Mike Hawthorn's breakout Goodwood weekend: 'Blast from the future'

Has anyone burst onto the scene as vividly as Mike Hawthorn did in 1952? Goodwood was the stage where he rose from the rank of walk-on extra to name-in-lights star - in one day. By Paul Fearnley

2 Mike Hawthorn Cooper Goodwood 1952

Hawthorn at full stretch during that famous Goodwood weekend

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From Farnham. Flaxen-haired. Faster on his day than anyone. Even Fangio. Mike Hawthorn blew in on a gale of uproarious laughter, on the back of several swift halts and in a cloud of pipe smoke. Rationing was being rationed by 1952. The collective fog was lifting and the British public was eager for a new hero a young racer to topple the red car-mounted hotshots from overseas. Stirling Moss, who already had a memorable TT win to his name, they respected and admired, but he had yet to win them over in the way in which he holds our affection today. He was busy ushering in the professional era an attention-to-detail sergeant major. The public would have preferred a fighter pilot on wheels.

The hero they craved landed, out of the blue, on 14 April 1952 at, aptly enough, an old WWII airfield. Goodwood had encapsulated the spirit of the new era, its manicured air helping to ease motor racing back into public awareness and acceptance, moving swiftly, seamlessly, from MG clubbie ding-dongs to world champion ‘demos’ Giuseppe Farina’s 159 Alfetta cantering home to win the circuit’s final race of 1951. And all in a garden party atmosphere. Perfection.

The arrival of Hawthorn’s somewhat tatty and outdated Riley Imp and TT Sprite at the first members’ meeting of 1951 might, therefore, have triggered some sniffy comments had they not gone like stink, tuned to within an inch of their lives by Mike’s talented engineer father, Leslie. Two months later, at the second members’ meeting, the just-turned-22 driver happily lapped around the track’s fast sweepers, Sprite’s nose constantly sniffing the infield, wire wheels singing under the strain. Out of the car Mike was all dig-in-the-ribs mateyness; in the car he was all jutting-jaw competitiveness. He won twice that day. Yet he’d had no training in the busy, buzzy world of 500s. He was a natural, plain and simple.

4 Mike Hawthorn Cooper Goodwood 1951

Hawthorn on his first Goodwood appearance at the wheel of a Riley Imp in 1951

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His finest achievement that debut season was a win in the Leinster Trophy at Wicklow, but that didn’t bring him to the attention of the public as much as his single-point win over Tony Crook in the Goodwood-based Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy. A worthy achievement, but still hardly front-page news. That would have to wait. Fully six months.

Not everybody in the racing world had noticed either. He spun while testing a Connaught. Tut, tut. Was turned down by HWM although, in fairness to the Walton-on-Thames team, they plumped for Peter Collins instead, hardly a howler of epic proportions.

“I knew Mike was good, but he surprised us”

John Cooper had noticed, though. He’d raced against him and had his Cooper-MG trounced by a much older car. Bob Chase, a Hawthorn family friend, had noticed, too, and approached Cooper to buy one of the burgeoning company’s brand new front-engined F2 cars. It was only when Chase mentioned for whom the car was intended that John agreed to build an ‘extra’, fourth Cooper-Bristol. Ecurie Richmond featuring Cooper’s 500 muckers, Eric Brandon and Alan Brown thought they had a deal to be the only so-favoured outfit. It’s clear Cooper already knew Mike was a cut above. But even he underestimated him.

“I knew he was good, but yes, he surprised us,” he recalls. “But then I think he surprised himself. The car surprised us, too. It was very simple, not a lot of horsepower, but it just worked, and he took to it straight away.”

Hawthorn’s race car was prepped alongside the Ecurie Richmond brace at Cooper’s Surbiton HQ. But the real crux of the Hawthorn operation lay elsewhere. The canny Leslie was at Bristol’s Filton plant overseeing the build of his son’s engine, ensuring its head was tuned to burn nitro-boosted fuel. This was new technology for cars, but old hat for bikers. And Leslie knew a lot about bikes. This tweak was the best kept secret of a season that became legend overnight.

