Confront a biker in a bar and ask them who the great motorbike racer of all time is. The name most likely to come up is Mike 'The Bike' Hailwood. Perhaps the greatest natural talent ever to hit the sport, he won nine world titles in the 1960s before racing Formula One cars. At the end of the 1970s he returned to two wheels to make one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever, winning a race on the Isle of Man.
Before we get to Mike, we have to mention Stan Hailwood. As a man who achieved more than most mortals could dream of, through sheer determination, Stan was a role model for his son.
Born in 1903, Stanley William Bailey Hailwood was the second son of George Arthur Hailwood. George was a miner who moved to Leigh, between Wigan and Salford, and taught gymnastics in his spare time. During his childhood, Stan fell in their house and his knee landed on a knitting needle. In the hospital, his leg was broken and re-set many times. He was in bed for two years and so was largely self-schooled. He left school at 13, joining the Foden wagon works. At 16, he started working for a motorbike repairer. A year later, he started grass-track racing.
Stan left Oxford in 1924 to join Kings motorbike dealers in Oxford. While the boss was reluctant to employ a 'cripple', Stan proved that he could lift bikes out of trucks as well as anybody else. He was given a month's trial and he retired under doctor's orders 38 years later.
Stan asked to work on commission only, buying in old bikes and repairing them, before getting his hands on newer and more expensive machines. Stan rose through the ranks to Managing Director, making Kings the largest dealer in the country. And of course, the more money Kings made, the more money Stan made. Stan was soon a self-made millionaire and the most powerful man in the motorbike industry.
Stan dabbled in racing, running 500cc sidecars1 in the Oxford area. He was one of the quickest on the local scene. One rider who did beat him was Jack Surtees, whose son John's career would be a model for Stan's own son to aspire to. Stan was married twice and his first wife bore him three children: a son who died, a daughter called Christine and, in 1940, Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood — Mike to his fans.
Mike's mother left and returned a few times before leaving his life for good. She left a painfully shy son with a cheeky grin. Stan and his staff were wonderful parents. Considering how hard he worked, Stan was an attentive father. He did not want his staff to be forced to take care of the children when he was abroad, though, so they were shipped off to boarding school. Mike was six when he left home, and later went from boarding school to Pangbourne Nautical College, which he left at the age of 16.
Mike got his first bike at seven. It was a little machine with three gears which he rode round until it ran out of fuel because he couldn't stop it. Needless to say, Stan's gardeners were not impressed by the mess it made of the lawn. When Mike was 14, he got a James trials2 bike which he used to ride round when he wasn't at Pangbourne. Secretly Stan timed both him and one of his staff who was an accomplished grass track rider, finding that Mike was riding the bike much faster.
After Pangbourne, Mike joined Kings before moving to the Triumph factory. At 17 he entered his first motorbike event, the Scottish Six Days' Trial, on a Triumph bike. A week later, on 22 April, 1957, he arrived at Oulton Park in Cheshire with a borrowed 125cc MV Agusta3. He finished in 11th place but convinced many onlookers that he was good enough to get a proper ride.
Mike the Bike
For the rest of the season, Mike rode a 125cc MV, a 196cc MV with the cylinders' capacity increased to 240cc and a 50cc Iton. These bikes were borrowed and paid for out of Mike's winnings. In the winter, Stan took Mike to South Africa, where he borrowed a 1955 250cc NSU from John Surtees. The winter in South Africa went so well that Stan did not return the NSU to Surtees, eventually buying it.
For the 1958 British season, Stan made Mike's races look more professional. As well as employing his old friend Bill Lacey as a tuner and renting a workshop, Stan bought a £200 lorry to transport the bikes. Other competitors transported their bikes to races in vans and they looked on this as an example of Stan's wallet funding Mike's racing. However, the lorry was rather old and probably cost half as much as most of the vans in the paddock. Both Stan and Mike pointed out that all Mike's bikes were paid for out of his winnings.
Among the bikes that Mike ran were a 125cc Ducati, John Surtees's NSU and 350cc and 500cc Nortons. 1958 saw his first trip to the Isle of Man for the TT races4. During the week he notched up third, seventh, twelfth and thirteenth places. He was also British Champion5 on a 125cc Paton, the 250cc NSU and the 350 Norton. Winning the championship - not just in different classes, but on bikes from different manufactures with different characteristics - was a measure of the talent of Hailwood.
