Was Mike Hailwood better than Valentino Rossi?

Motorcycle News

The two riders most often given the accolade ‘greatest of all time’ are Valentino Rossi and Mike Hailwood. Forty years after Mike the Bike’s tragic death and 60 years after his first world title, his friends, rivals and team-mates on what made him so great

Mike Hailwood at the 1967 Isle of Man TT

Hailwood winning the 1967 Senior TT - he was a genius on the Island - his first win in 1961, his last in 1979

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On the afternoon of September 17, 1961 Mike Hailwood rode a Honda RC162 to victory in the Swedish 250cc grand prix to clinch his first world title. Just three months earlier the 21-year-old had won his first Isle of Man TT, aboard an RC144 125cc twin. This was the summer that he laid the foundations to his legend – Mike the Bike would go on to win another nine world championships.

It is remarkable that six decades later Hailwood is still rated by many as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. The other rider most often considered the GOAT is nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi. So what made Hailwood so great?

Hailwood was a one-in-a-billion force of natural talent who had an instinctive ability to ride a motorcycle. Some of that was inborn, some of it came from experience because he started riding much earlier than most. Years before the Japanese industry invented the minibike, Hailwood’s millionaire father gave the seven-year-old Hailwood a handmade minibike on which to hone his riding skills. No wonder he was already winning British titles in his teens.

There’s no doubt that Hailwood had a privileged upbringing, both in real life and on the track.

“When he was behind you he was going to come past – no two ways about it.”

“Mike would turn up at Pommie meetings with six Nortons in his truck, and who the hell else had that?” his late Aussie rival Jack Ahearn told me years back. “But it was for the right bloke – Mike was a bloody good rider. His old man was the one I didn’t like – Stan the Wallet was a miserable old bastard!”

Hailwood may have been spoilt by his overbearing father, but he was nothing less than a genius rider.

“Mike was blindingly quick through the corners and on the throttle very early,” said Ralph Bryans, Hailwood’s 1967 Honda team-mate, who died in 2014. “His lines were good too – if you put a postage stamp on the road he’d run over it every lap. And you knew when he was behind you that he was going to come past – there was no two ways about it.”

Bryans remembers going out to practice with Mike the Bike at Imatra in 1967, both of them aboard Honda’s 250 six.

“Round the back of the circuit there was a triple apex corner with a vicious camber. I sat up, looked at it, knocked back a gear, went over the first camber and Mike came shooting past, front wheel in the air, across the first camber, down again, dirt flying off the road and across the next camber. I shut off because I thought I was going to witness the biggest accident ever, but he got round. And the bugger did exactly the same thing for the next four laps. I said to him afterwards ‘Jesus, Mike that was near the bone’. He said, ‘I know, I gave myself a fright the first time, but then I realised I could do it’. So he kept doing it.”

Usually, Hailwood’s style was silky smooth, which perfectly suited the era’s rudimentary brakes, suspension and tyres. Back then, it was all about keeping the momentum rolling.

Mike Hailwood with Agostini Read and Ivy

Legendary rivals: Hailwood, wearing a ‘Pommy Bastard’ T-shirt with, from left, Agostini, Read and Ivy

“His style was very smooth and he was so good to watch,” said fellow GP winner Peter Williams, whom Hailwood once wanted for a Honda team-mate. “He had a certain economy of movement, just enough and not too much. I think Rossi is similar – very smooth and stylish, and he doesn’t manhandle the bike. Mike was a great rider and an incredibly brave man – not many people get the George Medal.”

Hailwood received this rare award – the civilian Victoria Cross – for risking his own life while dragging Clay Regazzoni from his blazing car during the 1973 South African Formula 1 GP. Hailwood twice dabbled with F1, scoring a best of second place in the 1972 Italian GP.

Perhaps just as impressive as Hailwood’s speed, style and bravery was his talent for extracting the maximum from any motorcycle in any condition, a crucial ability at a time when machinery rarely performed to perfection.

From the archive

“If you cobbled something together and gave it to him he’d wring its neck right away without thinking about it,” added Bryans. “Most riders want the bike to be right before you can do your best, but Mike didn’t seem to bother that much. He had an extraordinary talent for riding practically anything.”

Williams never quite got over the fact that Hailwood rode Honda’s evil-handling RC181 500 GP bike to victory in the 1967 Senior TT, with a loose throttle.

“He automatically made allowances for any disadvantage the bike was giving him,” added Williams. “I mean, how on earth do you win a TT with a loose throttle? Just absolutely mind-blowing.”

And all this despite his infamous lack of technical knowhow. Bryans again: “His mechanical knowledge was practically zero – he didn’t have the remotest idea. I was there when he jumped aboard the 250 six for the first time at Suzuka. He came back in and they asked him what it was like and he said, ‘Bloody awful!’. But as for what was it doing and what could they do to fix it – absolutely no feedback whatsoever. It was lucky there wasn’t much set-up to do in those days – there was only one tyre choice and we’d set the suspension at the start of the year and never touch it again.”

“He wouldn’t have entered if he wasn’t sure of winning; he wasn’t a second or third man”

Ten years ago I asked Giacomo Agostini, Hailwood’s biggest rival on the world stage, what he was like.

