Mike Hawthorn: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Mike Hawthorn became Britain's first F1 World Champion in 1958. He owed it in some part to an act of great sportsmanship from his rival Stirling Moss.

Mike Hawthorn, Grand Prix of France, Reims, 05 July 1953. Mike Hawthorn's first Grand Prix victory. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Mike Hawthorn emerged victorious from the 1958 F1 finale

Getty Images

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Much was made recently of the ‘interminable’ five-week gap between the penultimate and final races of the Formula One season. And certainly it was unusual, given Bernie Ecclestone’s dislike of ‘free’ weekends. As late as August there was speculation that Bernie would insert an extra race at Jerez or Mugello, but ultimately it was decided to adhere to the calendar.

For McLaren and Ferrari, the period between the Nurburgring and Suzuka was given over to almost ceaseless testing, but 40 years ago things were a little different. After Monza, Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss had to wait six weeks for Casablanca, where they would settle the 1958 World Championship, and they had not even testing to help pass the time.

“Testing was almost unknown in those days,” Moss says. “I mean, obviously you’d do a bit when a car was brand-new, but apart from that, no. I certainly didn’t drive the Vanwall before Casablanca, and I’m pretty sure Mike didn’t drive the Ferrari, either.”

He didn’t. Rather, Hawthorn concentrated on working at his Guildford garage, aware that in the future it would become more central to his life. Already Mike had decided that the Moroccan Grand Prix Would be his last; following the death of Peter Collins, at the Nurburgring in August, his relish for competing was gone.

Mike Hawthorn, Ferrari Dino 246, Grand Prix of Portugal, Boavista, 24 August 1958. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Hawthorn in his Ferrari at the 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix

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As a 12-year-old fanatic, I was consumed by the build-up to that finale, and it was fortunate I had a sympathetic housemaster. “Hawthorn’s on Sportsview tonight,” he said to me a few days before the race. “You can stay up and watch it, if you want.”

I did, and watched rapt as Mike – puffing away – was interviewed. “Chap’s a pipe smoker, I see,” Mr Fuller remarked. “Very sound…” That rather takes it out of the late ’90s. My other memory of the broadcast was that, in the course of it, Moss called the studio, and invited his rival to “come round afterwards for a drink…” This Hawthorn duly did.

Stirling and Mike were never great friends – their personalities were too disparate for that – but that did not mean that there was anything other than pure sportsmanship in their battle. Only a few weeks earlier, after all, when Hawthorn was facing disqualification from the Portuguese GP, Moss interceded on his behalf, arguing that Mike had not, as the officials claimed, broken any rule. Hard to imagine today.

Whatever, Hawthorn kept his six points from Oporto, and thus, as they came to Casablanca, the situation was that Moss had to win (eight points in those days) and take fastest lap (one point), with Mike finishing lower than second. A state of affairs, in point of fact, almost identical to that facing Hakkinen and Schumacher as they headed off to Suzuka.

Had the scoring system then been as now, with every point counting, Hawthorn would have clinched the title even before Casablanca, but it was based on the six best results from the 10 Grands Prix. And while Moss, prior to the final race, had scored on only five occasions, Hawthorn had taken points eight times: already he had dropped a sixth and a fifth place, and next to go would be a third. That being so, he needed second place in Morocco to add two points to his total which would give him the title by a single point, if Moss were to score a maximum.

To Casablanca, finally. There was no British European Airways flight available, so Tony Vandervell, suspicious of foreign airlines, chartered a Viscount from BEA, and offered seats on it to friends in the business. His number one driver declined, Moss discovering another quicker and cheaper charter flight. Hawthorn, though, did accept! You can see it now, can’t you, Schumacher hitching a ride on Ron Dennis’s jet…

Moss got everything right in Morocco. To some degree, he admitted, there was no real pressure on him that weekend, for there were no tactics to weigh up; given the points situation, all he could do was go for it, leaving Hawthorn to run his own race, and hope for the best.

To the surprise of everyone, not least himself, Hawthorn beat Moss to pole position by a tenth, but as soon as the race started the Vanwall seized the lead, and the Ferrari which chased it was that of Phil Hill, then very much a Formula One novice, albeit an extremely swift one.

On the third lap, indeed, Hill tried to outbrake Moss into a turn, but slid straight on into an escape road. Ferrari, believe it or not, had gone to this crucial race with different brake systems on each of the three cars,. Hawthorn’s and Olivier Gendebien’s having discs (Dunlop and Girling, respectively!), and Phil, much the fastest of the team’s drivers at this race, had the drums that Enzo Ferrari was typically unwilling to discard.

Whatever, Hill was soon back in second place once more, although Stirling was now out of reach. In a car running perfectly, he remorselessly extended his lead and set fastest lap, taking the point to go with it.

As for Hawthorn, all seemed well initially. So long as Hill was running second, he didn’t worry that Moss was leading, for he knew that his team-mate would ultimately let him into the second place he needed. But shortly before half-distance Mike began to fret, for Tony Brooks, having made a bad start, caught him, and then squeezed past. One Vanwall ahead of him Hawthorn could afford; two was a different matter.

Mike Hawthorn, Ferrari 246, Grand Prix of Morocco, Ain-Diab Circuit, Casablanca, 19 October 1958. Mike Hawthorn on his way to second place in the 1958 Grand Prix of Morocco, the final race of the season, when he clinched the World Championship title. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Hawthorn finished second in Morocco, gaining enough points to secure the 1958 World Championship

Getty Images

After 30 of the 53 laps, though, Brooks’s engine comprehensively blew, showering his rear tyres with oil. The Vanwall spun off harmlessly, but Gendebien and privateer Francois Picard crashed together on the oil, and both were seriously hurt.

From the archive

Worse, though, much worse, was to come. In the closing laps the third Vanwall, driven by Stuart Lewis-Evans, seized its engine at around 160mph, and in the ensuing accident a fuel pipe was broken. Terribly burned, Lewis-Evans got himself out of the car, but he was to die six days later, after returning to England on Vandervell’s charter flight, lying on a stretcher, attended only by a nurse. Not all was good about the old days.

As the race went into its late stages. Ferrari duly instructed Hill back off, allowing Hawthorn into second place, and at the finish the red cars were 25 seconds behind Moss. Final points totals: Mike 42, Stirling 41.

I was late into school chapel that Sunday evening, having hung around outside, my ‘transistor’ clapped to my ear, waiting for the news from Morocco. When they said that Moss had won, my spirits momentarily soared, for I was an avid fan – but then they added that Hawthorn had been second, and thus become World Champion, despite winning only one Grand Prix to Stirling’s four.

A lot of decisions were made in those hours following the race. Hawthorn told the Ferrari management that he was retiring, and Moss resolved in future to worry less about the World Championship. Tony Vandervell, appalled by what had befallen Lewis-Evans in one of his cars, decided that enough was enough. Vanwall had won the Manufacturers Championship, but for the boss it was the team’s darkest hour.

The following week, Autocar said this: “‘The sportsmanship and friendly spirit that (Moss and Hawthorn) have shown to the other throughout the season has been a pleasure to watch and should settle once and for all any suggestion that motor racing is a cut-throat business in which there is little room for finer feelings and good sportsmanship.”

Ah me.