He was British Champion again in 1959, taking the 125cc class on a Ducati, the 250cc on a Mondial and the 350cc and 500cc on Nortons. He won his first Grand Prix event, the Northern Ireland 125cc GP at Dunrod, on a Ducati. That year he finished third in the 125cc World Championship behind Carlo Ubbiali and Tarquinio Provini. Those two riders, both multiple-time world champions, also rode against him at the 250cc Isle of Man TT race. Mike was riding an eight-year-old bike and leading the two Italians on factory6 MVs until his ignition failed just 50 yards from the finish. An amazed Stan asked the Italian pair if they had been playing with him, a charge they denied.
The World Championship Years
Hailwood's 1961 trip to the Island, as the Isle of Man was known, was where the legend of Mike the Bike really began. Stan had borrowed a 125cc Honda for Mike. On the first two laps, Hailwood twice broke the lap record, chasing down Taveri7 and passing him on the final lap. Taveri retook the lead on the road and broke the lap record himself, but Hailwood won by seven seconds.
Hailwood took the 250cc race on another Honda later in the day. It is worth remembering at this time just how long the races were. The 125cc race was run over three laps of the mountain course: 113 miles (182km) of public roads complete with manhole covers, tram lines, hump-backed bridges and lined with dry stone walls. The 250cc was five laps of the same course. Hailwood raced 302 miles (486km) on two different bikes within a couple of hours.
In the 350cc race, he had a two-minute lead with 13 miles to go. However, part of his piston broke, leaving him stranded on the side of the road as one Phil Read rode to victory. In the 500cc race, he lined up on a Norton which was an estimated 10mph (16kph) slower than Gary Hocking's MV Agusta. Hailwood stuck with Hocking and pressured him into a mistake. Hocking rode up an escape road. He managed to catch up, but his bike broke down, allowing Hailwood to ride to victory. He became the first person to average 100mph for a whole race on a British bike. More importantly, he became the first person to win three Isle of Man TTs in one week.
Mike also won the 250cc races at the Dutch TT in Assen, the East German GP at the Sachsenring and the Swedish TT in Kristianstadt, gaining him his first world title. Mike's Norton had been regularly finishing second to Gary Hocking in the 500cc championship. With three races to go, Count Agusta offered Mike works 500cc and 350cc bikes for the last two races. Although it was said it would be impossible to jump straight from the single-cylinder Norton to the much more powerful four-cylinder MV, Mike won at Monza and finished second at Sweden. He finished second in the world championship.
Count Agusta 'invited'8 Mike to join his team for the 1962 season. Hocking was not pleased with this and, after seeing Tom Phillis die at the Island, left the sport. Hocking died later in the year, testing a Formula 1 car. 1962 also saw Bob McIntyre join the list of men who had died racing.
In the 1962, 1963 and 1964 seasons, Hailwood failed to win a total of five races out of the 27 500cc races held. In these five, either Mike either did not turn up or his bike broke. As well at taking the 500cc championships in these years, he took second place in the 1963 350cc championship.
In February 1964, Mike wrote himself into the record books yet again. Stan had decided to try for the hour record and realised that Daytona in the US was the place to try and break it. The only time that was available to attempt the record was the morning of the United States Grand Prix. Just using the practice bike on normal tyres, Mike averaged 144.8mph, breaking the previous record by nearly two miles. In the afternoon, he won the United States Grand Prix.
Hailwood's last year with MV was in 1965. Once again, he took the 500cc championship, becoming the first rider to take four in a row. However, a new force was on the scene: Giacomo Agostini. While Count Agusta was happy to see his Italian bikes racking up World Championships, what he really wanted was an Italian rider on an Italian bike winning the flagship 500cc title. At a couple of races, it was obvious that Hailwood was getting inferior equipment to his Italian teammate. Hailwood left the team for the 1966 season, joining Jim Redman at the Honda team. Redman had dominated the 250cc and 350cc classes, but had not had any success in the 500cc class. While it was originally intended for Hailwood to take on the 500cc class while Redman raced the smaller bikes, it didn't turn out that way. Redman asked to concentrate on the 500cc championship, allowing Hailwood free reign on the smaller bikes. Halfway though the season, Redman fell at the Belgium Grand Prix. He would not compete again. With three championships to compete in, Hailwood was now team leader and was way behind in the 500cc tables. His first season on Hondas saw him take the 350cc and 250cc titles and come second behind Agostini in the 500cc class. 1967 saw a repeat: he won the 350cc class by four points and the 250cc title, having won more races. He was even with Agostini on wins and points in the 500cc class, but lost out on aggregate time over the whole season.
