Marc Márquez may have broken Mike Hailwood’s half-century-old record to become the youngest man to win back-to-back premier-class titles, but in fact his achievement doesn’t outshine Hailwood’s. Or does it?
Back in Mike the Bike’s day, kids didn’t race motorcycles. It was a man’s business. There was no such thing as minimoto racing; even minibikes were a decade or two in the future. Most racers took to the track after they had started riding on the road at 16 or 17, not while they’re learning to read and write. Thus Hailwood’s achievement – twice 500 World Champion at the age of 23 – was astonishing.
But Hailwood wasn’t a normal post-WW2 century kid. His dad Stan was loaded, made rich by a chain of motorcycle shops. Most people called him ‘Stan the Wallet’, though only behind his back, while others preferred ‘that miserable old bastard’. So while other kids played conkers and used jumpers for goalposts, Hailwood spent his childhood weekends thrashing around the family’s extensive grounds on a specially converted minibike, based upon a 98cc Royal Enfield Flying Flea road bike.
And once Hailwood started racing Stan dug deep into his fat wallet to ensure his son always had the best equipment, to the extent that he helped Ducati finance the development of a new 250 and 350, specifically for his boy. And young Hailwood was often chauffeured to race meetings in dad’s Bentley, while his gleaming motorcycles followed on the back of a gleaming truck. No wonder everyone else was jealous.
Hailwood’s natural talent for riding a motorcycle was such that he was always going to ride to the top, but without his father flashing his chequebook there’s no way he would’ve climbed the dizzy peaks as soon as he did.
Márquez’s father isn’t rich – he was a digger driver on construction sites (and very skilled, we’re told). However, his elder son’s talent was so obviously golden that dad only briefly had to worry about financing his career – it wasn’t long before teams were falling over them to fully support the youngster.
The days of Márquez and of Hailwood are different in all kinds of ways. With dad firmly behind him, perhaps the biggest threat to Hailwood’s career was the Lord’s Day Observance Society, which went around suing race organisers for staging events on Sundays, in breach of the Sunday Observance Law of 1625 that forbade people from taking part in or watching sport on Sundays. British courts took these cases very seriously but eventually compromised: Hailwood and others could race and people could watch, but the promoters couldn’t charge for admission.
When Márquez was 17 he won his first world title. When Hailwood was 17 he started racing, although he still spent his weekdays serving his apprenticeship at Triumph’s Meriden factory, starting out as a humble tea boy.
Márquez celebrated his 21st birthday in February, no doubt pumping iron at the gym, before jetting out to Sepang for preseason testing. I suspect Hailwood never set foot in a gym, or if he did, he would’ve exited swiftly, with a silent scream in his throat.
Nine-time World Champion Hailwood celebrated his 21st birthday at Snetterton in April 1961, riding a Ducati in the 125 race, an AJS in the 350 race and a Norton in the 500 race. And he did so while pissed. Friends had taken along bottles of champagne and the temptation to uncork them before the racing was done proved too much, so Hailwood went to the grid in a very merry mood.
Márquez was unable to celebrate his fourth world title with a win on Sunday, possibly because the algorithms in his RC213V’s black box were only 99 per cent correct. His failure to get them 99.99 per cent spot on wouldn’t have been for lack of trying. Márquez probably spent more time last weekend debriefing with his crew, poring over a computer monitor, decoding a multi-coloured mass of squiggly lines, than he did on his motorcycle.
Such relentless hard work would’ve emitted another silent scream from the back of Hailwood’s throat. Mike the Bike was famously uninterested in technical matters. He didn’t do debriefs, though he did have his own way of communicating with engineers. When he tried out Honda’s 500 for the first time at Suzuka he was so appalled by its handling that he took the rear shocks and flung them in the pond behind the pits.
Hailwood chases Agostini in 1967
Hailwood had better ways to spend his time: usually drinking and generally having a laugh. He was famously free with his, er, gifts to the opposite sex. Former 50cc World Champion Ralph Bryans – who passed away in August – recalls an incident following the 1966 Belgian GP when they visited their injured Honda team-mate Jim Redman in a convent hospital. Having established that Redman was comfortable (and no doubt having slipped him a half bottle of whisky beneath the sheets) the pair were leaving when Hailwood accosted one of the nuns and requested a shot of antibiotics. “But why do you need a shot of antibiotics?”, asked the nurse. “Because I’ve got a dose of the clap,” Hailwood replied.
Of course, it wasn’t all champagne and carefree pre-AIDS sex in the 1960s. Hailwood was super-talented and super-brave at a time when tarmac runoff was a dry-stone wall. Who’s the most talented, who’s the greatest achiever? Those are ordinary and futile questions. Best not bother asking them.