Mike the car

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Two stabs at F1 yielded no victories, but don’t be fooled by the record books. Hailwood was good enough to win at racing’s top echelon writer Paul Fearnley

Mike Hailwood took easily to Formula 1. Its driving aspect at least. At the second time of asking, that is. His first was premature, beset by distraction, frustration and unease. A living god on two wheels one week, lumbered with a four-wheeled dog the next, he railed against claustrophobic cockpits and cloistered paddocks. “I’m always glad to get back to a motorcycle meeting,” he admitted in 1964, a season of unbroken motorbike success with MV Agusta cleft by a shattered F1 dream. “The motorcycle gang are much more friendly.”

If his distaste was fundamentally tribal, there had been devil in F1’s detail, too. “I feel far more in control of a bike than I ever do in a racing car,” he continued. “The most difficult thing I found was to change gear with my hand… stirring rather than just going up or down all the time [with my foot]. I never knew which gear I was in, or which I was going into next, which was quite frightening. 

“A car weaves, its wheels wobble, and around the corners you never know where it’s going to go. You turn the wheel and it understeers, sometimes. You put your foot down and it starts sliding. It’s against all my principles having ridden bikes since I was seven. I get tense when you’re supposed to relax and drive your way out of a slide. It’ll take a couple of years to get used to it.”

Perhaps lulled by John Surtees’ seamless transition of 1960 – albeit in arguably the most competitive car of his F1 career, a works Lotus 18 – Hailwood had underestimated the task. He made his F1 debut at Silverstone’s 1963 British GP after just three Formula Junior races – two of which he won – and finished a distant yet competent eighth in a privateer Lotus 24-Climax on carbs. He contested 23 F1 races thereafter and ran as high as fourth in Austria (after a spin) and America in 1964, but had only a single world championship point to his name: sixth at Monaco 1964 in an oversteering Lotus 25-BRM. What’s more, he was paying for the ‘privilege’ through an unwise investment in the late Reg Parnell’s team; Mike inherited none of his millionaire father’s acumen. He wised up after a disappointing Monaco in 1965, sold his share back to Tim Parnell and walked away. 

***

RICHARD ATTWOOD “I had gone to the team’s Hounslow base to see if I fitted the car and noticed that its steering wheel was labelled ‘steering wheel’. Also there was a note saying ‘gear lever’ with a big arrow pointing to the gear lever. Just ridiculous. I soon realised who had done it and why. Mike must have thought I was a public school puff. That’s why he started taking the Mickey straight away. He was quite offhand when I met him, flippant in a defensive way. 

“Concentrating on my own thing, I was vaguely aware that he was struggling. I’d arrived from BRM with a fettled works engine, whereas his was standard. Plus Monaco suited me and I loved the place. After qualifying [Attwood was the quicker by 2.6 seconds] he realised that I had more ability than he’d given me credit for and we ended up having the most fantastic weekend. We saw the dawn come up. We both had a girl. It started as a shambles but we were blood brothers by the end. 

“For me, however, it was an opportunity. For him, F1 was a disaster. He was probably too busy to test properly and perhaps he didn’t give it a fair go. But he proved much later how quick he was in a car. Stunning on occasion.
I think he might have been faster than John Surtees. Certainly he was on a par.”

Six years – and five more motorbike world titles – later, he was back, driving for Team Surtees and scratching for victory in F1’s most frenetic GP: five men, all desperately seeking their maiden victory, separated by six tenths. Though Hailwood didn’t prevail that hazy September day at Monza – he finished fourth behind Formula 5000 sparring (and partying) partner Peter Gethin – he had, aged 31, joined Ronnie Peterson and François Cevert in the ‘next generation’. 

There was inevitability to ‘Surtees & Hailwood’. Their fathers had raced each other in sidecars before WWII and Mike followed John from Norton to Reg Parnell via MV. Their similarities ran only leathers-deep, however: Surtees was intense, studious and technically minded, whereas Hailwood’s idea of a successful debriefing was a racy conclusion to another wild night. 

JOHN SURTEES “A natural rider, he tended to ride around problems. When he came to cars he wasn’t getting the best out of himself relative to their set-up. He had no knowledge yet wouldn’t ask; I had to approach him. He was telling me his problems when I said; ‘You need to ride… drive for another motorcyclist who understands what you’re feeling’.” 

TIM SCHENKEN “Mike just turned up, drove and then left. He didn’t have to work at it. He was just quick. He didn’t get involved in any technical stuff and had no time for politics. That suited John perfectly because he didn’t need anybody else fussing or worrying about this, that or the other because he wrapped himself up in all of that. They had that biker’s bond, too.”

