He won nine world championships, including four 500cc titles in succession. In six years he won a fairly unprecedented seventy-four Grand Prixs. He won Grand Prixs in each of the 250/350/500 classes, including winning Grand Prixs in all three classes in the same season, a record five times. Five times he won all three classes in one day. He won the Isle of Man fourteen times. He set the one hour top speed world record in 1964 at Daytona. He came out of retirement at the age of 38 and won the Isle of Man two years in succession. He came within fourteen points of winning the 500cc title six times, losing in 1961 and 1966 to Gary Hocking and then Giacamo Agostini. He died tragically, prematurely, at the age of forty-two.
Now many not only wonder if he was the best, they wonder who he was.
He was Mike Hailwood.
A Man of Myth
The greatest myths in America about Mike Hailwood are that he was killed while racing and that he was a life-long Ducati rider. To dispel the first myth, he met his demise while driving of all things, a passenger car (at that time even his second run at a racing career had ended). Hailwood, with his daughter Michele beside him and son David in the back, was running for fish and chips for dinner. Not far from his home a delivery truck pulled a quick U-turn in front of him and Hailwood collided with it, killing father and daughter. As for the latter myth, this life-long Ducati rider business, Hailwood predominately rode for the Italian manufacturer MV Agusta and Honda in his long career but he did win the Isle of Man TT in 1979 on a borrowed Ducati, of which Ducati later pumped out many "Hailwood Replicas", hence the misunderstanding.
Hailwood: The Original
Who was he? Hailwood was ... well, Hailwood. Just like there probably will never be another Kenny Roberts or Cal Rayborn II or anyone like them, nor will there be another Hailwood. Michael Stanley Bailey Hailwood was born to an affluent family in England in 1936. His father, Stan Hailwood, was an ex-racer and motorcycle dealer that made millions selling bikes in the Great Britain. He spent money freely and bought the best machinery he could find for his son once the racing bacteria infected Mike's system. Money has been proven beneficial in racing and it certainly opened doors for Hailwood early in his career, but there is one thing that no amount of capital can acquire: talent. Rich boys fueled with Daddy Warbucks money take up and drop out of the sport all the time. The most superb aspect about motorcycle racing is that even with the best tires, machinery and tutoring, Richie Rich will often get smoked by some guy on lessor equipment - a great deal of the equation is desire and talent. Although not many know it, Hailwood paid his father back for every bike he old man purchased. "Mike paid back every penny," says his friend and former mechanic Nobby Clark.
Off the track Hailwood was a brooder, a brooder who loved Jazz. It is said that the only time Mike Hailwood seemed to really enjoy himself was when he was playing or listening to Jazz, or when he was riding. Or carousing. Hailwood was an accomplished carouser.
Hailwood, according to those that would know, was a natural, one of the most naturally talented riders of all time. If a list (reminder: this was written in 1998) had to be made of the most naturally talented riders ever, it would probably read: Roberts, Read, Hailwood and probably Spencer, in no particular order. Go further than that and you'll have to qualify your picks.
Beyond raw talent, Hailwood had The Gift. He was gregarious and likable, so much so that he even managed to win over all those who'd had reservations about old man Hailwood's kid. Paradoxically, Hailwood showed at times a shyness and modesty that made fans admire him even more. This was no Barry Sheene who held court any time he ventured out in public, Hailwood, even after he'd overcome the odds to win nine world championships, would shyly tell people he was "Just a bloke who rides bikes." All this from a lad who dropped out of school at sixteen to work as an assembler in the Triumph factory in Meriden. While there he never spoke of his rich father, just that he wanted to race bikes.
