Mike Hawthorn: Britain's forgotten world champion

Stirling Moss never thought that his great British rival looked at ease in a racing car; whereas he was laid-back and languid, Mike Hawthorn was stooped and scrunched. That the latter was substantially taller than the standard template was obvious; the other reason for his discomfort, however, had to be suffered in secret.

Because the fact is that it was a wounded man – drained of energy and emotionally scarred – that mustered and husbanded the inner fortitude required to beat Moss in 1958 to become Britain’s first world champion. That season he had witnessed the fatal accidents of team-mate Luigi Musso and ‘Mon Ami, Mate’ Peter Collins. There was no joy to be had. Our once glistering ‘Golden Boy’ was and had been tarnished.

And strangely 60 years to the month after his death in a tragic road accident in January 1959, that tarnishing remains. He of the beery bonhomie, cheery smile and jaunty bow tie is not remembered in the same way as Moss, Stewart, Hill or Clark. His face recognisable but dimmed to the modern generation by time. Perhaps in our stat obsessed time it is the unremarkable record. Perhaps it is because it had seemed so easy initially. 

Witness that tendency to win at the first time of asking: class honours at 1950’s Brighton Speed Trials; and, on the occasion of his single-seater debut, those sensational, life-changing successes in Juan Fangio’s presence at 1952’s Easter Goodwood. Though he did not win upon his world championship Grand Prix bow, fourth in the rain of Spa-Francorchamps in June 1952 was in many ways a victory. But it was the way he won and raced that should be used to define him and that prove the injustice of denying his brilliance. Here, to mark the anniversary of his death, we pick out five defining drives that fly in the face of the stats.

Boreham, 2 August, 1952

This 200-miler on the Essex airfield bidding to usurp Silverstone was emblematic of what might have been – three 4.5-litre Ferraris and two BRM V16s, surplus Formula 1 cars all, sweeping the front row – and what was and would be. Hawthorn, starting from the second row, made rapid progress in pouring rain until he was “too enterprising” attempting a pass on Louis Rosier’s privateer Ferrari. Yet still he was soon to take the lead from Luigi Villoresi’s works version and pull away at 5sec per lap. 

More than 40sec ahead after 42 (of 67) laps, his victory bid hampered now by slackening rain and improving visibility, Hawthorn could do nothing – although he did cheekily repass briefly – about the recovering Villoresi. He would, however, have staved off Brazilian ‘Chico’ Landi’s Ferrari for second but for an ominous clanking noise – his 2-litre’s flywheel had loosened – that forced him to reduce rpm. Even so the star of the show finished a lap ahead of the next-best Formula 2 competitor – and had lapped a BRM twice before it retired.

Enzo Ferrari, like Fangio and Villoresi, had taken note and in 1953 Hawthorn’s promotion ahead of Moss as ‘Brit Most Likely’ was confirmed by his signing to drive the best GP car for the biggest team. As he had with his Cooper, he did not break step: fourth in the Argentine GP of January, third in a Formule Libre event at Buenos Aires and second in the non-championship Pau GP, plus victories in May’s International Trophy at Silverstone and Ulster Trophy at Dundrod. He finished fourth at Zandvoort’s Dutch GP in June, too. And when team leader Alberto Ascari, reigning world champion and winner of the past nine Grands Prix, shrugged to say, “Take it away; I can’t go faster!” this blithe, spirited Englishman assumed the role…

Reims, 5 July, 1953

Hawthorn qualified seventh but was in the leading slipstreaming mix from the off. His was exalted company: all three world champions plus Villoresi and, his Maserati on half-tanks, the haring José Froilán González. As such, not until the last 10 laps (of 60) did Hawthorn, in his ninth GP, dream that he might win. So he and Fangio grinned at each other – whereas ‘Nino’ Farina scowled in concentration – as they diced back and forth, and they continued to do so even after the Englishman had nerfed the Maserati’s tail under heavy braking. 

At the last corner of the last lap, with the one-stopping González closing rapidly, Hawthorn outfumbled Fangio and ducked down for the long straight run home – and won by 1sec. Yet this ‘Race of the Age’ almost hadn’t happened. Only at the last minute did Ferrari rescind a threat to withdraw in response to its disqualification from the lead of the accompanying Reims 12 Hours sports car event.