Their car relationship was forged in F5000 during the bulk of 1971. Hailwood had already enjoyed two convivial and competitive seasons in these rugged single-seaters aboard twitchy Lolas run by Jackie Epstein. He’d also spent 1969 driving Gulf Ford GT40s and Mirage for JW Automotive Engineering. The surprise withdrawal of Honda – “The people I was driving… riding for” – prior to the 1968 season had left him at a loose end. Paid a £50,000 retainer not to ride for anyone else, it was the ideal opportunity to give cars another try. 

DAVID HOBBS “When Bernard White, a rich guy from Yorkshire with no visible means of support, told me I’d be sharing one of his cars in the 1966 [winter] Springbok Series with Mike Hailwood, my hackles went up. Bikers weren’t high on my list of social types. Likewise, Mike probably thought I was a snobby toff. We were billeted with a family and rolled up separately but, within about 15 seconds, we realised we were two peas in a pod. 

“So I was full of enthusiasm when [JWAE] told me he was to replace Paul Hawkins as my co-driver. I thought Mike’s driving terrific: very fast, very good in the wet, very underrated. He was just brilliant. He moved unbelievably well when he danced; he played clarinet, guitar, drums and piano; and he was a fantastic water-skier. He had a girl in every port, too. Quite remarkable.

“But he had a dark side and could be moody. [Jacky] Ickx infuriated him beyond measure because he was such a cocky little… and [team manager] David Yorke treated him like Helmut Marko treated Vettel. Mike read voraciously and once, when he was leaping about trying to catch a butterfly – something Yorke found terrifically amusing – Jacky bumped into him. Mike just looked up from his book and said, ‘Hey, I was winning races and world titles when you…’ He wasn’t some pikey off the street. Mike had tremendous credentials of his own. Jacky hit a raw spot. So, to a certain degree, did Jackie Oliver [Ickx’s co-driver]; Mike called him the ‘Romford Yobbo’.

“We would have won at Le Mans but for Yorke. We were a lap ahead of the other car when our brake pedal went to the floor approaching Mulsanne. Yorke immediately ordered a pad-change. I shouted, ‘No, it’s more than that!’ but he ignored me. He didn’t like me. Sure enough, I almost ran over the poor marshal at the end of the pitlane and we lost more time with another stop after a slow lap. A balance weight had chafed through the caliper’s bridge pipe.”

They finished third, four laps in arrears of winners Ickx/Oliver.

Though Hailwood wisely steered clear of F1’s glare as he learned his craft the second time around, he had plenty of convincing to do still, particularly after an embarrassing accident at Le Mans in a Gulf Porsche 917 the following year.

JOHN HORSMAN “He came in for a scheduled fuel stop [from third place after three hours] and it started spotting with rain. Asked if he wanted intermediates, he declined. The heavens opened two or three minutes later. We had the jacks and tyres ready but he went sailing past, only to crash out near the Dunlop Bridge.”

HOBBS “He never said why. He probably thought he could handle it. [Team boss] John Wyer shouted, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you!’ That hurt. We went back to the hotel and had a helluva night, albeit for the wrong reasons. Attwood and [Hans] Herrmann won with a 4.5-litre engine like ours; the 5-litres weren’t yet reliable. We would have won easily. But I had no major recriminations with Mike.”

The unimpressed Wyer wasn’t alone, however. Motor Sport correspondent Denis Jenkinson, a sidecar world champion, was often snippy about Hailwood’s larrikin image, while others queried his continuing to occasionally compete on bikes: privateer Hondas in the UK, Italy’s Temporada Romagnola and South Africa; a Seeley at Mallory Park’s 1969 Race of the Year; and works BSAs at the Daytona 200. Shy and detached rather than arrogant, confident rather than conceited, Hailwood hated unpunctuality and complained that his “Mucky bugger!” tenant Niki Lauda never washed up or made his bed. That, however, was not how many of the car brigade perceived ‘Micycle the Bicycle’. 

SURTEES “Being in and out, he had made few friends in cars and wasn’t accepted until he started properly. Then they had to treat him seriously.”

PAULINE HAILWOOD “He was pleased to be offered a drive [by Surtees]. F1 is what he wanted to do by then. Mike and John knew they were chalk and cheese and understood each other, I think.”

SURTEES “He used to get terribly wound up before a race, so there wasn’t much point sending him to bed early. He’d never have slept anyway. I had an extremely high regard for him and a lot of confidence in him. A very special talent on bikes and in cars, he was so unfortunate not to win the odd F1 race with us.”

