Mike the bike

Ignore his privileged background. Good kit might have been readily available, but nobody could have extracted more from it...  | writer Mat Oxley

Mike Hailwood has been dead more than three decades, but his talent still towers over the sport of motorcycle racing. Alongside Valentino Rossi, Mike the Bike is the only rider to be considered seriously for the title of ‘greatest ever’.

Angel Nieto is one of few people to have seen both men riding at the height of their powers. The Spaniard, who won 13 world titles in the smaller classes and now attends MotoGP events as a TV pundit, has no doubt about who deserves that particular accolade.

“Hailwood!” he says without equivocation. “He was better than Rossi; f***ing incredible. He could ride anything: two-stroke, four-stroke, whatever. If he was here now, he would be on top for sure.”

Hailwood’s career spanned three decades, from winning on Norton singles in the 1950s, to world glory with MV Agusta and Honda in the 1960s and finally to his fairy-tale comeback from early retirement at the 1978 Isle of Man TT. He won 14 TTs, a further 60 Grands Prix, nine GP world championships across the 250, 350 and 500cc classes and a Formula 1 TT world title. He could win on any motorcycle, on any circuit and in any conditions.

What made the Briton extra special was the way in which he carried his talent. He wore it lightly and humbly, apparently treating the sport as a bit of a laugh, a diversion to stave off boredom while he wasn’t involved in the more serious business of having a good time. This was of course a charade, perhaps designed to fool himself as much as others, because he raced at a time when funerals were regular events on any racer’s calendar.

“The reality was that one of us died every month during the racing season,” says Jim Redman, one of Hailwood’s team-mates at Honda during the 1960s. “Five of us started the 1962 season as the main men for the 350cc world championship. I won it and Mike was second but Gary Hocking, Bob McIntyre and Tom Phillis were dead. Mike said to me, ‘You know we’re on the short list now, don’t you?’ So I said, ‘What do you do, stop?’ And he said, ‘No, make a will!’ I think we had to joke about it.” Hailwood, more than most, employed gallows humour to keep fear at bay.

Hailwood’s commitment was absolute at a time when any mistake might be your last. He had a wondrous ability to ride a motorcycle and he wasn’t going to let a few walls, trees or lamp posts get in his way of using it.

 

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“Mike was blindingly quick through the corners and on the throttle very early,” said another Honda team-mate, Ralph Bryans, who passed away in 2014. “His lines were good too – if you put a postage stamp on the road he would run over it every lap. And you knew when he was behind you that he was going to come past; there were no two ways about it.”

Many modern fans mistakenly believe that racing in the days of drum brakes, treaded tyres and nominal horsepower was, in spite of the dangers, a somewhat sluggish affair. Not so, said Bryans, recalling riding out to practice with Hailwood at Imatra, both of them aboard Honda’s fabled six-cylinder 250.

“Round the back of the circuit there was a triple-apex corner with a vicious camber. I sat up, looked at it, knocked back a gear, went over the first camber and Mike came shooting past, front wheel in the air, across the first camber, down again, dirt flying off the road, and across the next camber. I shut off because I thought I was going to witness the biggest accident ever, but he got round. And the bugger did exactly the same thing for the next four laps. I said to him afterwards, ‘Jesus, Mike, that was near the bone.’ He said, ‘I know, I gave myself a fright the first time, but then I realised I could do it.’ So he kept doing it.”

And yet Hailwood was mostly known for his uncannily smooth riding technique. Fellow TT winner Peter Williams was one man who appreciated the neatness above everything else.

“Mike’s style was very smooth and he was so good to watch,” says Williams. “He had a certain economy of movement, just enough and not too much. I think Rossi is similar – very smooth and stylish, and he doesn’t manhandle the bike. Mike was a great rider and an incredibly brave man.”

Born on April 2 1940, Hailwood started working on his talent at a very early age, thanks to his hard-nosed businessman father. Stan ‘The Wallet’ Hailwood owned a chain of motorcycle shops and devoted much of his time to ensuring his son had everything he needed to make his way in racing. Aged seven Hailwood was given a hand-built minibike to thrash around the grounds of the family’s Oxfordshire home.

He started racing just days after reaching the minimum age of 17, while he worked his apprenticeship at Triumph (making the tea). From that moment his father bought him the best bikes and harangued the media to get the best coverage. Hailwood invariably arrived at British meetings in dad’s Bentley, while his bikes travelled in a separate truck. No doubt this annoyed his poorer rivals, which might help explain his affable paddock nature, because he wanted to be one of the boys, not Lord Snooty.

“Mike would turn up at meetings with six Nortons in his truck, and who the hell else had that?” remembers Aussie rival Jack Ahearn. “But it was for the right bloke: Mike was a bloody good rider. His old man was the one I didn’t like; Stan ‘The Wallet’ was a miserable old bastard!”

Old man Hailwood ran the family racing team as a business: he paid his son a wage and bonuses and gave him a Mark 2 Jaguar company car and the best bikes.

