Artist, genius, free spirit

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Thackwell’s co-instructor and his favourite team manager recall a man of parts

James Weaver came through Formula Ford with Mike Thackwell, and in 1978 both men were instructors at Mike Eastick’s Scorpion Racing School at Thruxton. He realised early on that the New Zealander was something special.

“Boy, could he drive! Mike was a real artist, an absolute genius behind the wheel. He could just look at a corner and know the quickest way round. He won in F3, having only competed in a handful of FF1600 races, and in F2 he was just devastating. Mike was goingto be the Ayrton Senna of his day. Before the F2 accident at Thruxton he was head and shoulders above everyone, and after it he was simply just as good as the best. Before the shunt he’d just rock up at a corner and have at it. After the accident, he told me that he’d have to think about the braking point, he needed more reference points, so he drove more like a mere mortal!

“He was just so good – but he hated the corporate side of it. At Sauber, when they had the Kouros aftershave sponsorship, he was offered a king’s ransom to race that
car, but he said they’d have to paint it silver first – he wasn’t going to race a glorified perfume billboard. He loved the history of Mercedes; he was a great traditionalist.
“The accident changed the way he expressed himself. In the early days he was very organised, obsessed with the racing, but he didn’t like the atmosphere in F1. He just didn’t want to live that kind of life. “Mike had the most mesmerising blue eyes, and the speed at which he processed information, the massive intelligence, was palpable. He was in a different league; he had so much feel for the car and the grip available in the tyres or the track.

“One day at Thruxton we were running the school cars round, I got under the lap record in my Hawke and was feeling on top of the world. Later on that day Mike Eastick asked
Thackwell to go out and show everybody how to do it. So he jumped in the car wearing shorts and sandals, came flying down into the Complex, inch-perfect, four-wheel drift, no opposite lock – and I thought: ‘Oh, I’m nowhere near that good. How can you do that without even a sighting lap?’ It was just amazing how good he was. And hugely respected; he had an inner decency, a strong moral core. I think perhaps the politics and commercial side of the sport didn’t sit easily with him. Maybe this diluted the joy of racing for him, enough for him to walk away.”

Ron Tauranac, whose Honda-powered Ralts dominated F2, played a vital role in Thackwell’s career. From his home in Bondi Junction the Australian engineer gives us a typically evenhanded view of his young protégé.

“Mike had a huge natural talent and could have gone a lot further as a driver. He never got into a top F1 team; he needed a good manager who would have found him better placements. But he was a bit different; his heroes were always the great pre-war drivers, and he just enjoyed getting in the car and driving it. So, while he may not have been the most technical of drivers, he had this tremendous natural ability. He really shone at places like Pau, where it’s difficult to go fast and not shunt. He always out-raced everyone there.

“I let him go off and race his bikes, he and Alan [Howell]. Mike was always a free spirit, loved to race, but just needed a bit more management.

“It’s true that he was affected by the accident at Thruxton; it was a year before he fully recovered. He wasn’t the same driver for the rest of that season and I don’t think anyone realised how much he’d been affected by the head injury. If it wasn’t for that accident he could have gone a long way.

“Mike’s a very astute person too, and I know he was already doing some charitable works for youngsters when he was racing for us in F2. Whatever Mike did, he did well. He’s intelligent – and a nice guy, too.”

Rob Widdows

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