Three weeks later Hawthorn and Farina teamed up to win the Spa 24 Hours despite running on sidelights (unnecessarily so, as it transpired) and nursing a failing back axle. In August Hawthorn finished third in the German and Swiss GPs and, co-driven by Umberto Maglioli, won the Pescara 12 Hours. He noted in the 1957 autobiography, Challenge Me the Race, that “…it was going to be some time before things ran my way quite so smoothly again.” Arguably they never did. Tragedy was part and parcel but an unfair share would land on Hawthorn’s doorstep.

Left without a drive at the Nürburgring 1000km after his engine was appropriated for a sister car, Hawthorn mucked in with the preparation of close friend Michael Currie’s Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica, to be co-driven by Hawthorn’s protégé Don Beauman. They finished 11th and won their class but tragically Currie would be killed on the journey home when he struck an unlit barrier at a frontier post.

Disqualified from January’s Argentine GP for a push start after spinning, Hawthorn’s 1954 campaign descended swiftly into personal pain and ever-deepening tragedy, public humiliation and vilification. 

Exhausted by heat and dazed after spinning from the lead due to engine failure at the last corner of the Buenos Aires GP, he collapsed, staggered and avoided narrowly being run over by Harry Schell’s Maserati. The warning signs had been present as long ago as 1951 when Hawthorn, a sufferer of back pain since his teens, collapsed the day after a victory at Dundrod – his first event outside England and first on a road course – in a cart-sprung pre-war Riley. Though his kidney disease soon became chronic, life – and death – got in the way of diagnosis and treatment.

A crash in the Syracuse GP of April put him in hospital in need of skin grafts to repair second-degree burns to his left hand, wrist, arm and both legs. Already at low ebb because of the bubbling parliamentary scandal surrounding his avoidance of National Service – he’d successfully applied for a deferment in 1952 and heard nothing about a possible call-up since joining Ferrari – Hawthorn’s convalescence was cut short tragically by the death of his father/tuner in a road accident returning from Goodwood. Not every newspaper was sympathetic upon Hawthorn’s enforced UK return; and Army doctors, upon seeing his bandaged legs, told him coldly to report back in three months.

Hawthorn considered quitting. But racing was his release, an escape, as well as an addiction, a trap. So instead he had to be hauled from his Ferrari after it had gassed him during the Belgian GP; and a blown engine during the French GP sent him skittering down an escape road, spinning to a halt mere feet short of a barrier blocking his path.

 Scuderia Ferrari was clinging by its fingernails, too, the new Squalo F1 car was a problematic handful and a grumpy Enzo seeking governmental/industrial help in an unequal struggle against the mighty Mercedes-Benz. González and Hawthorn worked wonders in its hybrid stopgap – the fundamentally sound F2 500 with enlarged engine – to finish 1-2 in the British GP. The former was at the top of his game when protégé Onofre Marimón was killed in practice for the German GP at the Nürburgring and so there was no joy to be had from his sharing second place with Hawthorn. When a practice accident at Dundrod for September’s RAC TT put the burly Argentinian in hospital, Hawthorn thought his team-mate joking when he said that he was done with it. (He wasn’t quite.)

Pedralbes, 24 October, 1954

With the Squalo transformed by swapping transverse leaf spring for coils at the front, Hawthorn qualified on the front row alongside Mercedes’ new world champion Fangio and, on pole, Alberto Ascari in Lancia’s much- and long-anticipated D50. The latter hit the front on the second lap, immediately set the fastest lap and was leading by 20sec when anticipated technical gremlins bit, on lap nine. Hawthorn, recovering from a spin, now joined a frantic battle for first between team-mate Maurice Trintignant and Schell’s Maserati and, on lap 24 (of 80), bluffed the latter into braking too late for a turn. 

Hawthorn was away and gone and not even Fangio, his W196 running too rich and, due to paper blocking its grille, too hot, could not respond; Hawthorn would lap him before claiming a victory in defiance of all that he had endured. 

But his tribulations weren’t over and he finished the year recuperating for five weeks in a nursing home having gone under the knife at London’s Guy’s Hospital. The prognosis was cause for pragmatism over optimism and it’s little wonder that Hawthorn considered his options. Not one who enjoyed travelling for travelling’s sake – unless by his own aeroplane – he decided to stay closer to home and the family’s garage/showroom in order to continue racing. He signed to drive Vanwall’s nascent F1 car and replaced Moss – generally friendly and always sporting, they were never to be team-mates – at Jaguar.