Such a combination of talent and equipment was unstoppable. Hailwood won his first race just weeks after his debut and took three British titles in his debut season.

Of course, dad’s sights were set on much greater prizes and it is probably fair to say Stan was more ambitious than Mike. So much so that Hailwood wasn’t averse to a wee drinkie while he was racing.

“There were two occasions when I did compete ‘under the influence’,” wrote Hailwood in Racing and All That, published shortly before his death. “The first time was on my 21st birthday at Snetterton and all the lads brought along bottles of champagne. I managed to knock quite a lot of this back between practice and the race and I remember wheeling my Norton to the start line in a fairly ‘merry’ mood. Nothing untoward happened…”

Stan’s quest for the best machinery took him to Bologna, where he scored a state-of-the-art Ducati 125, which Hailwood rode to his first Grand Prix success at the 1959 Ulster.

In 1961 dad spotted another new power on the horizon. Just one week after Honda won its first Grand Prix he had his son aboard one of the Japanese machines. Hailwood immediately made history by becoming the first rider to win three TTs in a week: the 125 and 250cc races for Honda and the 500 on a Norton Manx. Three months later he secured Honda’s first world title at Kristianstad, Sweden, where he was greeted by Mr and Mrs Honda, who had flown from Japan for the occasion.

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For seven years Hailwood was a mainstay of Grands Prix, first with Honda, then MV, then Honda again. He had the great fortune to reign in one of bike racing’s golden ages, when the up-and-coming Japanese factories fought a war of fabulous engineering: Honda’s four-strokes against the two-strokes of Yamaha and Suzuki.

Honda held the two-stroke hordes at bay for several years, multiplying cylinders and revs until they had armed their riders with the 250 six as well as a five-cylinder 125 and a twin-cylinder 50. The 1967 version of the 50 revved beyond 22,000rpm and made 280 horsepower per litre.

Hailwood probably had no idea he was living through such special times because technology held no interest for him, as Bryans recalled. 

“Mike’s mechanical knowledge was practically zero – he didn’t have the remotest idea. I was there when he jumped aboard the 250 six for the first time at Suzuka. He came back in and they asked him what it was like and he said, ‘Bloody awful.’ But as for what was it doing and what could they do to fix it – absolutely no feedback whatsoever. It was lucky there wasn’t much set-up to do in those days – there was only one tyre choice and we would set the suspension at the start of the year and never touch it again.”

Perhaps it was this lack of interest in the machinery that helped make him so good at hopping aboard any bike and making the most of it. “If you cobbled something together and gave it to him he would wring its neck right away without thinking about it,” added Bryans. “Most riders want the bike to be right before you can do your best, but Mike didn’t seem to bother that much. He had an extraordinary talent for riding practically anything.”

Even when the motorcycle was falling to pieces. Williams still struggles to comprehend Hailwood’s ride in the 1967 Senior TT, when he won an epic battle with Giacomo Agostini’s MV, despite a loose throttle.

“He automatically made allowances for any disadvantage the bike was giving him,” says Williams. “I mean, how on earth do you win a TT with a loose throttle? Just mind-blowing.”

Of course, Hailwood did have attributes other than pure riding skill in his racing armoury. He could certainly be crafty when required. Pat Slinn, who fettled Hailwood’s Ducati 900SS during his TT comeback, recalls a funny moment during practice week.

“Mike was the master at winding people up,” Slinn says. “We were in pitlane with [Yamaha mechanic] Nobby Clark, and Mike had just done a couple of very quick laps on the Yamaha 500, riding around with Mick Grant. Mick said, ‘I nearly got past you here and I wanted to come past there but I thought I’d better not.’ Then Mike turned to Nobby and said, ‘That reminds me, can you check it out, I think the bloody thing was only running on three.’ I thought that was absolutely amazing.”

Sometimes the mind-games bore real results, like at the 1965 East German GP at the partially cobblestoned Sachsenring, where Redman asked 500 rider Hailwood to bamboozle Yamaha rival Phil Read before the 250 race.

“I asked Mike to stroll past us as we lined up for the start of the 250 race. I would call out to him and ask how the track had been in the 500 race, and he would shout back the opposite of the truth. He wandered past the front row and said, ‘Be bloody careful, it’s f***ing slippery!’” Redman duly stole enough of a lead during the first lap to win the race convincingly.

Away from the racetrack, Hailwood dedicated himself to living a wild life, with all that entailed in the 1960s. He spent a lot of time with friend and rival Bill Ivy, the man often referred to as bike racing’s first rock star. On one occasion the pair turned up at Snetterton disguised as pot-smoking hippies. At other times they drove around Europe from race to race like they were filming a car chase for the next James Bond.

“Bill was in his Stingray and I had a Ferrari,” wrote Hailwood of one of their cop-baiting encounters. “We had a fantastic dice from Zurich to Clermont-Ferrand. The cars were steaming wrecks by the time we got there.”

