Mat Oxley

Saluting ‘Mike the bike’

Most bike people would only consider bestowing the accolade ‘greatest motorcycle racer of all time’ on one of two men: Valentino Rossi or Mike Hailwood. This year is the 50th anniversary of ‘Mike the Bike’s’ first World Championship success, an anniversary worth marking in Motor Sport because Hailwood (above, in 1959 TT) was a special racer on both two and four wheels and a sportsman of the old school. His motto was ‘For love of the sport’.
During his motorcycling career Mike won nine World Championships, 76 Grands Prix and 14 Isle of Man ifs. He had a couple of goes at Formula 1, first with the Parnell team in the 1960s and then with Surtees and McLaren during the ’70s.
When Hailwood won the 1961 250 world title he was just 21; young even by today’s standards. He started racing early because his father a wealthy businessman with a toothbrush moustache and a gammy leg (the legacy of a motorcycle accident) gave him a hand-made miniature motorcycle when he was seven. This was years before anyone had even thought of building minibikes.
Stan Hailwood was determined his boy would succeed and therefore threw serious money at his son’s career, which is why Mike ended up on a Honda earlier than most; though this was definitely a case of talent exceeding privilege. The 1961 title wasn’t only Hailwood’s first, it was also Honda’s first. Soichiro Honda and his wife Sachi flew from Japan to Sweden a major undertaking in those days to be there at Kristianstad on the big day.
Hailwood spent the next few years riding MV Agustas, winning four straight 500 world titles for the cantankerous Count Domenico Agusta. Taking the 1964 championship was particularly impressive considering he also contested most of that year’s Fl series, scoring his first points at Monaco. In 1966-67 he did his damndest to give Honda-san a first 500 World Championship, but failed because Honda’s four-cylinder RC181 was an evil thing through the corners.
Remarkably, for one so quick, Hailwood is remembered as much for his character as for his speed. He was a gentleman racer who just happened to be hellishly fast. Proudly technophobic, his only concern the moment he got off the race track was to have as much fun as possible. He was a natural at the art of hanging louche and an inveterate practical joker.
During the 1965 East German Grand Prix well before the days of warm-up and sighting laps Hailwood helped his friend Jim Redman win the 250 race by bamboozling Redman’s rivals on the starting grid. Hailwood had just won the 500 race, which had started on a damp track, so he conspired with Redman to fool the rest of the 250 pack into riding too cautiously on the opening lap.
Here was the plan: during that hushed, tingly moment between the ‘stop engines’ sign and the drop of the flag, Hailwood would stroll past the front of the grid and Redman would loudly enquire if the track a lethal five-mile street circuit, cobbled in places was still wet. Hailwood’s reply would be with the opposite of the truth. Seconds before the flag dropped, Hailwood answered his friend’s query with a shout: ‘Be bloody careful, it’s f***ing slippery!’. By the time most of the pack had gingerly completed their first lap of the now entirely dry circuit, Redman was out of sight and on his way to victory. As racing con tricks go, it surely takes some beating.
Hailwood quit bike racing in 1969 because “the terrific strain of responsibility (to win) has robbed (bike) racing of most of its pleasure”. His second attempt at Fl brought two podium finishes, including a best of second at Monza in 1972. At Kyalami in ’73 he bravely pulled Clay Regazzoni from his blazing Marlboro BRM.
In 1978 Hailwood made an emotional return to the Isle of Man, winning a if after an absence of more than a decade. Three years later he was mortally injured in a road car accident driving to the local chippy he collided with a truck making an illegal U-turn. A gloomy end to a glittering life.