It began well when he shared the winning D-Type at the Sebring 12 Hours – Hawthorn’s first race in America. It was closely run. Cylinder head warping with two hours remaining, the Jag began using too much oil and water. Co-driver Phil Walters eventually ran out of fuel on a precautionary extra lap that was felt necessary because of an impending charting controversy. That they were given the official nod over a Ferrari did not endear Hawthorn to Enzo; that still he held the door open for him was indicative of Hawthorn’s standing within the Scuderia. Handily. For Vanwall was a work in progress, its team naive and boss Tony Vandervell cooking a clutch having insisted that he drive his racing car from Spa town to the circuit. Unimpressed, Hawthorn was back with a slumping Ferrari by mid-June’s Dutch GP. 

By which time the sport, already reeling from the deaths of Ascari and Indy star Bill Vukovich, was in disarray in the immediate aftermath of its most calamitous accident.

The svelte D-type had been designed specifically for the smooth Le Mans circuit, with its long straights and heavy braking; only at the medium-speed White House corner did Hawthorn feel disadvantaged due to its production underpinnings. In contrast the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR was a pure prototype, built with no regard to cost, with direct fuel injection, desmodromic valve-gear, a five-speed gearbox (to the D’s four), independent suspension (to the D’s live back axle) – and now featuring an air brake to protect its drums while undermining the advantage of Jaguar’s discs. When Fangio took the lead and began to edge away, Hawthorn was “mesmerised momentarily”. Whereupon he realised that nobody else could do anything about it – they had dropped the powerful but under-braked Ferrari of Eugenio Castellotti – and knuckled down: “Why should a German car beat a British car?” 

Had it been the Le Mans Two and a Half Hours, theirs might have replaced ‘The Race of the Age’ for all the right reasons. 

Hawthorn, having set fastest lap, was leading and bound for his first planned stop as he passed Lance Macklin’s disc-braked Austin-Healey 100S on the approach to the pits and their unprotected apron. Though he insisted that he had signalled his intentions, he caught Macklin unawares, whose sudden swerve in avoidance launched Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz. It was a racing accident born of fractional misjudgments on a high-speed section too narrow for purpose. But its terrible consequences reached far beyond the sporting realm and it took all of team manager/mentor ‘Lofty’ England’s persuasiveness to talk his distraught number one into continuing. 

Despite photos of a drawn Hawthorn glugging Champagne from a bottle lowered too casually into his cockpit, again there was no joy to be had in (eventual) victory – Mercedes-Benz had withdrawn from the lead at 2am – and as the mainstream press and public opinion closed darkly and threateningly in.

Dundrod, 18 September, 1955

There could be no doubting the 300SLR’s superiority on this bumpy circuit, especially in the wet. Moss was uncatchable. But his team-mate Fangio was more circumspect in two-seaters and he and Hawthorn engaged in another furious duel for second place. And when Moss suffered a right-rear blowout and lost time in the pits as mechanics tore at flayed bodywork, the singleton works D-type took the lead.

As had late Le Mans replacement Ivor Bueb, co-driver (and local hero) Desmond Titterington drove superbly in support of Hawthorn to draw away from Moss’s American co-driver John Fitch. The damp roads persisted, however, and Moss could not be denied.

Hawthorn, who made his great rival work very hard for victory, also lost a sure-fire second when his XK’s crankshaft broke on the penultimate lap. Clearly, however, he remained ferociously competitive despite everything else. 

And ‘everything else’ included the fatal accidents of his good buddies Beauman, who was killed in July’s Leinster Trophy, and Julian Crossley, who spent more than a week in a coma before succumbing to injuries sustained in August’s 350cc Ulster GP at Dundrod. 

In the TT itself Moss and Hawthorn had on its second lap plunged into the smoke of the crash site that contained the wreckage of Macklin’s Healey and had also claimed the lives of Bill Smith and Jim Mayers. 

Hawthorn had known Mayers since his Riley days and had known Richard Mainwaring, who was killed in the closing stages when his Elva flipped and caught alight, since their schooldays. 

Unable to ink a deal with Enzo that would allow him to continue his association with Jaguar, Hawthorn signed for BRM for F1 in 1956. Its P25 possessed formidable acceleration and short-term speed but lacked the balance and (relative) reliability of its Italian rivals. It chucked Hawthorn out at Goodwood in April and another seizing universal joint – without the painful skinning consequences this time – ended his spell leading the British GP and called a premature halt to a delayed and stuttering programme.