***

Runner-up in the 1972 F5000 Tasman Series, Hailwood dashed to Kyalami for the South African GP – he’d missed the Argentina opener – and qualified fourth despite losing Thursday’s practice session to a gearbox problem. The race’s fastest man, he had leader Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell 003 at his mercy – “There was no way I wasn’t going to win that one” – when a bolt in his TS9B’s rear suspension broke on lap 29. 

A fortnight later he qualified on the front row for the Brands Hatch Race of Champions and finished second to Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72. In April’s International Trophy at a bitterly cold Silverstone, he again set fastest lap, and passed ‘Emmo’ for the lead at Copse on lap 24, only for a faulty cooling system cap to let his water boil away. 

In May he kick-started his European Formula 2 campaign with a second place and lap record (for all eternity) at Crystal Palace. June brought him a fourth at the Belgian GP and another F2 second and fastest lap, at Rouen. Fittipaldi beat him on the latter occasion but was ineligible for points as a graded driver. Cosworth had also favoured the Brazilian’s Lotus 69 with a rare BDF engine, whereas Hailwood’s TS10 used a smaller-capacity BDA tuned by Brian Hart. 

After scoring a point in July’s French GP at Clermont-Ferrand, he was again content to play second fiddle to Fittipaldi and his BDF – and cannily score another maximum – at the Österreichring. In Emmo’s absence, he then won outright at Sweden’s Mantorp Park in August. He also won the first heat, from pole, at Enna, but retired from the second. Between F2 times he finished fourth in the Austrian GP. 

September began with another outright F2 victory, at Salzburgring, and included another starring role at an Italian GP: had his airbox not come adrift after 19 laps, costing him 300rpm, he might have won rather than finish second to Fittipaldi. A decision to skip the Canadian GP, in a bid to secure the F2 title at Albi, looked like paying dividends when he won his heat, defeating the Brabham of rival Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, but he struck trouble in the final. Instead he sealed the championship the following weekend, at Hockenheim, with another calculating second place behind a graded driver with a BDF.

An F2 victory at Interlagos in November – that man Fittipaldi beat him to the three-race Torneio title – wrapped up an excellent season. In contrast 1973 began to unravel from the moment – five laps from victory in the Race of Champions – when his TS14A’s rear suspension collapsed and Mike threw his crash helmet to the ground in a rare display of petulance. Those F1 frustrations were building again.

***

SURTEES “We were the first [in 1972] to build a full crushable structure for the new regulations [in 1973] and that worked against us when they backtracked; our car could have been lighter. Then Firestone announced its withdrawal. It backtracked, too, and made one tyre construction. Our fronts were destroyed. And I would have loved a batch of fresh engines and to run shorter mileages. We did an awful lot on not a vast budget but there were lots of silly things. It was a shame for both of us.”

 PAULINE HAILWOOD “Mike became very disheartened, to put it politely.”

Certainly he seemed down in the dumps when interviewed for the 1973 drama-doc Champions Forever: “I’ve got nothing in common at all with the other [F1] drivers. We stay in the same hotels but sit at separate tables. And the guys I have got something in common with – the mechanics, a really great bunch of guys – are always working. So it’s a pretty lonely sort of deal.”

Sports-prototypes provided some hope. Co-driven by John Watson, he led February’s Daytona 24 Hours until a clutch-release bearing failed, but thereafter he remained an outsider for victory, his Gulf Mirage M6 overweight and underpowered compared with rivals Ferrari
and Matra.

JOHN WATSON “The nearest thing to deification I ever met, I was pinching myself when he said, ‘Hi John, I’m Mike.’ He appeared totally unaffected by his notoriety and fame. I found him easy to talk to and relaxing to be with. No politics, no bullshit, no trying to work the oracle within the team. He wasn’t pushy, didn’t seek the limelight and was underrated because he wasn’t an operator.”

HORSMAN “He was one of the easiest to work with. No messing about with a quarter-inch on the front rollbar. He just got in and drove. Fast. A good man to have on your side. For instance, not many liked the result of
Derek Bell’s set-ups yet Mike had no problem sharing with him.”

That adaptability was illustrated by a remarkable personal 1-2 at May’s Spa 1000Kms. The day began painfully when Hailwood sat on the filler cap and was squirted with fuel minutes before the start. An early puncture came as blessed relief – he dashed into the garage to tear at his overalls – but forced the team to juggle its line-up: Howden Ganley switched cars and finished second with Vern Schuppan, while a recovered but still tender Hailwood joined Bell on the top step.

F1 offered no such glimmers and, having failed to collect a single point, Hailwood was ripe for change. Normally he had no time for F1 financial shenanigans, but when Surtees was obliged to accommodate new sponsor Bang & Olufsen’s insistence on Jochen Mass, and McLaren was hectored into running an extra car to appease established sponsor Yardley, Hailwood grabbed the resultant opportunity as though it were his last.