An Isle of Man outing in Ivy’s Ferrari 275 GTB/4 – aimed at impressing a female admirer – ended less happily. “We went charging down past the Highlander at about 140mph,” recalled Hailwood. “As we came up to Greeba Castle I said, ‘Bill, you’re going a bit too fast, you’re never going to get round.’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll be all right’.”

They weren’t, of course. Ivy put the Ferrari into the wall, causing major damage. The woman ended up dizzy with shock, vomiting by the roadside.

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Fast cars weren’t his only weakness. His others were “women and drink”, according to Bryans, who remembered various incidents involving those vices. Some are unprintable; not so this tale from the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, where Redman had suffered a terrifying, career-ending accident.

“After the racing, Mike, myself and Stuart Graham jumped in Mike’s Ferrari to see how Jim was,” remembered Bryans. “The hospital was a big old chateau, staffed by nuns. After we had seen Jim we were leaving, when Mike approaches this nurse and says, ‘Excuse me, could I have a shot of streptomycin?’ The nun says, ‘Why do you want a shot of streptomycin?’ Mike says, ‘Because I’m allergic to penicillin.’ And she says, ‘But why do you require an antibiotic?’ And he says, ‘I’ve got a dose of the clap.’ He had been down in Cannes and had come back with more than he bargained for. Mike was just an ordinary bloke – he enjoyed a laugh, a drink and a party.”

He also had empathy and an ego that was very much under control. After the 1967 Senior, when he had been neck and neck with Agostini until the MV broke, he went out of his way to cheer up the heartbroken Italian.

“That evening Mike picked me up from my hotel and took me to the discotheque,” Ago says. “He told me, you were the winner today, which was fantastic.”

Then again, there were moments when he was all killer instinct. “Mike took his racing very, very seriously,” said Bryans, recalling an episode at the 1966 East German GP. “Mike’s bike had broken and Ago was running away with the race when, lo and behold, Ago crashed on the last lap. Mike was in his caravan in a foul mood. I went in and said, ‘Hey Mike, Ago just crashed!’ And what did Mike say to that? ‘F**king good!’ There was no, ‘Is he all right?’ or anything.”

This was at the height of the pair’s first duel for the 500 title, Hailwood on Honda’s fast but frightening RC181, Agostini on the much friendlier MV. Ago won and did so again in 1967. Hailwood remembered both those seasons with a shiver. “It wasn’t just the usual matter of trying to win with the RC181,” he wrote later. “It was trying to stay on the thing, it really was the most frightening experience.”

The 181 was so bad that Hailwood asked for help from the more technically minded John Surtees. “Mike said to me, come and make the Honda as nice to ride as the MV,” says Surtees, who had transformed the MV into a winner during the 1950s.

Honda withdrew from motorcycle Grand Prix racing at the end of 1967, having come from nowhere to dominate the sport in just a few years. It needed the money to spend on its new Formula 1 adventure. The company was so keen to retain its links with Hailwood that it paid him a lot of money to stay out of GP racing. Instead he rode in non-championship events and then had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at the Daytona 200 with BSA.

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When his car career ended he emigrated to New Zealand, but soon became bored and skint. The cure for these ills was obvious: a return to the TT, which had recently been shorn of GP status and was keen to revive old glories, even if it meant paying a pile of money to a balding, overweight 38-year-old who hadn’t tackled the deadly Mountain course for more than a decade.

His hugely hyped return had many fans fretting: would Mike the Bike tarnish his legend by struggling to a lowly finish before dashing to the bank?

In fact Hailwood was confident he would be on the pace. “I realised that I would be quickly down the tubes if I tried to go Grand Prix racing, but I felt the Island would continue to be kind to me and I that I could have a wobble round without disgracing myself.”

But he had much to do before the comeback, like getting to know the latest bikes and tyres, which had come a long way in a decade.

Mechanics remember him making steady, untroubled progress during testing with bikes like Yamaha’s scary TZ750 two-stroke and being as laidback as he had been as a youngster. They recall his embarrassment when asking for adjustments, in case it put them to too much trouble. “It’s OK, really, I can ride it like this,” he said.

Of course, Hailwood’s Island comeback was a great triumph. He rode the Ducati to victory in the 1978 Formula 1 TT, triggering a huge party across the Isle of Man.

Slinn still recalls the celebrations. “We had a wonderful party in a little restaurant in Douglas and saw the sun come up. Mike certainly knew how to let his hair down. He was very, very fast and people adored him because he was a nice guy. He was the last of a breed.”

The following June Hailwood did it again, wrestling a state-of-the-art Suzuki 500 GP bike to victory in the Senior TT.

Less than two years later he was dead, the innocent victim of a stupid road accident. Hailwood was driving his Rover to get fish and chips with son David and daughter Michelle when a truck made an illegal U-turn in front of them. Michelle was killed instantly, Hailwood was mortally injured and passed away two days later.

The pair were buried at St Mary Magdalene church in Tamworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire. The pallbearers included Agostini, John Surtees, James Hunt and Geoff Duke.