Even Jaguar failed him that season. With a sizeable capacity advantage over prototypes (in theory now limited to 2500cc) due to the D-type’s productionised status, his engine began to misfire on the fourth lap. By the time the cause had been traced to a crack in an injector pipe too much time had been lost and the pre-race favourite, again co-driven commendably by Bueb, could finish only sixth.

Another difficult season, although not as grievous as 1955, came to an abrupt and injurious end with a crash, another inversion, in a Lotus Eleven at Oulton Park in August. Seeking a port in a storm Hawthorn approached Ferrari for 1957 – for F1 and sports cars this time – and struck a deal, albeit on the basis that he was to be jointly number one with Collins, Castellotti – soon to be killed testing at Modena – and Luigi Musso until the F1 season had taken shape. 

It proved no sinecure; not one victory came his way. Overshadowed by Collins, as well specialists Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill, in sports cars – endurance racing had become a tiresome task to be endured and where possible avoided – Hawthorn might have won in F1 had he not punctured on debris from leader Jean Behra’s detonating Maserati at Aintree’s British GP or had he not, overly confident and comfortingly supported by Collins, backed off too soon at the Nürburgring and been caught and passed by an inspired Fangio, his Maserati on fresher rubber. 

Hawthorn vowed to put matters – bad luck and misjudgments – right in 1958. Had he decided already to make this his last season? Probably not. But doctors had warned that illness would be increasingly against him. 

His new Ferrari 246 V6 Dino, smaller and lighter, had been tested and race-proven before the implementation of the F1 regulations for which it had conceived, designed and built. In contrast BRM and Vanwall struggled to modify existing machines to suit: mandatory use of pump fuel and GPs shortened by a third. As a result, Hawthorn – on Englebert tyres generally inferior to rivals’ Dunlops – played a canny game that belied his reputation, nursing sick cars and regularly picking up the point available for fastest lap – at Monaco, Spa, Reims, Silverstone and Oporto – without shedding entirely that famed feistiness; a coruscating letter to Enzo after a disastrous Dutch GP had had a galvanizing effect. And when the stars aligned he delivered his most consummate performance.

Reims, 6 July, 1958

Hawthorn was not a fan of this triangular road circuit in Champagne – but it seemed to like him. On pole by seven-tenths, he made a rare good getaway; he had become obsessively protective of clutches. That’s not to say he led from the start. He was, however, leading by the end of the opening lap having overtaken Musso, Tony Brooks (Vanwall) and Schell (BRM). 

He was relentless thereafter, pulling away despite feathering the throttle on the long straights while not forgetting to ace another fastest lap in the closing stages. Only as he overhauled Fangio, who was holding fourth place, did he hesitate before respectfully deciding not to lap the great man in what turned out to be his farewell race.

On his slowing-down lap Hawthorn paused at the site of Musso’s accident – the Italian had dropped a wheel on the grass while striving to keep pace with the apparently unhurried leader – but left none the wiser. 

Any joy to be had was therefore in abeyance and somewhat false and forced – drinks were again taken – once the tragic news had broken. Hawthorn was not close to Musso but nor was he a sworn enemy. It’s understandable, however, that the Roman felt isolated in his country’s most celebrated sporting team, for Hawthorn and Collins had become a very tight unit. It was the latter’s death one month later that was the final straw: Hawthorn vowed to retire at the season’s end – as world champion.

He achieved that cherished aim by a single point over Moss. The long flight home from North Africa, however, was subdued. Vanwall’s Stuart Lewis-Evans, badly burned when a seized engine caused a crash, was laid on a stretcher across a row of seats in a Vickers Viscount chartered by Vandervell. He was that flight’s chattiest passenger. He died five days later on 25 October.

Exhausted, Hawthorn had been in no mood to celebrate when the official awards ceremony on 29 October at the RAC Club on Pall Mall in any case descended into British anger at the governing body’s ill-timed revelation of unpopular new F1 regulations – that ran contrary to Hawthorn’s solicited advice – for 1961. Hawthorn continued to attend dos held in his honour and of course accepted an invite to lunch at Buck House. It was only when matters began to settle that he made his retirement official in December.

No one can know for sure if this remarkably resilient world champion would have been allowed the time and health necessary for reflection, for sifting the good from the bad and treating them with greater equanimity. For fate was yet to play its most cruel trick. On 22 January 1959, sparked into response by a Mercedes-Benz, Hawthorn, not yet 30, was killed when his skidding Jaguar cleaved against a tree bordering the A3.