ALASTAIR CALDWELL “Fittipaldi had the Marlboro money and wanted to drive for us. We hoped to pay off Yardley – but they wouldn’t have it. They negotiated hard in fact and Mike got a good set-up because of it. He had his own spare and we ran two teams, two trucks and two sets of mechanics. All three cars had to be exactly the same so that nobody would have a technical advantage and that caused us a huge amount of work because I don’t think we raced the chassis in the same configuration at consecutive races. 

“Luckily, Mike was pretty laidback. A good friend before he joined us, he was very much a member of our set. Whereas [his predecessor] Peter Revson had been very impressed with… Revson, which didn’t sit well with our Kiwi element, Mike suited us fine. We had no problems with him as a man or a driver.”

WATSON “Mike’s loyalty to Surtees had been commendable. Although John’s cars were capable of running at the front, they lacked consistency and reliability because his team was always fighting fires. So 1974, when Mike was in a great car run by a very good team, was his only true F1 benchmark. Clearly he had the potential to win a GP.”

In an M23 that ‘went where he pointed it’ – wings and slicks suited his bike-bred neat style and fast-corner commitment – Hailwood finished fourth in Argentina, fifth in Brazil and third in South Africa: the only driver to score in each of the first three GPs. He also finished fourth at the Race of Champions and was running second in the International Trophy when he suffered a clutch problem. 

A battling second in a Gulf GR7, co-driven by Bell, at the Spa 1000Kms, plus a fourth at Le Mans after a litany of problems, maintained his confidence during a minor F1 slump. Then, at Zandvoort in June for the Dutch GP, he finished fourth – the only man to run ahead of the dominant Ferraris that day – and had it not been for broken wheel studs, an unheralded problem, he might have won the wet/dry Österreichring 1000Kms with Bell.

PAULINE HAILWOOD “He was delighted with the results and felt he was achieving something. When he had his accident at the Nürburgring he was sixth in the F1 championship [equal with team-mate and good friend Denny Hulme] and I think he could have won a GP. I think he thought so, too. He was full of confidence now.”

Battling the Lotus 72s of Peterson and Ickx for fourth, Hailwood landed awkwardly at Pflanzgarten on the penultimate lap and snapped sharp right into the barrier. The omens had not been good. He had crashed his GR7 in similar circumstances at May’s Nürburgring 750Kms and written-off his preferred M23/1 during practice for the GP. Although the latter incident was caused by a wishbone failure as he crested the rise before the pits, Hailwood put his race crash down to a lapse of concentration.

CALDWELL “It was rare for McLarens to break. They were strong. We never had any trouble with the minimum weight. My memory of it is that he made a mistake. It was such a shame. He was never going to be at genius level but probably would have won races had he been able to stay with us.”

PAULINE HAILWOOD “The spirit was willing but the body wasn’t up it. He’d broken both legs. The left was quite straightforward but the right was complicated: the heel was shattered and the ankle pushed down and compacted. It soon became clear that doctors couldn’t fix it. Mike was devastated. He took it very hard. That leg was an inch shorter and had very little movement. The foot went gammy and its toes started to claw and metal rods had to be inserted. He had a few operations and lots of rehabilitation. There were plenty of sad moments and it took a long time to readjust. He suffered withdrawal symptoms. I don’t think he’d ever looked on F1 as a bit of a lark.”

HOBBS “Although he’d got off to a pretty spotty start driving some pretty substandard stuff, I always felt that he had the skill to win in F1. His results don’t back that up because things let him down.”

Hailwood in retirement reckoned that he had got as good as he was going to be on four wheels and was unconvinced that he’d been a shoo-in to replace the retiring Hulme alongside Fittipaldi at Marlboro Team McLaren in 1975. (Imagine him and Hunt together in 1976!) When he crashed an F1 Lotus 18/21 during an exploratory test at a wet Silverstone in 1961 he might have guessed that he was unlikely to match his motorbike exploits. He would have known for sure 10 years later. Although the thrill of the chase, a fascination with the new, drove him on, his relationship with cars remained love-hate.

ATTWOOD “He always felt he was a biker. We were holidaying somewhere when David Hobbs said, ‘Why don’t you put your leathers on?’ – something like that, something [jokey] about bikes not being as good as cars. That really cut into Mike. He felt savage about it and was really frosty. It only lasted a short time but it really got to him. It was a class thing’.” 

‘Mike the Car’ was talented indeed, but ‘Mike the Bike’ was, well, ‘Mike the Bike’: a class apart. Four wheels good, two wheels never bettered.