Hailwood began club-racing in his late teens and was a four-time British champion in his first full seasons of racing. He did some time racing in South Africa after that which then had a respectable roadracing ambiance and from there it was on to Grand Prix in Europe. Before long he won his first world championship in 1961 riding the wonderful Honda 250 four against the factory Honda bikes. After one season partially aligned with Mr. Honda and the boys, Hailwood left them for the MV Agusta team along side Giacamo Agostini. MV's Agostini and Yamaha's Phil Read were Hailwood's rivals for most of his career, but there were more. English writer Paul Martin knew the shy Hailwood slightly by way of sharing an flat in England with one of Hailwood's mechanics. He remembers his hero's rivals this way:
"As for the rivalry between Hailwood and Read - I'm not sure that rivalry is quite the word for it. If Read hadn't had the misfortune to be born at the same time as Hailwood then he might have been able to earn the title of greatest rider ever but, as it was, whenever Read did well there was always Hailwood there to go one better; to get the MV ride in the early 60's; to get the seat at Honda. When Hailwood scored his 3-races-in-a-week victory in 1961 it was Read (on his TT debut) who won the other solo race. Hailwood's last (regular) TT year, 1967, he won 3 races to Read's one. When Read did the impossible and won the 1971 250cc World Championship as a privateer, he returned to England for a celebration race at Silverstoneand Hailwood, having a one-off ride, beat him.
"Phil returned to the Island in 1977 to win the new F1 TT, the same year that Joey Dunlop won his first TT that year as well, it prompted Hailwood to return in 1978 and beat Read. They both had an ability to jump onto almost any bike and win races. Read was able to identify and rectify problems and was always the first to use new technologies. Hailwood, on the other hand, was useless at setting up bikes (or cars) but could ride round any problem."
"Hailwood's real rival was Derek Minter, a British rider who competed against Hailwood throughout his career, he still races, and managed to win against Mike more times than he lost. Minter's big chance came in 1963 when Geoff Duke brought out the 500 Gileras to compete against MV. They chose John Hartle and Minter to ride them. Unfortunately Minter broke a collarbone before the bikes arrived and his ride went to Phil Read instead. Read's riding impressed the Yamaha bosses and his career took off but Minter never got the chance of a factory ride again."
Winner of the 1964 USGP at Daytona and world record holder
In preparation for the 1964 USGP at Daytona a reporter made a casual mark to Stan Hailwood about breaking the established world one-hour speed record while they were chatting in the lobby of the old Daytona Speedway Holiday Inn. British rider Bob McIntyre had the 143 mph record then, set at the hard and bumpy Monza circuit. Old Stan Hailwood rented the track for a cool grand and convinced Count Agusta to let them have a go at the record before the Grand Prix on Saturday. On a spare MV 500 works bike, riding clockwise on the oval, Hailwood broke the record and in turn won the Grand Prix later in the week. 1964 Hailwood's record was 144.8 mph.
The Count and Mr. Honda
|"Count Agusta ... he was a typical blue-blood. There wasn't an excuse good enough if you'd lost the race. It was your fault; it could never be the bike. I was with Mike when Geoff Duke brought out the Gilera and MV raced against them at Imola in the Gold Cup race. Gilera won the race and I remember old man Agusta went absolutely crazy. He smashed the television up and couldn't believe that his bikes were beaten." --Nobby Clark|
Hailwood, like a few others, knew both Count Dominico Agusta, emperor of MV Agusta and Soichiro Honda intimately well. Clark comments on what he felt would be Hailwood's opinion of the pair of assertive and aggressive men, "I think it was always difficult for whomever the rider was at MV. They were going to have a difficult relationship with Count Agusta simply because he was a typical blue-blood, if you know what I mean. There wasn't an excuse good enough if you'd lost the race. It was your fault; it could never be the bike. I was with Mike when Geoff Duke brought out the Gilera and MV raced against them at Imola in the Gold Cup race. Gilera won the race and I remember old man Agusta went absolutely crazy. He smashed the television up and couldn't believe that his bikes were beaten."
"Old man Honda was so different. He respected the rider's views - that was his main thing. He would ask Mike, 'What was the bike like?' And after he heard what was said he'd go over to the designers and tell them, 'That guy is saying the bike is doing this, now sort it out. I don't want any of my riders being hurt. Don't forget it's the name Honda that stands out more than anything if somebody gets hurt.'