Mike Hailwood's riding style was unique. He achieved leaning angles that would impress many modern riders and were certainly far greater than those of his competitors, though he didn't actually lean off his bike like a modern rider. People who didn't know him would often comment on the state of his boots. He would not only wear though the leather by rubbing on the road, but frequently drew blood from his toes. He was also a rider who liked to spin and slide the rear wheel out of corners, a technique that was not common at the time.
Modern 250cc Grand Prix bikes are limited to two cylinders; 125cc bikes to one cylinder. In 1966, the Honda 250cc bike had six cylinders and the 125cc bike had five. The company were already masters of engine technology, and the 500cc bike was incredibly powerful. Sadly, the science of building a motorbike frame was in its infancy. Most large bikes were based on the frame of the Featherbed Norton, a single cylinder bike. For riders, like Mike, who span the rear wheel, a rigid frame that can take the power is important, and the 1966 Honda was near enough unrideable. Mike raced using a frame that had been built for him. In 1967, Honda increased the power of the 500cc bike once again and left the frame the same, creating a model known as the Bronco. Hailwood was convinced that it had a hinge in the middle — witnesses report the bike leaning from side to side as it went down the straights. Racer John Cooper said that Hailwood deserved a Victoria Cross if he dared to ride it at the TT. He did, and despite the throttle grip coming off, he won, setting a lap record of 108.77mph that would not be broken for eight years. He also won the Junior TT (350cc) and the 250cc race that year.
Mike had a new frame for the Bronco ready for the 1968 season. However, at the end of 1967, Honda pulled out of the World Championships. They gave him £50,000 not to race in Grand Prix for 1968. In the few non-championship races he tried the bike in, he found it was a good match for Agostini's MV. However, Honda refused to let him race it. Hailwood would not race another Grand Prix on two wheels.
Mike The Car
In 1960, John Surtees had starting racing in the Formula One Grand Prix series. He raced on both two and four wheels, winning two bike world titles. By 1963, he had got himself a drive at Ferrari. At Silverstone that year, his path would cross with Mike Hailwood once again.
Hailwood had paid £5,000 for a drive in the British Grand Prix. He qualified on the fifth row in his Lotus Climax and finished eighth out of 23 starters. Hailwood continued to dabble with cars, racing occasionally in the Grand Prix in 1964 and 1965 and winning the odd sports-car race in the winter off-season. He was not as comfortable in the F1 paddock, assuming that the drivers would look down on the scruffy biker.
When Honda pulled out of bike racing, Mike spent more of his time with cars. He raced in Formula 5000 and in Sports Cars. With Rod Sawyer he finished third in the 1969 Le Mans 24-Hour, a race they were leading until their pit crew misdiagnosed a brake problem. Mike joined the Surtees team in 1971 to race F5000, but was also let loose in a few F1 GPs. At Monza he qualified 17th, lining up directly behind Surtees. The circuit's nature meant that the race became a battle of slipstreaming cars. Each car used the hole in the air made by the car in front to gain speed and overtake; this meant that the lead would change dozens of times a lap. By lap 25, Hailwood was leading, though in the final corner there were four cars still in with a chance. Hailwood missed out on a medal by a tenth of a second. He was less than two tenths of a second from winning.
Hailwood drove in both the F1 and F2 series for 1972. Future F1 Grand Prix World Champions James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter all competed in the F2 European Championship. Hailwood won the series, though his F1 season was not so successful. His suspension broke in South Africa as he was challenging Jackie Stewart for the lead. He scored a few points, but the Surtees car was very unreliable. He did get to visit the podium, as he came in second at Monza. The race, which Emerson Fittipaldi won, could have been different if Hailwood hadn't slowed down after suffering fuel leakage due to a bit of broken solder.
Hailwood went racing in 1973 with a paperback for when the Surtees broke down. Dave Charlton had crashed, taking out Hailwood and Clay Regazzoni. Mike was able to trigger his onboard fire extinguisher, but Regazzoni was unconscious and strapped into an inferno. Hailwood tried in vain to drag Regazzoni out but his hands, feet and legs had burst into flames. Hailwood had to run out and smother himself out. The marshals had doused the car in foam and were attempting to drag Regazzoni out when the car burst into flames again. Hailwood drove into the flames again and dragged Regazzoni out. He got back to the pits looking rather chargrilled, told his girlfriend they were leaving and went back to where they were staying. She only found out about it in the newspapers the next morning. Mike Hailwood was awarded the George Cross for his actions.