“Mike was like Casey Stoner today,” he replied. “If the bike is good or not so good, for him it’s about the same. I remember in ’65 when we both rode MV 500s. I tried his bike and it was a shit bike. Then he tried my bike and he said, ‘Oh Ago, it’s fantastic’. The bikes were the same, only my settings were better. But for him the lap time was the same with both.”

Ago enjoyed his many battles with Hailwood because he could trust him. “Mike was very, very fast and very honest. He liked to win with his own power, not with other things like some other riders. It was nice to battle very close with him. Riding very close can be very dangerous, but not with him.”

Mike Hailwood at the 1966 Isle of Man TT

Hailwood and the Honda RC181 on their way to victory in the 1966 Senior, one of his 14 TT victories

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In fact Hailwood did use “other things”, including psychological warfare. Pat Slinn, who helped fettle Hailwood’s Ducati 900SS during his magical Island comeback in 1978, recalled a funny moment during practice week.

“Mike was the psychological master at winding people up,” said Slinn. “We were in pit lane with [Yamaha mechanic] Nobby Clark, and Mike had just done a couple of very quick laps on the Yamaha 500, riding round with Mick Grant. Mick said, ‘I nearly got past you here’ and ‘I wanted to come past here but I thought I’d better not’. Then Mike turned to Nobby and said, ‘That reminds me, can you check it out, I think the bloody thing was only running on three’. I thought that was absolutely amazing.”

From the archive

Slinn says he never had any doubt that Hailwood was going to win the ’78 TT F1 race. “I don’t think he would’ve entered if he hadn’t been completely sure he could win; he wasn’t a second or third man. After his first practice session on the Ducati, he came in, gave the bike to [Ducati engineer] Franco Farni, took his helmet off and said, ‘I haven’t forgotten any of it, every bump is still there’. When he broke the lap record in Thursday practice, Farni thought his stopwatch had broken, he couldn’t believe it.”

But Ago does believe that Hailwood was better than Rossi.

“Valentino is very fast, but Mike has one thing that Valentino doesn’t. On one day he races a 125 and he wins, he races a 250 and he wins, 350 and wins, 500 and wins. Not so many riders can do this. Why was he so good? I don’t know. I think talent is something our mothers or God gives us, like Cassius Clay in boxing, Eddie Merckx in cycling and Bobby Charlton in football.”

One thing everyone does seem to agree on is the fact that Hailwood was a good man. “He was such a gentleman to work with,” said Slinn. “He asked for things, he said please and he said thank you. He was a thoroughly nice guy.”

Mike Hailwood in the 1961 Isle of Man TT

Hailwood on his way to his first TT victory, the 1961 125cc TT, on his Honda RC144

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A nice guy perhaps, but with a racer’s killer instinct. “Mike took his racing very, very seriously,” added Bryans, recalling an episode at the 1966 East German GP, at the height of the Hailwood/Agostini duel for the 500 title. “Mike’s bike had broken and Ago was running away with the race when, lo and behold, he crashed on the last lap. Mike was in his caravan in a foul mood. I went in and said, ‘Hey Mike, Ago just crashed’. And what did Mike say to that? ‘F**king good!’ No, ‘Is he all right?’ or anything.”

Agostini was deeply touched by Hailwood’s gracious behaviour following their epic battle in the following year’s Senior TT. Ago had been leading when his chain snapped.

“He was very, very fast and people adored him because he was a nice guy. He was the last of a breed.”

“In the evening, Mike came to pick me up from my hotel and took me to the discotheque. He told me ‘you were the winner today’, which was fantastic. Not many riders would do that.”

Hailwood spent a lot of time in discos – he was a mischievous gentleman playboy. His weaknesses, according to Bryans were “women and drink”. Bryans remembered a hilarious incident in 1966, following Jim Redman’s career-ending crash at Spa-Francorchamps.

“After the racing, Mike, [Honda team-mate Stuart Graham] and myself jumped in Mike’s Ferrari to see how Jim was. The hospital was a big old chateau, staffed by nuns. After we’d seen Jim, we were leaving when Mike approaches this nurse and says, ‘Excuse me, could I have a shot of streptomycin’. The nun says, ‘Why do you want a shot of streptomycin?’ and he says, ‘Because I’m allergic to penicillin’. And she says, ‘But why do you require an antibiotic’ and he says, ‘I’ve got a dose of the clap’. He’d been down in Cannes and he’d come back with more than he bargained for. Mike was just an ordinary bloke – he enjoyed a laugh, a drink and a party.”

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Slinn always remembered the post-race knees-up following Hailwood’s most famous victory – the 1978 F1 TT.

“We had a wonderful party in a little restaurant in Douglas. We all saw the sun come up. Mike certainly knew how to let his hair down. He was very, very fast and people adored him because he was a nice guy. He was the last of a breed.”

Hailwood died on 23 March 1981 following a car accident. The 40-year-old was on his way to get some fish and chips with son David and daughter Michelle in the family Rover saloon when a truck they were passing on a dual carriageway made an illegal U-turn across the central reservation. Michelle was killed instantly, Hailwood passed away two days later.

“No one could believe it,” said Bryans. “It was such a stupid bloody accident – a guy getting lost, going down the wrong road and doing a U-turn on a dual carriageway, just bloody criminal.”

Hailwood and his daughter were buried at St Mary Magdalene church in Tamworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire. The pallbearers at his funeral included John Surtees, Luigi Taveri, James Hunt, Geoff Duke and Agostini.