"When Mike joined Honda they I think realized they had a rider that was worth twenty horsepower, a guy that would ride as hard as he could. If he lost - there was no excuses. He wouldn't say, 'of the bike did this and that', he'd say, 'I lost. That was it.' I think he was respected for that."
Hailwood won four 500cc world championships for Count Agusta and MV and then, fed up with the political intrigue of the Italians, swapped back to Honda for 1966. How he did so is quite a story: the final race of the 1965 season saw Hailwood ride the 350 MV as his contract specified but Honda contacted him prior to the race and asked if he would ride the 250 Six at Suzuka. Hailwood couldn't as he had a contract with MV. Being industrious, Mr. Honda petitioned the organizers of the 1965 Grand Prix of Suzuka, owned by Honda of course, to rearrange the schedule on race day so that the 350 race was held before the 250 event - the opposite of the standing schedule in those days. Hailwood won the 350 race for the Count and then, his contract with MV Agusta satisfied, stepped over and rode the Honda 250 six, -finishing second.
"Back in those days, suspension was just a word," says Nobby Clark.
Prior to the 1966 season the most infamous Hailwood story occurred. Late in the pre-season at a Honda test at Suzuka, Hailwood was unhappy with the Honda-manufactured rear suspension on the six cylinder 250. After trying for hours to get the suspension to work, he politely asked the Japanese engineers to remove the shocks from the machine. When they did so, he picked them up, walked over and tossed them in the Suzuka pond. He then brought out a pair of English Girling shocks he had used on the previously and told the engineers to install them. Old man Honda nearly had a heart attack when he heard what Hailwood had done.
Nobby Clark was there that day and he confirms the story: "Mike just kept saying to them, 'The units are not working properly. They're good for two laps, then they heat up and don't do a damn thing'. One Honda guy kept saying oh, don't worry about it. At that particular time Mike had broken the outright lap record at Suzuka and he said to the guy, 'For thirty laps I cannot do that lap time. The Yamahas, they are going to be right there all the time. I don't mind trying like hell but if the thing starts giving me trouble, what do you want me to do?'.
"They just sort of played around with these shocks, took the springs off and tested them by hand to see what the damping was like. They put them back on the bike and Mike went out and the bike did exactly the same thing. So when he came in Mike had them take them off the bike. Back then there used to be a pond at the back of the paddock at Suzuka. He picked up the shocks and threw them in the water. Then he said to the Japanese, 'Now you will have to do something about it'.
They put Girlings on it and the next day Mike set a lap record that stood for fourteen years."
Hailwood inadvertently closed out his professional Grand Prix career in 1967 with Honda by winning the 250 and 350 titles, for the second time in two years. He intended to race the 1968 season for Honda but the factory unexpectedly pulled out of Grand Prix racing in February of 1968. Hailwood, then only twenty-seven, had a contract for '68 which Honda financially honored, but in doing so would not release him to ride for another manufacturer. "How could I have said no to so much money for doing nothing?" Hailwood said at the time. He coaxed machinery out of Honda to race national events where he could negotiate his own start money for 1968.
A third chapter in '68 - almost
At the final race of the 1968 season, with the okay of Honda, he tried to forge a new beginning with Count Agusta at the Italian GP, practicing the MV. But the two were at each other's throats before the session ended and Hailwood walked. Hailwood friend, confidant and mechanic Nobby Clark recalls, "Being it was the last race of the 1968 season Honda allowed him to ride the 350 MV at Monza. He went there and practiced on Thursday and got a really good lap time - Ago was quite a bit slower. Then the next day in practice Mike's bike wouldn't go nearly as fast as it did the day before. He said to the MV people, 'You've done something to the bike' but they said no, no they hadn't. Well it was such a change that five or six degrees in atmospheric conditions couldn't cause it. And Ago's bike were now miles an hour faster. He figured they switched engines between the two bikes. So Mike went to Benelli and asked if they had a bike for him to ride and of course, they said yes so he raced the Benelli. Unfortunately in the race he fell off on the second or third lap."
