Looking Back with Mike Hailwood
Few competitors have made the transition from motorcycle racing to the world of Formula One with the same success as Mike Hailwood. John Surtees of course, for whom Hailwood drove Grand Prix cars for over two years, won seven World Championships on two wheels as well as one on four wheels, but apart from him only a small handful attempted the switch. Geoff Duke tried abortively, while Gary Hocking was killed shortly after making the transition. Even Giacomo Agostini shied away from making this enormous decision some four years ago after secretly testing one of Frank Williams' Formula Two March cars at Goodwood. But Hailwood, almost without doubt the best of them all on two wheels, took two attempts before establishing himself as a regular Formula One contender at the end of 1971. His career "at the top" of Formula One lasted until the 1974 German Grand Prix where, racing for fourth place with Peterson and Ickx, he crashed his McLaren M23 at Pflanzgarten and sustained leg injuries which have now resulted in his retirement from the sport.
His was a career which spanned almost 20 years, leaving him a legendary figure amongst the motorcycle racing fraternity as well as a popular extrovert personality in current-day Grand Prix racing, a world which all too often takes itself excessively seriously. It's ironic that "Mike the Bike" should have been in the middle of his most successful Formula One season ever when he had the crash that finished his career, but he's got absolutely no regrets about the fact that he's given up this competitive sport for good and he's declined several offers to come back to the cockpit. .
Recently we visited Mike at his Holyport home near Maidenhead and spent a fascinating day sifting through his action-packed career for interesting anecdotes as well as talking about the many high-performance road cars he has owned during that time.
When Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood arrived at Oulton Park in the Spring of 1957 to take part in his first motorcycle race, he'd already been well baptised into the art of competitive motoring—unofficially to say the least! His father, who owned Kings of Oxford, one of the largest motorcycle dealers in the country, encouraged Mike's interest in matters mechanical from a very early age. Stan Hailwood had raced MGs at Brooklands before the Second World War, so it was no real surprise that Mike had both a motorcycle and a car fitted with 100 c.c. motorcycle engines when he was only seven years old. He confined his activities with these cars to the grounds of the Hailwood family home, delaying his debut on the road to the day on which he was allowed behind the wheel of his mother's Jaguar XK120 and drove it home from boarding school at the age of 13. "I couldn't see over the steering wheel," Mike admits, "but the old man thought it was all a huge joke, so nobody really objected !" .
Having rolled an Austin-Healey 100/6 into a ditch whilst returning from Silverstone on L-plates during the 1956 Suez crisis, Mike finally got round to that circuit debut at Oulton. His borrowed 125 c.c. MV finished 11th in its first race and a gradual progression up the results over the balance of the season virtually decided Mike that his was to be a career on two wheels. Stan Hailwood persuaded his old Brooklands colleague Bill Lacey—who'd prepared Hailwood Senior's MGs—to come back and tend Mike's bikes for the 1958 season, a season during which he won the British Championship in the 125, 250 and 350 c.c. categories.
By this time Hailwood had acquired his first personal road car. "It was a red Ford Consul and I got it all fitted out with the really hot stuff. The only trouble was that, while I was driving it home from the place where the conversion was carried out, the crankshaft fell through the bottom of the sump." Disillusioned with cars of this nature, Mike turned his attention to Jaguars and acquired one of the very first 3.8-litre Mk. 2 saloons—"terrific value for money. I had about three of them and did about 80,000 miles in one of them. I had one of them fitted with a 35-gallon tank which I used to top up for free at race meetings and this allowed me to drive right across Europe without refuelling. When I got to the next race I'd just fill up again and come back! They were absolutely no trouble at all, which is more than I can say for the first E-type owned. I bought one of the first 60 pre-production roadsters . . . it was absolutely appalling. In the rain it was just like driving a swimming pool. I didn't touch Jaguars for a while after that."
The fact that Hailwood has always been able to indulge his taste when it comes to road machinery was initially a reflection on his family's wealth, although it didn't take long for the earnings from a fast-mushrooming racing career to finance any of his requirements. Mike was born into wealth and made a lot more of it by his own honest endeavours— and that probably explains why success has left him pleasant and uncomplicated. On the other hand he becomes very firm if one suggests that his early success was the result of his father being able to afford the best machinery for him to ride, correctly pointing out that money can't buy ability. In any case, by the start of the 1959 season he was offered works 125 and 250 c.c. Ducatis on which he was never beaten in British Championship events and finished fourth in the 250 World Championship despite missing a couple of rounds. What is more, at the age of 19, Mike became the youngest ever World Championship race winner for the first time when he triumphed in the 125 c.c. Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod. He was also to become the youngest ever World Champion and TT winner.
Hailwood's success story is so comprehensive that a record of his two-wheel victories on their own would simply read like a scorecard. In 1961 he became the first man to win three TTs in a week and won the 500 c.c. TT on a single-cylinder Norton after Gary Hocking on the Italian multi-cylinder MV Agusta broke down. Then, in 1962, he joined the team which was to take him to stardom and the reputation as the finest motorcycle racer of all time.
Mike Hailwood signed for the Italian MV team, run by the autocratic Count Dominico Agusta and in many ways the two-wheeled equivalent of Ferrari. It was a successful, if slightly uneasy alliance, for Mike wasn't particularly sympathetic to the Italian way of life—"I really couldn't stand living in Italy, so I never did, even when I rode for MV"—and Count Agusta tended to rub him up the wrong way on a great number of occasions.
"I remember once he kept me waiting for hours on end, to sort out money or something. It was all a bit silly really, he did it all for effect. The little accountant guy kept telling me 'yes, well the Count is very busy at the moment, he'll see you soon' but I wasn't messing around with him and told them that if he didn't appear and agree my money then I'd tear up my contract there and then. He didn't appear, so I tore the contract up, threw it over this guy's desk and went back to my hotel. I suppose it was all a bit silly really, but it wasn't anything that lasted for long. They came chasing after me, picking bits of the contract up off the floor and sticking it all together again." From most racing drivers one might be tempted to consider that a tall story, somewhat embellished with the passing of time. But with Mike you could be certain it was true. "There you are," he smiled as he fumbled his way through a pile of papers and triumphantly pulled out a dog-eared piece of paper criss-crossed with Sellotape, "that's the one".
Despite their differences, Hailwood and Agusta forged one of the most prolific partnerships in motorcycle racing history and Mike won the 500 cc. World Championship in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965. Driving all over Europe to and from the races—"it's always amazing to me just how much more crowded the European roads have become over the past ten years"—one of Mike's prime requirements was a fast touring car, a requirement which led him to buy the one and only Ferrari he ever owned, and a decision he bitterly regrets to this day.
"Jim Redman and I both decided that we'd buy Ferraris, we got a brace of 330 GTs they seemed to be cheaper if you bought them by the pair. I tell you, that put me off Ferraris for good. The thing was always falling apart. They could never adjust the carburetters to run properly at any time while I owned the thing and the bloody gear-lever came off in my hand three times. That was the last straw. At the same. time I'd also got a splendid old Dodge shooting brake I'd bought in the States. It was a tremendous old tool and as solid as a rock. When we raced the MVs in this country they used to deliver them to London Airport with the mechanics and I used to cart them around to the British circuits in this old Dodge."
At about this time Mike decided to have his first crack at serious four-wheel competition. After a preliminary outing in a Formula One Lotus 18/21 at Silverstone in 1961, Mike moved into Formula Junior at the end of the following year and drove in the 1963 British Grand Prix at the wheel of one of Reg Parnell's Lotus-Climax 24s. "When Reg died I bought a share in the team for 1964 from Tim and we used those ex-works Lotus 25s fitted with BRM V8 motors. That was an utter and complete disaster. For some reason we never managed to make those engines work installed in the Lotus chassis." The whole season passed with a catalogue of engine, transmission and chassis failures. He even managed to spin into the snake-infested lake at Enna. By the time he got round to the following year's Monaco Grand Prix—where he dropped out with gearbox troubles—Mike had made the decision to go back to bikes. "It was a very difficult thing to do, racing both bikes and cars at the same time, so I reckoned it would make more sense to get back on to two wheels and stick to it."
So Mike went back to concentrate his efforts on the MV Agusta before switching his allegiance to Japan the following season and a ride on Honda's new multi-cylinder machine. Although he won the 250 and 350 c.c. titles in 1966, Mike found himself beaten in the 500 c.c. title chase by his successor at MV, Giacomo Agostini. The Honda 500 c.c. bike with its four-cylinder engine was a really difficult machine to master and it seemed that the only way the Japanese constructor was prepared to counter this deficiency was simply by making the bike even more powerful. Of course, this simply aggravated the bike's basic deficiency and made it even more difficult to ride. It is interesting that when Honda built their 3-litre Grand Prix car they based their development on a similar philosophy; that is to say, the theory that they could make their car more competitive simply by making the engine more powerful, no matter what the state of the chassis. Predictably, it didn't work any more than it had with the racing bikes.
