John Michael Hawthorn, our first British World Champion Driver, has been done no favours as increasingly frequent Grand Prix races have devalued the currency and distorted the record book.
He started only 45 World Championship GPs… and won three. They put him level with Johnny Herbert (161 Grand Prix starts), Thierry Boutsen (163), Heinz-Harald Frentzen (156) and Didier Pironi (70). A more revealing contemporary three-win match is with Phil Hill – 48 GP starts – and Peter Collins (only 32).
When I was a kid in Guildford, Surrey, Mike Hawthorn – from nearby Farnham – became our local motor racing prodigy. Early-starting Stirling Moss had been a public celeb for nearly four years when Hawthorn first burst upon the public consciousness on Easter Monday, 1952, winning three races in the day upon his Cooper-Bristol debut at Goodwood.
Born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, Mike grew up in Farnham after Brooklands-tuner father Leslie moved the family there in 1931 where Leslie’s TT Garage became established between The Albion and Duke of Cambridge pubs. Leslie was a hard-drinking, hard-driving larrikin. When Farnham’s first illuminated 30mph signs appeared – he pinched them.
While he served in the wartime Air Transport Auxiliary, blond Mike ‘studied’ at Ardingly School where he was nicknamed ‘Snowball’ and played school band bugle alongside drum major Bill Cotton Jr.
Mike began competitive motorcycle scrambling and was a reluctant apprentice at Guildford’s Dennis fire engine factory. Home life was in tumult. His parents frequently rowed so noisily that their house in Rowledge – named Merridale – was known locally as ‘Merry Hell’.
When his parents separated, Mike bridged their divide, but was especially close to Leslie. In 1950-51 they began racing together with a 1496cc Riley Sprite and 1100cc Imp. Mike won the Motor Sport Trophy in a fine full season, and Leslie’s friend Bob Chase ordered them a brand-new F2 Cooper-Bristol.
At Zandvoort for the 1952 Dutch GP the Hawthorns stayed in the same hotel as Ferrari, whose manager Amarotti ‘expressed interest’. After the Italian GP he was offered a Ferrari test drive at Modena; he loved the Ferrari 500’s brakes, got back into his Cooper-Bristol, misjudged his braking and crashed. Still, Ferrari signed him for 1953, Mike becoming the first British driver to join a Continental works team since Mercedes signed Dick Seaman in 1937.
He beat Fangio fair and square in the French GP – the first British winner since Segrave 30 years before. He celebrated with AC de Champagne secretary Jacqueline Delaunay, and fathered a son…
Ferrari retained him for 1954, but at home he – and Moss – were vilified by the press for avoiding National Service. At Syracuse he sustained severe burns but on Monday, June 7, Leslie crashed fatally while driving home from Goodwood. Devastated, Mike took on TT Garage responsibilities to help Mum, yet then won that year’s Spanish GP. His burns were still weeping. A chronic kidney problem demanded surgery, and his eventual National Service medical judged him ‘Grade 4 – unfit’.
He joined Vanwall and Jaguar for 1955, but his Le Mans victory with Ivor Bueb was overshadowed by disaster for which he initially blamed himself, then denied guilt, partly at the urging of Jaguar team manager – and surrogate father figure – ‘Lofty’ England.
Personal loss engulfed him. One chum, Mike Currie, had long-since died in a Frazer Nash. Just after Le Mans ’55 his old school-mate Don Beauman was killed in a Connaught at Wicklow. In August another pal, Julian Crossley, died after an Ulster GP motorcycle crash, and in September – again at Dundrod – Richard Mainwaring was killed in an Elva.
Mike endured this cumulative trauma as a harder, darker person. In his cups he was enormous fun, but could lurch swiftly from boisterous to boorish. He defied constraint. ‘Lofty’ – a good judge – defended him to the end; “No, Doug – he was just a thoroughly good bloke”. Nick Syrett, another friend and good judge, would concur. Mike had learned to fly in Leslie’s Fairchild Arguses, then bought a Percival Vega Gull and friends described his aviation exploits as ‘terrifying’. For many, Mike Hawthorn was either loved or loathed…
BRM in 1956 proved a disaster; a seized driveshaft joint at Goodwood saw him thrown out as the car somersaulted. He won a sports car race for Ferrari at Monza – and crashed a Lotus 11 painfully (again) at Oulton Park. His great friendship with Peter Collins provided crucial support, and in 1957 Mike joined him full-time back at Ferrari.
Into 1958 he began a serious relationship with Jean Howarth, a Hardy Amies model. Mike accumulated Championship points and won the French GP at Reims, passing his winnings to Jacqueline Delaunay. Three Grand Prix drivers died that year; Mike’s team-mate Luigi Musso at Reims, most shocking loss of all Peter Collins at the Nürburgring, and finally Stuart Lewis-Evans at Casablanca where Mike clinched the World Championship.
Hollowed out by three years of loss and elation, and dogged by his kidney deficit, he announced his immediate retirement. Mere weeks later, on a rough, wet and squally January 22, 1959, the World Champion drove London-bound in his Jaguar saloon ‘VDU 881’ and caught up with Rob Walker, Dorking-bound along the Hog’s Back road in his Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘ROB 2’. The juices surged, they tore down onto the Guildford Bypass, and under full throttle the Jaguar spun, bounced off a lorry, folded in two around a roadside tree, and just as Rob reached him, Mike Hawthorn – his skull shattered – died. Rumoured medical opinion was that he would likely have died in any case within 18 months, so rapidly was he losing kidney function.
He had been a man of his time, a fun-loving, womanising, hard-driving hooligan – adored and lionised by his mates, a man of surprising extremes, often charitable concern, keen to see kids given a proper chance. Incorrigible, vulgar, tough outside, perhaps a too-often hurt small boy inside – how can we now tell? But Mike Hawthorn was, by the standards of his time, a true Brit: on track a real sportsman – racing first, money second – and many genuinely loved him for it. If I drank, I’d raise a pint of mild and bitter in his memory. In Farnham we attend his grave on January 22 each year. Considered criticism is no bar to genuine respect.
Grands Prix: 45
Pole positions: 4
Fastest laps: 6
Other achievements: 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours (1st)
From the archives
Hawthorn’s second place gave him the title of world champion, the first time it has been won by a British driver, and though he beat Moss on points rather than a ‘knock-out’ win he has worked and driven with the quality worthy of a world champion throughout the entire season, right from the Argentine Grand Prix across the length and breadth of Europe to the moroccan grand prix.
Denis Jenkinson, November 1958
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