"MV to this day claim that they never did anything to the bike, whereas Mike, until the day he died, believed that they switched the engines or changed the carburetors or something like that." Hailwood continued to race. By the end of the season he told the press that he'd had enough and would concentrate on car racing.
After that incredible run with Honda and MV Agusta in Grand Prix, Hailwood attempted to win a world championship on four wheels as well, driving in Formula One for former motorcycle and F-1 world champion John Surtees. The Bike was one of the first (after Surtees himself) of many talented and successful motorcycle racers to try to find the same success with car racing, only to detect that racing talent in car racing will not bridge the gap brought on by weak machinery. The Surtees car wasn't capable, yet Hailwood finished third at the twenty-four hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT-40 and won the FF200 title for Surtees. Hailwood's character was moved up another notch when he jumped into a burning car in South African Grand Prix to save fellow driver Clay Regazoni. He was later given the George Medal for his bravery, the highest non-military award in England. On to McLaren where he finished in the top five several times. Then Hailwood was involved in a horrific accident at the German GP which severely injured his leg. Following that, Hailwood healed but retired from racing nearly completely. He moved to New Zealand (like many Brits, to escape the Torry tax laws) before it became fashionable and lived there with his family for years.
In retirement Hailwood must have begun to miss the limelight slightly; many riders never really recover mentally when their career ends. It's difficult to compare the trappings of everyday life with the days when you were a racing superstar, adored by the multitudes, traveling the world, signing your autograph in movie theaters, et al. Some of the saddest, most despondent, bitter, cynical, manic-depressive people are former world championship riders in the first years of their post-racing career life. Even for shy Mike Hailwood the post-racing period in his life must have been tedious.
"Mike wanted to go back to show a lot of the people - the riders of the time - that at his age he could still go to the Isle of Man and win," says Clark. "Mike always had a soft spot for the Island because he thought that if a rider won on the Island you had really won a race. It was a hard circuit that if you wanted to win you had to really race there. Guys who won on the Island were always a little bit special. You couldn't go there just to play and win a race. It was a circuit that didn't allow for that."
After several races in New Zealand, Hailwood decided that he still had a race or two left in him. Plus, he had some things to prove. His career and accomplishments seemed distant to some and put into some doubt with the enormous step taken in motorcycle technology in the 1970s. "Yeah, but he did all that on those old bikes, he could never ride like that on a modern machine," some said. Hailwood began to train for a comeback. Friends didn't want him to injure his body or reputation and told him not to attempt it. He ignored them.
With his hair thinning and a slight belly, Hailwood returned to the Isle of Man at the grand old age of thirty-eight to race again, years after he'd officially retired from roadracing. A Ducati 860SS was procured for him to ride, not a factory bike mind you, but Hailwood persevered on it and won the TT and set a new lap record on the machine as well.
In England and much of the world, his status as a full-fledged British racing champion and hero was assured. Barry Sheene lived his life in the shadow of Mike Hailwood and finally broke free of the looming specter when he won his back to back titles in 1976 and 1977; he won Britain's first 500cc world championships since Hailwood's last in 1965. For Sheene, Hailwood's historic win at the Isle in 1978 put him in the darkness once again.
The comeback ride even at the Isle of Man, a course he knew like the small of his wife's back, was a major gamble for Mike Hailwood. To put it in a modern perspective, it would be as if Kenny Roberts started a comeback today on a present-day 500 at Laguna Seca, more than ten years after really giving it up. Succeed and you've done well. Fail and everything you've accomplished in your career is tainted. Hailwood succeeded, not once but twice.