Back on the road Mike moved into an era he remembers with pleasure; the spell during which he owned a couple of Chevrolet-engined Iso Grifo coupes. "They didn't handle terribly well, but they were very fast and they were very easy indeed to maintain. But I wrote them both off in the end. On one occasion I was going through the desert on my way up to Lourenco Marques—I'd got Pete Gethin with me actually—and I collided with a cow at about 100 m.p.h. How we walked out of that one I'm not really sure. The other one I rolled through a wall on the way to a party after a meeting at Mallory Park. I cut my face badly in that one, but I remember insisting that we went off to the party and spent the rest of the evening wandering round with blood pouring from my face, turning my vodka and lemonade into what looked like a Bloody Mary!"
At the start of 1968 Mike was invited to Tokyo, apparently to discuss the motorcycle racing programme for that season, only to be told that the company wouldn't be contesting World Championship events that year. Seeing this as a golden opportunity to bow out of motorcycle racing—and having been offered a large sum by Honda not to ride for any rival team in the World Championship series— Mike opted for a change and moved into Formula 5000 with a Lola T142 owned by the Epstein-Cuthbert team. From this point on, through 1969 and 1970, he stayed with Lolas and campaigned regularly in F5000, although a race-by-race account of that spell in his career would be as unimpressive as his two-wheeled career was distinguished. Mike liked the easy-going atmosphere in Formula 5000—it it was much more informal, very much like his bike days, in stark contrast lo the intense formality of Formula One. In fact Mike never quite really came to grips with the social scene of the Grand Prix world, even right up to the end of his career. Perhaps it lost him opportunities, perhaps it didn't. Inwardly he doubts very much whether he'd have been selected to drive alongside Fittipaldi in 1975 - "I don't think the Marlboro top brass really cared for me, not that that worried me very much"—but Mike never had to compromise his attitude in order to earn drives. If there was a party to go to, then Mike would go; if there was any drinking until the small hours, then Mike would often-as-not be seen lurking in the early morning shadows. But the nicest thing about Mike's attitude is that Yardley, who sponsored his McLaren in 1974, and McLaren director Phil Kerr, thoroughly enjoyed their motor racing with Hailwood. "It really was one of the most enjoyable associations the team ever had," Phil Kerr confirmed after Mike's crash.
But in terms of four-wheel success, Mike's three-year spell as a member of Team Surtees was his most productive. Surtees himself, seven times a champion on two wheels, was one of Mike's predecessors in the MV Agusta team and the two men formed a sympathetic bond of understanding that surprised many onlookers. They are totally different personalities, yet they successfully seemed to complement each other. Somehow Mike successfully mellowed Big John's rather harsh and uncompromising approach and enjoyed probably more popularity in the Surtees team than any other driver. Surtees was definitely more relaxed and less inhibited in Mike's company and Hailwood responded well to his acceptance (for the second time) in Formula One.
"But I really should have won two or three races in the F1 car," says Mike, who joined the Formula One team from the F5000 team towards the end of 1971. "In 1972 I'd got Stewart measured up at Kyalami—there was no way I wasn't going to win that one, and then the front suspension broke. I was also leading the International Trophy from Fittipaldi until a faulty radiator cap let all the water boil away. I lost my airbox at Monza in 1972 when I reckon I'd got the legs on Fittipaldi and that lost me a few hundred revs on the straight. And, of course, I lost the Race of Champions in 1973 when the suspension broke on the TS14," Mike speaks of these misfortunes philosophically. Unfortunately the 1973 Grand Prix season with the TS14 proved an absolute disaster, Mike never scoring a point and seldom completing a race without trouble. At the end of the year he and Surtees had a mutually agreeable parting of the ways and Mike took up his all-too-short spell with the McLaren team.
Although Mike's Formula One career with Team Surtees wasn't exactly punctuated by success, his Formula Two programme marked the pinnacle of his success on four wheels. There were those who felt that Mike didn't take his racing too seriously, perhaps feeling that his often less than serious attitude in Formula 5000 betrayed a rather superficial approach to his racing. But nothing could have been further from the truth and his critics were silenced as he reeled off a string of second places behind Fittipaldi's Lotus at Rouen and Osterreichring and also took maximum trophy points at Mantorp Park, Salzburgring (where he won outright) and Hockenheim.