The Surtees team was always run on a tiny budget, but for 1974, Bang and Olufsen were the team's first big sponsors. They demanded a German in the car, so Jochen Mass was installed in the car. Hailwood moved to McLaren to drive their third works car. He wasn't comfortable in the bigger team, but his season started well with some good finishes, including a third place at South Africa. His season flattened a bit before he got to the German Grand Prix. He was running fifth, but when he approached the jump at Pflanzgarten, the car landed badly and went sliding down the barriers. He'd broken his right knee and calf and both his ankles were damaged. One almost fused when it finally set. Hailwood would not race a car again. The race was won by Clay Regazzoni.
During his stay at hospital, a woman arrived unannounced. At once Mike recognised his mother.
Mike the Man
Mike Hailwood inherited a lot of personality traits from his father. He didn't tolerate fools and he was determined and self-sufficient. But where Stan was brash and outgoing, his son was much quieter and extremely shy. They both shared an eye for the ladies and it was certainly not unknown for women to fly in to race meetings from far afield to visit Mike or Stan. Mike's time as the most famous man on two wheels coincided with the swinging sixties. Between the racing, parties and driving fast cars across the continent, he managed to bed an extraordinary amount of women.
Hailwood also didn't believe that sex before a race was bad. He claimed that instead of draining him, it gave him a kind of nervous energy. Perhaps this was part of his psychological advantage over the rest of the grid. While everybody at the start was concentrating on the race, he was walking around the grid, leathers undone, kicking tyres and staring out the other riders.
There were two main women in Mike's life. One was Pam Lawton, who he first met at Brands Hatch in Kent in 1961. They dated and remained lifelong friends. The other was Pauline Fields, who he'd first met in 1959 at Snetterton in Norfolk. She was an airline hostess who became an actress and model, appearing in a number of Carry On films. They would not become an 'item' until much later. Pauline eventually married Mike in South Africa after he had retired. They had two children together, David and Michelle. Both these women, as well as most of the others in Mike's life, knew he was not the most monogamous of people. In the early years of their relationship, Pauline joked that these other women could keep Mike in practice when he was away at races.
This kind of life led to Hailwood being a familiar face in hospitals around the world, receiving injections for the STDs he picked up.
Within a group of close friends like the riders on the British and World Championship scene, he was the life and soul of a party, enjoying a drink or several and possessed of a quick wit and a love of practical jokes. When he moved to car racing, he was not as happy. He assumed that the drivers looked down on him and there was not as much of a social scene.
Mike was musically gifted and could play clarinet, guitar and piano. He loved jazz music.
The risks of riding were all too apparent in the 1960s, when an average of three Grand Prix riders lost their lives each year. Although Hailwood never seemed to be outwardly bothered by it, he was all too aware of the dangers of places like the Isle of Man:
Christ, we've made it again. They should pull the plug out of that and sink it!
- Mike Hailwood, on the ferry away from the Island
After he left the world of Grand Prix racing, Mike Hailwood retired to South Africa with Pauline. Pauline, who had changed her name to Hailwood so that the children could have their father's surname, was having trouble getting her residency, so out of the blue Mike proposed. After their marriage, they settled in New Zealand, a place that Hailwood had loathed when he visited there as a driver.
Mike the Bike Again
It was now 1977. At the TT races that year, a young Irish man by the name of Joey Dunlop had won the Jubilee TT race. Over the coming decades he would become, just as Mike had been, a fan favourite on the Island and would eventually beat Hailwood's record of TT wins. Hailwood had started thinking about the Isle of Man. The thoughts became firmer until a comeback was planned. He would race at the 1978 Isle of Man TT. By now, the TT had lost its Grand Prix status. The riders thought it was too dangerous, so the promoters would pay handsomely for the man who had won a record twelve TT races to come back and race.
Both Geoff Duke and John Surtees, as friends and former champions, thought that this would end in disaster. Many fans thought that the balding, middle-aged Mike with a club foot and a beer belly was just out for the money and that all he would succeed in doing, if he didn't kill himself, was tarnish his reputation. There was some wisdom in Mike's madness, though. He knew that on a Grand Prix bike on a short circuit he could not compete against the likes of Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts. To him, the TT races were his territory.