For good measure Hailwood came back to the Isle the next year on an untamed Suzuki four-cylinder 500cc two-stroke, riding one of the few two-strokes of his career, and won again. Thirty-nine years old and a little out of his element - Hailwood refused to hang off the bike as was just becoming the riding technique of choice, he held his knees tightly to the Suzuki's gas tank when the bike was heeled over, just as he had done on the MV and the Honda six - Hailwood was a superstar again. He raced a third time after the second modern-day Isle of Man win but tossed the bike at Mallory Park in practice and said he'd had enough.
In two years time he would be dead.
French writer Jacques Bussillet wrote in his book Mike Hailwood and the Honda Six, (roughly translated here)
" ... in twenty-two years of racing Hailwood rode more than seventy different machines in all classes from 125 to 900cc, most being works bikes from fifteen or sixteen different factories. With all these bikes, he won nine world championship titles in Grand Prix, one TT-F1 world championship title, seventy-four Grand Prixs and an incredible number of international races around the world, adding to his credit the one hour speed record on the spare MV during an attempt in 1964 at the Daytona Speedway."
Of course, Hailwood's time in Grand Prix racing was a different era. It wasn't especially glamorous and all about television, viewing impressions and getting and keeping sponsors as so much of it is today. Racing then was simply competition among men and manufacturers who were all trying to prove they were the best; (Hailwood raced for time early in his professional career with only the words, "For the Love of the Sport" on the side of his fairing), from one view it is still that today, but from another it is very different.
Too, time smoothes out the rough edges of the period but Grand Prix racing was no picnic at that time, the courses were dangerous, bumpy and long. More people died in Grand Prix racing in that period than any other. Not only on the track, as the travel from one racetrack in Europe to another could be hazardous: high speeds, border crossings and the rickety aircraft of the period brought down more than one rider. "Yeah, it was dangerous," confirms Clark, " racing on cobblestone streets in the rain and things like that. Today's rider won't race in the rain if the asphalt's not right. Back then it was just another day."
He knew when to quit. And when to really quit
Interestingly, Hailwood's career and life transpired a period of significant change in the sport. He came into it when some sanctioning bodies in Europe didn't require their riders to wear helmets and finished it racing the first of the four-cylinder two-stroke 750s, although a tame one by comparison to what came later. For most of his pre-1978 career he wore the gentlemen-like thin black leathers with no sponsorship patches as was customary of the period, yet when he rode for the final time at the Isle of Man, Hailwood on the Suzuki was decked out in full billboard-style leathers.
He went to Daytona a month before his death to watch the 200 and saw the Yamaha TZ700s and other 750s race there; the early models at their bad-tempered worst. Hailwood discounted any thoughts of a third comeback attempt once he saw their antics on the banking. "At Daytona he said, 'Those 750s are so fast now I don't even want to know about getting on them' " says Clark, who last spoke with his friend in the paddock at Daytona.
Nine time world champion Mike Hailwood died in 1981 at the age of 42 in a silly automobile accident, robbing roadracing of one its greatest heroes. Killed with him was his pre-teen daughter Michele. They were on their way home from a resturant when a truck in front of them pulled a fast U-turn.
Hailwood's only son, David, was five years old at the time and the only person in the car to survive the accident.
Hailwood's relatively early death and heady accomplishments in life made him an icon of racing, just as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are icons of pop culture. He is revered in some circles and almost forgotten in others; much of what remains is lore and it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.
Icon, yes, but was Hailwood really the best? Nobby Clark who worked with many world champions including Kenny Roberts, believes so. "I think he was the best. And I think he was definitely the most versatile rider ever. He would get off the 125 and get on a 500 and he didn't need but two or three laps to get used to it. He just had that talent where he could jump off one bike and onto another, race it and win. He could go from a 500 to a 350 to a 250 and he was absolutely no different. That is where he stood out. I don't think there has been anybody like that in the last ten years, that versatile. I think Kenny (Roberts) was that way too, but Kenny always needed luck."
To Clark, what stands out for him is Hailwood's love for motorcycle sport: "Today the riders will race if the money is right. Mike wasn't that way, he loved to race."