Motorcycles: October 2018

Mike Hailwood's fairy-tale Isle of Man TT comeback proved his brilliance beyond doubt. Or is that merely a myth?

Forty years ago this summer, Mike Hailwood commenced his motorcycle racing comeback. In June 1978 he contested his first TT race in a dozen years when he returned to the Isle of Man and famously beat old rival Phil Read in the Formula 1 event.

But this was just the beginning. Two months later the 38-year-old climbed the podium at the British Grand Prix, in the TT F1 support race, riding the same Ducati he had used on the island. And then he set about making plans for the 1979 season.

Why the comeback? Hailwood had retired from full-time bike racing following the 1966 Grand Prix season and later moved into Formula 1 (with which he’d first dabbled during the ’60s), first with Team Surtees, then with McLaren. He scored points in several 1974 F1 GPs before a big accident at the Nürburgring left him with a badly broken right leg. Apparently fed up with racing, he emigrated to New Zealand with his family. But the racing itch still needed scratching. And his bank account needed topping up.

He knew a return to Grand Prix racing would be a step too far, however. “The bikes have improved so much that the degree of courage necessary to get the most out of them is greater than it used to be, so you have to be a very special kind of lunatic nowadays to do so,” he wrote. “I know for certain that I am profoundly happy it is them and not me out there right now.”

Hailwood thus agreed a big-money deal to return to the Isle of Man, where he had won a record 12 TTs before the event lost Grand Prix status, riding Norton, Honda and MV Agusta machinery.

Some fans were sceptical about his return and the reasons for it. Others hurriedly booked their ferry tickets across the Irish Sea, convinced they would see ‘Mike the Bike’ make some more history. Initially, Hailwood played down his chances. “Don’t expect miracles,” he told the press.

Mechanic Pat Slinn was convinced this was a trick. “I don’t think Mike would have entered if he hadn’t been completely sure he could win; he wasn’t a second- or third-place man,” says Slinn, who helped fettle Hailwood’s Ducati 900SS, which had been specially prepared by the Bologna factory. “After his first practice session on the Ducati, Mike came in, took his helmet off and said, ‘I haven’t forgotten any of it, every bump is still there!’ When he broke the lap record later in practice, Franco Farni [Ducati’s famed race engineer] thought his stopwatch had broken, he couldn’t believe it.”

Hailwood’s defeat of old Grand Prix rival Read in June 1978 is one of bike racing’s all-time greatest fairy tales. Grown men wept and fans who witnessed the feat still talk about it. But was the success really that impressive? In retrospect, Hailwood didn’t think so.

“I realised that I would be quickly down the tubes if I tried to go Grand Prix racing, but I felt the island would continue to be kind to me and that I would have a wobble around without disgracing myself,” he wrote in 1980. “What I didn’t realise was that the standard of riding on the island had gone down in the intervening period. I found that very few of the competitors knew the circuit in the way they should have done. And because of the fear of blowing up their bikes and incurring more expense, they were trying less hard than I expected. Consequently, there were very few people who really knew their way around and were prepared to race hard.”

In the days after his TT F1 victory, Hailwood contested the Senior, Classic and Junior TTs, but his Martini-backed Yamahas let him down in the big races and the conditions weren’t to his liking in the Junior. “Although the opening race proved an unexpected triumph, the remainder of the week was a disaster, so I thought, ‘All right, for 1979 we better give it one more try.”

The following June he rode another Ducati in the F1 race, plus factory spec Suzukis in the Senior and Classic TTs. This time it was the Italian vee-twin that let him down. “The exhaust pipes started falling to bits, the battery bracket broke and when I lost fifth gear on the last lap, things became distinctly inconvenient,” he said after the opening race of the week.

Two days later he won the Senior, setting a new lap record, and four days after that he came within 3.4 seconds of victory in the Classic. Immediately after the race he announced that his island career was absolutely, definitely over.

“In all honesty, I shouldn’t have been good enough, after 10 years away from bikes, to win a couple of TTs,” he wrote. “The fact that I did is, in a way, a curious indictment against the general standard of riding that exists in this country.”

However, Hailwood was still open to short-circuit offers. A month after the TT he agreed to ride at Donington Park, which was supposed to be his farewell race, although he wasn’t quite sure. He made up his mind during practice, when things went badly wrong at the Craner Curves.

“I made the final decision as I was sailing through the air, just before I landed on my head. I thought, ‘What the f*** am I doing here? This is silly!’ And after three hours on the operating table my mind was made up. I just didn’t care if I never so much as sat on a racing motorcycle again. Which is perhaps the way it should be when you retire from something as compelling as motor sport.”

Hailwood survived arguably the two most dangerous decades of motorcycle and car racing, only to lose his life 20 months later in a road accident, which also claimed the life of his nine-year-old daughter, Michelle. Earlier this year he was voted into Motor Sport magazine’s Hall of Fame.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner