanted down to the last millimetre.

One thing I loved about Ron was that he let me race my off-road bikes – my mechanic Alan and I used to race pretty much every other weekend – and he’d let me drive anything in my spare time. And only Ron would have allowed Alan and I to put a Fablon aeroplane sticker on the car every time I won a race. We had a lot of good times. He paid me £5000 to race for him – that’s all I wanted. I wasn’t in it for the money, though Ron did say it should have been a bit more. He was a true friend and did a lot for me.”

In April 1981 the Formula 2 teams went to Thruxton for the third round of the series. On the fast sweeping turns of the Hampshire circuit a Ralt was the car to have and Mike’s confidence was sky-high. But, in practice ahead of the Easter Monday race, it all went wrong.

“I knew the track like the back of my hand,” Mike tells me, with a big smile. “I’d been an instructor there with the Scorpion school. I was feeling so confident, pretty blasé to be honest, and we’d tested there a lot. I knew I could walk that race, nobody was going to touch me that year, that’s how I felt. Going into practice I told Ron I’d try the stiff set up we’d talked about. He warned me that the hard dampers and springs, on hard Pirellis, might cause the car to bottom out over the bumps. He told me to take it easy. But, hey, I wasn’t worried, just wanted to get out there. So Geoff [Lees] and I went out, Geoff was in front of me, and I started chasing him, throwing the car around a bit. There was no way he was going to be quicker than me. Then, all of a sudden, I was going beyond that limit that all drivers sometimes go beyond – you have to – like Villeneuve, or Senna, they were often over that limit, in that special zone. But, at the fast bit out the back I hit a bump, lost it, simple as that, and hit a marshals post very hard. My head hit the steering wheel; it was a heavy blow, my helmet cracked. I don’t remember very much after that. It was just bad luck, the post being where it was.

“The car folded up like a banana. I was a bit beaten up, and they took me to hospital. My left leg, heel and ankle were smashed up and I wasn’t in great shape for a while. Ron said it was his fault, he shouldn’t have let me put the hard set-up on the car, but I told him: ‘don’t be stupid, I made a mistake, hands up. I just lost it, no excuses’.”

“Recovery from this lasted for months, any hope of the title gone, and Mike began to think a little differently about his racing. Tauranac wasn’t convinced of his fitness at the end of ’81 and he was forced to look elsewhere. A major setback for the young man who’d already had a tempting taste of F1.

“Yeah, I did change after that,” he says. “Nothing to do with safety, that never bothered me, but I needed to grow up, and other aspects of my life began to be more important. I hadn’t really had time to grow up, so while I was out of the car and when I got back I was changing as a person, and I guess that was the beginning of me seeing a life away from motor racing. The racing somehow didn’t seem so important any more, not as fundamental to my life as it had been through the early years when it was all I wanted, all I thought about. Looking back, I was in a bubble, very self-centred, and the accident somehow changed me.”

In fact Mike returned to Ralt in 1983 after a year with the Horag March 822 which produced sporadic results on a very small budget. His return to Ralt saw him forced to play second fiddle to Jonathan Palmer, a deal he’d agreed in advance with Tauranac. He was getting back to his best, chased Palmer hard for the title, and then, in 1984, he simply ran away with the F2 championship. In a league of his own in the Ralt RH6/84, he took six poles, nine fastest laps and won seven of the 11 races while leading 408 of the 580 laps that were run that year.

“That felt good, yeah, and I was enjoying the driving. That car was so good, too quick for the formula really, too easy in some ways,” he smiles, ready to surprise me again. “I always raced best when things were tough, when conditions were against me. My best drives came when things were as difficult as they could be. At Spa in 1985 the F3000 race was on the same weekend as the Grand Prix, the track was breaking up, the F1 boys refused to race and went home on the Saturday. What the hell was that about? Just confirmed my view of F1, you know, because I was there to race. That’s what we’d gone there to do. Ron wasn’t that keen but said it was up to the drivers and most of us were ready to give it a go. In the race I went off a couple of times, most people did, but I won, and that was one of my best-ever races because the track conditions were so difficult. I should have won the title that year, and after that maybe my motivation went away a bit.”

More F1 cameos with RAM and Tyrrell had led to nothing, but he made sports car forays too, for Jaguar and then Mercedes with whom he won the 1986 Nürburgring 1000Kms partnering Henri Pescarolo. But by the end of 1987 he’d walked away from racing.

“Hey, those Merc sports cars were so quick, loads of grip, great to drive,” he says. “But I’d had enough. I quit racing and went to fly helicopters in the North Sea oilfields. That was good. And I spent some time back in Australia helping my dad with his gold exploration. I tell you, digging for gold is hard work.”

As we continue chatting in the winter chill, Mike puffs at his pipe, sips a Famous Grouse, flicks through a few photos. Here’s a man content to be who he is and where he is. We ramble away from racing cars, to Hippocrates and Socrates, to our mutual fascination with the mysteries of the human condition. A deep thinker, Mike has little time or patience with what might have been.

“Look, you gotta understand,” he says, looking me very straight in the eye. “It’s been nice getting together again after 30 years, talking about the good times, but F1 just wasn’t going to be my life. There seems to be so little integrity, so little appreciation of the privileges – why would an F1 star want to do a TV ad for a big bank rather than campaign for better road safety? They live in a bubble. It’s beyond me. You have to be tough to walk away and yes, maybe I do regret letting the fans down. They still send me photos to sign. But the things I saw in F1, and the people… they were not for me.”

I try to picture him in Monaco, Boss-suited with Ray-Bans and Rolex in place, and a few smart sentences for the sponsors. Forget it, let’s check out the waves.

Rob Widdows

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