From the archive

“We knew about it,” admits Cooper. Didn’t get round to telling the Richmond boys, though. That’s called knowing which side your bread is buttered. “That gave Mike an extra 15bhp. But he did the rest. You could see by the way his car leaned through the corners that he was working it harder, getting more from it, than the rest.”

It wasn’t just a case of being quicker down the straights. “Mike just got in and drove. Stilling tended to alter things; he should have won the world championship, but a lot of it was his own fault with the wrong decisions he made about the set-up of his cars. Mike was the opposite.”

Cooper appreciated that the Ecurie Richmond squad had raced his nimble 500s, and so disliked his new car’s lack of brakes, moaned about its lack of power (no nitro, you see), and struggled with a change of direction that was sluggish compared to what they were used to. Mike just knew it was a damn sight better than his old Riley. While Moss was, at best, marking time in the ‘cutting-edge’ G-Type ERA, Mike was going gleefully sideways and forging ahead. A brief test at Lasham Aerodrome, an all-nighter to recut warped valve seats, another Lasham run, and he was ready. For what, exactly, he wasn’t quite sure.

What he got was second-fastest lap during Saturday practice for Goodwood’s Easter Meeting, beaten only by the ’51 British GP winner, Froilan Gonzalez, in the 400bhp Thinwall Special. Mike would, therefore, start the F2 Lavant Cup from pole. Brand new car, brand new driver (as near as damn it), yet the rest of Britain’s expanding racing fleet was floundering in his wake. What’s more, world champion Juan Fangio, waiting in vain for the arrival of his too complex, too non-Cooper, V16 BRM, was watching from the sidelines and from the cockpit, once he’d sidled over to Cooper’s pit and been asked if he’d like a drive.

Mike Hawthorn Cooper Goodwood 1952

Cooper line-up with (left to right Alan Brown, Eric Brandon, Fangio and Mike Hawthorn


Easter Sunday was a day of rest: 24 hours for Hawthorn to ponder the enormity of achievement and what was still to come. It was, it seems, hardly a nervous wait, though. He came through it all with flying colours. Having made a calm getaway in his first ever single-seater race, the six-lap Lavant Cup on Easter Bank Holiday Monday, he disappeared, finishing 22 seconds (in a 10-minute race) ahead of Brown and Brandon. He repeated the dose in the Formula Libre Chichester Cup, while Fangio, having his only Cooper-Bristol outing, finished way down with engine problems. By way of a curtain-closer, Mike finished second in the headlining Richmond Trophy, giving spirited chase to Gonzalez.

He’d arrived a novice, departed a star. The morning papers were awash with his name, reporters were beating his door down. A few years later they would be dogging his every footstep, damning his every move, but right now, he was the handsome, carefree hero who’d just beaten the champion, in the exact same car, on his single-seater debut.

From the archive

“It was big news,” says Cooper, “Fangio was there, you see, yet this new man Hawthorn had stolen the show. Who is he, this man with the bow tie? The papers wanted to know. He did us a lot of good in those days. He was a good character, too. He could be a bit brusque, but extremely funny.” Manna for the press. More importantly, Fangio and Gonzalez were, in their own quiet way, spreading the news on the continent. “I’m sure word got back,” says Cooper. “Fangio was no fool. He’d seen enough to know how good Mike was.”

Eric Thompson, who won the Fourth Easter Handicap at that meeting at the wheel of an Aston, and was victorious at the 1953 Goodwood Nine Hours in a DB3S he shared with Reg Parnell, remembers the enlivening effect of Hawthorn: “He was the wonderboy, the Jenson Button of his day. We were all thrilled by this new guy. He looked debonair from a distance. An instant hero. Inexperienced but very capable; he could tweak a car into a drift and just hang it there.

“He definitely got the jump on Stirling in the popularity stakes. Stirling was very serious-minded and going places. Mike seemed to sidestep all this preparation. He had to be wound up to raise his game sometimes, but not in that first year with the Cooper.” It was just one brilliant drive after another. He won his heat and was leading the final at the May Silverstone meeting when his gear lever broke, then made amends by winning on his Goodwood return, prevailing in the Sussex International Trophy at Whitstun. He finished second in June’s Ulster Trophy at the daunting Dundrod, leading in the wet but having to give best to the Thinwall, driven on this occasion by Piero Taruffi. Another convert, no doubt.