By this stage Mike had progressed through a road BMW 2500—"I bought it cheap off Luigi Taveri"—through to the road car he still owns, a 2.6-litre Citroën Maserati SM which he acquired in June 1972. "It's only done 40,000 miles to date," Hailwood tells us, "and it's the only car I've ever driven which I can come back to and really enjoy driving again. I've had a bit of trouble with it when it froze up once, but otherwise I'm delighted with it. I went out and bought it with Jim Redman again. Originally we were out to buy a couple of those SLC Mercedes, but when we walked into their showrooms in Brentford, rather casually dressed, I don't think the salesman took us very seriously. He was a bit of an Eton type and didn't really want to know." So, after flattening the batteries of just about every car in the showroom, this "terrible twosome" went straight off down to Citroën's showroom "where their attitude couldn't have been more different". The scandal of Mercedes' treatment of the two motorcycle stars later made the news magazines in Germany, much to the annoyance of Mercedes directors in Stuttgart who gave their English counterparts a bit of a roasting!
"I don't really want a high performance car nowadays", he continues reflectively. "I've had all my ego trips and it's really more convenient to fly everywhere." If you think that scene in the Mercedes dealership was a bit too much, you'll be doing Hailwood something of an injustice. He's primarily an extrovert who plays everything absolutely straight from the shoulder. On the surface he's very shy, but beneath the surface there is an honest straightforwardness that makes him a very popular individual.
He never minces his words, a feature he shares with many of his old motorcycle companions. On one occasion at Hockenheim in Germany, he and several others were threatened with suspension because they wouldn't go up and get their prizes : "There was a whole crowd of us, Read, Redman, Taveri and myself, and we just all sat there with our backs to the officials, knocking back the beer. Eventually we were all told that we'd be reported to the FIM and so we all said 'stuff it'. We didn't really care all that much. Of course we backed down when we heard that they really were going to suspend us.
"Still, we got back at the Germans on another occasion," he smiles. "we couldn't get the Hockenheim organisers to agree the prize money, so we loaded all the bikes up and prepared to bluff it out. They were prepared all ready to go, you understand, and we all stood round in front of the pits fully dressed in our casual clothes, but with our leathers on underneath. Eventually, in desperation, the organisers agreed to our terms. You can imagine their reaction when we all stepped out of our casual clothes to reveal our leathers and immediately lined up on the grid. . ."
But that's all over now. At the ripe old age of 35 years, with nine World Championships, 75 motorcycle Grands Prix and 12 Isle of Man TTs under his belt to say nothing of his car racing achievements, "Mike the Bike" is in retirement. "I suppose I don't miss racing in the least", he admits. "I think the transition was probably easier in this way. I reckon I was as good as I was going to get on four wheels, although it would have been nice to win a Grand Prix or two." He strummed away at his guitar thoughtfully.
"You know, I never had any real ambition. The whole thing with bikes really snowballed achievement-wise. I suppose everyone aspires to do something, but I can't say I'd have done all I have without my father's backing and enthusiasm. I really don't think I'd have got there otherwise."
Deep down inside the old enthusiasm for bikes and motorcycle racing still lurks— "motorcycle racing is more popular in terms of crowd attendance because people can relate their road bikes with competition machines much more than the car enthusiast"—so one takes with a pinch of salt Mike's assertion that he couldn't come to terms with Jochen Mass' Kawasaki down in Bandol during the French Grand Prix weekend. "It's funny, I had a 900 Kawasaki. And that did 35 miles before my Nurburgring accident, so then I had to sell it!"
At the end of the year he plans to leave Britain and live abroad. He's got no great ambition left to do anything in motor racing, a fault perhaps with many people, but something which will doubtless provide him with no great problems. "I'm not interested in all the hustle that seems to go with Formula One at the moment," he smiles, almost with a tinge of self-conscious regret as he wonders just what he'll do with the rest of his life. If there's one problem facing this fun-loving extrovert it's that he's, almost literally, "done it all" in 35 short years. One hopes that his retirement will not see him vanish from the racing circuits of the world for good, and the familiar Hailwood face will continue to be a regular sight in the pits at both two-wheel and four-wheel race meetings for many years to come.—A.H.