After a regime of good eating, no drinking and excercise, a trim Hailwood arrived at the Island. He was to ride four races. The TT Formula One was a race that the Island had introduced in 1977 to retain its World Championship Status. The TT F1 World Championship series grew from one race in to a whole series on road courses for 1000cc road based bikes. Hailwood would ride a Ducati in this race and the 250cc, Senior (500cc) and Classic (F1 and 500cc combined) on Yamahas.
The F1 race was first. In the morning, Hailwood had crashed practising for the 250cc race later in the week and hurt his hand. Phil Read led off. Read had been on the scene when Mike had started and had taken seven Grand Prix world titles, making him the second most successful British Grand Prix rider of all time. By the end of the first lap, Hailwood, who had started twelfth9, was first with a lead of nine seconds. Read was 20 seconds behind. The second-placed rider broke down, so now the two oldies were showing the rest how to ride on the Island. Read's bike blew up while following Hailwood on the last lap. Mike Hailwood won the 1978 Formula 1 TT by nearly two whole minutes. That race win also gave him the TT Formula One World Championship.
In the Senior race, Hailwood had uncharacteristically decided to swap the steering damper on his Yamaha. During the race, the new one broke, leaving him with an unfamiliar ultra-powerful grand prix bike and no hope of controlling it at high speeds. He finished 22nd. He picked up a 12th place in the 250cc and was jointly leading the Classic before his engine broke.
Hailwood wanted one more crack at the 500cc race and decided to return for the 1979 TT. The 1979 Ducati was reckoned to be a step back from the 1978 version, with reduced handling and the gear-lever swapped to the other side, but it was going to be Hailwood's mount for the F1 race and possibly the Classic. The Ducati threw him off while he was practising and Hailwood broke some ribs. Instead of the rather old Yamaha, his mount for the 500cc race was a full factory Suzuki with the factory's mechanics. He would choose to ride this in the Classic instead of the Ducati.
In the F1 race, the Ducati started misfiring and eventually lost its fifth gear, a huge handicap when much of the race is at top speed. Hailwood finished in fifth position. The day before the 500cc race, the mechanics were trying out the bike and thought that it wasn't sounding quite right. They dismantled the engine, found a fault and rebuilt the engine, working though the night underneath the staff quarters in a hotel.
In the race, Hailwood was third after the first lap. He broke the 500cc lap record on lap three and, despite his steering damper jamming on tight turns, he won by over two minutes. In the Classic, Hailwood was level with Alex George coming into the start of the last lap. In the final part of the lap, he thought he had enough in hand. Hailwood failed to take account of the time he took to pass a couple of lapped riders, though, and lost the race by two seconds.
That would be Hailwood's last race. Final bike and car appearances were planned, but he had a crash that put paid to those plans. Hailwood returned to the UK to run a bike dealership in Birmingham, as well as helping out various old friends with things such as road safety talks. On Saturday, 21 March, 1981, Mike Hailwood set off in his Rover car with his children Michelle and David to collect some fish and chips. He returned along the A435 through Portway. A truck was making an illegal turn though the barriers in the central reservation. The Rover hit it. Michelle was killed instantly; Mike and David were taken to hospital. Mike died two days later. The lorry driver was fined £100. Mike Hailwood was 41.
Mike Hailwood in Figures
On Two Wheels
- British Championships, including the ACU Road Racing Stars Championship – 11 titles
- 500cc – 1958, 1959
- 350cc – 1958, 1959
- 250cc – 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961
- 125cc – 1958, 1959, 1960
- Grand Prix World Championships – 9 titles; 76 race wins
- 500cc – 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 – 37 race wins
- 350cc – 1966, 1967 – 16 race wins
- 250cc – 1961, 1966, 1967 – 22 race wins
- 125cc – 2 race wins
- Isle of Man TT Races - 14 race wins
- Senior – 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1979
- Junior – 1962, 1967
- Lightweight 250 – 1962, 1966, 1967
- Lightweight 125 - 1962
- TT Formula One - 1978
- TT Formula One World Championship - 1 title 1978
On Four Wheels
- European F2 Championship – 1 title - 1972
- World F1 Grand Prix Championship
- 7 seasons
- 50 Grand Prix
- 1 fastest lap
- 27 finishes
- 10 points finishes
- 2 podium finishes