Three weeks later Hawthorn was at Spa, a dangerous place for your first grand prix. But he simply took the opportunity to prove he was no airfield chancer by defying typically grim Ardennes weather, a dickey clutch and two late pitstops because of a misfire to finish fourth.

3 Mike Hawthorn Cooper Goodwood 1952

Hawthorn gets away first on one of the race starts

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Amazing performances continued to pour from him: third in the British GP; fourth in the Dutch at Zandvoort, where he lined up on the outside of the front row next to the all-conquering Ferrari 500s of Alberto Ascari and Farina. That’s two more ‘converts’. Then Luigi Villoresi was added to the ‘very impressed’ list in August when rain allowed Mike to pull away from the Italian star in the Thinwall at a rate of five seconds per lap around ‘glorious’ Boreham. A drying track again denied him, though, and he slipped to third.

By Monza and the Italian GP, the Prancing Horse could wait no longer. The murmur had become a clamour, and they let Mike out in a 500 during practice. In the race, and back in the underpowered, under-geared Cooper, he clung to Taruffi’s works Ferrari until the distributor drive broke.

From the archive

He was finally due to race for Ferrari at the Modena GP, in the marque’s backyard, but although he had another run for the most famous team in the world, he didn’t take the start. He was in hospital instead, suffering from a skinned back and bruises having been thrown out of his rolling Cooper.

Enzo had seen enough, though, and six months later, on 18 January 1953, Mike was team-mate to Ascari, Farina and Villoresi – remember them? – in Buenos Aires for the Argentine GP. He finished fourth. Six months later he beat Fangio (again) to register his first GP win, at Reims, after one of the greatest wheel-to-wheel dices ever seen.

Tony Crook, his old club racing mate, was in the Ferrari pit on that memorable occasion: “The atmosphere was amazing. I just could not believe my eyes. I knew Mike was quick from those races in 1951, but he could be pretty hairy. And now here he was beating Fangio. Mike could get in a car with a win-or-bust attitude. This time it worked.” And how.

The conquering hero returned to Goodwood in September, and now he was driving the Thinwall, winning twice, beating (surprise, surprise) Fangio and setting a lap record that would stand until the 1956 Easter Meeting. In many ways, he was already at his zenith. His had been a fairy tale start. But tougher times were ahead. The innocent was abroad.

Mike Hawthorn 1953 French GP Reims

Hawthorn rose quickly to become Britain’s first F1 champion in 1958 – six years after his breakout Goodwood weekend

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The 1954 season proved harrowing. Ferrari struggled and Mike did brilliantly to sign off with a win in the Spanish GP. This, however, was the only saving grace of a pock-marked year. He had been badly burned early on at Syracuse, and also began to suffer from a painful kidney complaint, for which he had an operation at the end of the year. Far worse, his father was killed in a road accident returning from a Goodwood meeting. To compound it all, the once-fawning newspapers were campaigning (some screaming) for Mike to be forced to do his National Service. Carefree no more.

He returned to the UK and his F1 career took a dive, with neither Vanwall (1955) nor BRM (’56) able to supply him with a reliable car. Jaguar, to whom he stayed loyal when he could have rejoined Ferrari in ’56, did him proud with the D-type, but even his ’55 Le Mans win was overshadowed by his role in the crash that killed 88 spectators.

He recaptured the good old Goodwood days in his second spell at Ferrari (1957-58) alongside Collins, his Mon Ami Mate, but Pete’s fatal Nürburgring crash stifled the laughter. That shunt had occurred right in front of Hawthorn, and his subsequent world drivers’ championship, Britain’s first, came more as a relief than a celebration to the man himself, and he retired from the sport forthwith. Incredibly, just three months later, he went out the way he had come in, spectacularly and unexpectedly. Not at Goodwood, but on the Guildford bypass. Still young, still in a hurry that day in April 1952, a lifetime ago.