Surf’s up for maverick Mike Thackwell

by Damien Smith on 23rd February 2012

Some stories are special. They’re the ones you really want to tell, that you’ve wanted to do for years and that are not the work of a moment. One of them appears in the April issue of Motor Sport.

I’d interviewed Mike Thackwell myself, but only on the phone. Twelve years ago a promising Brit called Jenson Button was about to start his F1 quest at the tender age of 20, and the idea was to talk to the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix to find out what it was like to go through it all so early in life. Thackwell had been 19 years and 182 days old when he lined his Tyrrell up on the grid for the Canadian GP in 1980 – the same year Jenson was born.

Now, it was well known that Mike had walked away from motor racing and never looked back. He’d been a great maverick star of the 1980s, who’d made the most of his sublime skills in Formula 2 and later Formula 3000.

The F1 career hadn’t worked out though, partly because he refused to conform to the attitude expected of GP drivers, even then. That Canadian debut had ended abruptly when, after a multi-car pile-up at the first corner, he was forced to give up his car for the restart because his team-mates had damaged theirs. Inconceivably, only one other GP start would follow, at Montreal (again) in a RAM in 1984. What a waste.

This man was almost ‘our’ Syd Barrett. And just like the Pink Floyd ‘crazy diamond’, we could track down Mike if we really wanted to – but unlike Syd, there was a chance he might actually talk to us. Perhaps.

It was also well known in racing circles that his sister was married to David Brabham, so getting a current phone number wasn’t too difficult. After speaking to Lisa, I put in a call.

Thackwell wasn’t too keen when I got through. Teaching and surfing were his life now and he reckoned he never thought about his past. But he didn’t hang up and asked me to call back later that evening. I did – and we spoke for about an hour and a half.

The interview was hacked down to a single-page first-person piece, so it wasn’t a big deal. But it had been to me. Thackwell was something of a cult hero.

So all these years later, I was thinking: wouldn’t it be great to track him down again, get him talking face to face – and perhaps even photograph the maverick as he is today? I set Rob Widdows on the task, suspecting he’d find a kindred spirit. He would.

Again, David and Lisa Brabham helped us make contact, and again Thackwell needed some persuading. But Rob is a persistent fellow, and usefully lives not far from Mike on the south coast of England. They met in a pub and over a whisky or two, Rob cajoled him into an interview.

He reported back. I was delighted. Now could Rob talk Mike into allowing us to photograph him, just to complete the story? Yet again, he wasn’t keen, but good old Rob convinced him and took along a photographer friend, Stephen Hayward, to meet Mike on his beloved beach on a cold December day. The brilliant portraits in the April issue, running alongside Rob’s insightful words, are the result. I hope you’ll agree it was worth the chase. Oh, and thanks Rob, Stephen and of course Mike for all playing your parts in what is an early favourite for my Motor Sport article of the year.

Andrew Frankel is another to have delivered something special this month. An exclusive test of Bentley’s 2003 Le Mans-winning Speed 8 made me sit up and take notice, when Andrew sent me the pitch. I didn’t need a lot of time to decide I’d take the story. Again, the photos are stunning. Motor Sport regular Matt Howell was clearly on great form at flat, featureless Silverstone.

Nigel Roebuck brings us our cover story this month, profiling the six World Champions on the 2012 grid over a glass or two with Martin Brundle. There’s plenty on F1 in this issue, given that we’re about to plunge into a new season, including what I hope will be a useful guide by Ed Foster on the Sky vs BBC options that British television viewers have to choose from this year. My dish is on order…

Before I close, I must make mention of the Motor Sport Hall of Fame, from which we’re only just recovering. Our big night of the year, at the Roundhouse on February 16, was a raging success, and I once again doff my cap to the new members, the late Colin McRae, Giacomo Agostini, John Surtees and Adrian Newey. It was a night to remember.

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