Mike Thackwell

Born:
30th March 1961 (Age 58)
Papakura, Auckland, North Island
Nationality:
New Zealander
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

With all the talent necessary to succeed, Mike Thackwell proved to be a most enigmatic character. Early progress was phenomenal and, at just 19 years and 182 days old, Thackwell became Formula 1’s youngest driver to that date when he made an aborted start to the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix. However, he only raced in the category once more, seemingly regarding F1 with distain.

Background and rapid early progress

The son of 1950s racer Ray Thackwell, Mike arrived in Europe for the 1979 British Formula 3 Championship. The 18 year old qualified his works March 793-Toyota on the front row for his debut. That promise was confirmed with six wins (including the Monza Lotteria) and third position in the championship.

He graduated to Formula 2 in 1980 with a works March 802-BMW and impressed again, particularly at the Nürburgring and Zandvoort, although victory eluded him. That led to a couple of GP opportunities by the end of the season. A late replacement for the injured Jochen Mass at the Dutch GP but without any testing, Thackwell was unable to coax the Arrows A3-Ford into the race.

Formula 1 with Tyrrell

Ken Tyrrell then offered him a third car for the Canadian GP alongside regulars Jean-Pierre Jarier and Derek Daly. The youngster qualified on the final row to become the youngest driver to start a GP, a record that was only beaten by Jaime Alguersuari in 2009. However, a startline accident eliminated both senior Tyrrell drivers and forced the race to be stopped. Jarier requisitioned Thackwell’s undamaged car for the restart so with some discounting that first start as being part of the official race, Thackwell’s record has been omitted by some F1 statisticians.

Formula 2 champion

He signed with the works Ralt-Honda F2 team for 1981 and was the overwhelming pre-season favourite. He duly won the opening round at Silverstone (on his last day as a teenager) before breaking his left heel in a high-speed testing accident at Thruxton. Trapped in the car for 45 minutes, he missed three races and it was team-mate Geoff Lees who won the title.

He showed glimpses of his old form in 1982 with Markus Hotz’s March 822-BMW and returned to Ralt-Honda for the next two F2 seasons. Thackwell finished as runner-up behind team-mate Jonathan Palmer in 1983 before dominating the final season of European F2 a year later. It was his first championship title in European racing.

Formula 1 return

Thackwell also returned to F1 during 1984 – retiring a RAM 02-Hart from the Canadian GP but unable to qualify in Germany with a Tyrrell 012-Ford. For a driver with such natural talent, two F1 starts from five attempts was a meagre return. He then replaced Penske Racing’s injured Rick Mears for two Champ Car races at the end of the season but decided against accepting offers to continue in that category.

With his F1 career now over, he was the class of the field in the inaugural Formula 3000 season in 1985. However, despite three victories with a works Ralt RB20-Cosworth, Thackwell was denied the title at the last race. A final reminder of his unfulfilled talent in single-seaters was Thackwell’s 1986 victory at Pau on a one-off return to Ralt.

Sports cars with Sauber-Mercedes

Thackwell increasingly competed in sports cars and was especially impressive when leading the emerging Kouros Sauber-Mercedes team. He won at the Nürburgring in 1986 and rumour suggested the offer of a senior job within the Mercedes-Benz motorsport division.

Thackwell made another return to the Ralt and F3000 at Pau in 1988 before suddenly quitting the sport. He has since kept a low profile and pursued various professions including teaching, piloting a helicopter and running a surf shop.

A natural behind the wheel with the ability to win at the highest level, his career was never quite the same again after he was injured at Thruxton in 1981.