Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mike Hailwood - a motorcycle legend

Mike the bike 1940 - 1981

Mike Hailwood is one of the erstwhile all-time-great motorcycle racers of the world.  He had an incredible and impressive career in racing, starting when he was only just seventeen in 1957 and ending up, fourteen time winner of the Isle of Man TT and with seventy-six Grand Prix wins to his name.

He was loved and admired by many for his amazing skill on a motorcycle, his courage and his great sense of fun and was rechristened 'Mike the bike' by his fans.  Here's a little bit about the life and times of this great legend of racing.

Mini Mike

Mike Hailwood - or Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood - was born in Oxford in April 1940 to a well to do family.  His father ran a very successful motorcycle business, so Hailwood was surrounded by motorbikes from an early age. 

His father brought him his own first mini bike when he was a little boy and he famously wore an oval track in the grass of the eight acre field where he spent hours and hours practising on his motorcycle whenever he got the opportunity. 

He was obviously full of character and personality right from the start and was caught driving his mother's Jaguar when he was too small to even see over the steering wheel - clearly his love of all things motorised and his need for speed were with him from the off!

Starters orders 


In 1957 at only seventeen years old he began his life of racing, coming eleventh in his very first motorcycle race, but that was the last time he came eleventh - he was destined for winning!

Once he had gained his international racing licence, he headed off to South Africa to hone his skills. After a few months of racing there, Hailwood became South Africa's National Champion, before returning to Britain in the Spring.

Without wasting any more time he hit the Motorcycle Grand Prix circuit in 1958 and rapidly won an amazing seventy-four races in his second only year of racing - an incredible achievement for such a young racer.  The following year he was spotted by Ducati and rode for them, at the tender age of nineteen, to a win in the 125cc event in Ireland.

1961 saw Hailwood racing a four-stroke, four-cylinder 250cc Honda to victory in the 250cc World Championship

Then he moved over to MV Agusta and won four consecutive 500cc World Championships before returning to Honda to win four more World titles in 1966 and 1967 in the 250cc and 350cc categories...

Isle of Man TT 


Mike the bike is perhaps most famous for his incredible record at the Isle of Man TT.  The TT course is famous for being challenging and dangerous but by 1967 he had already not only finished, but won this race, no less than 12 times.

Take it to the limit

It was in fact the 1967 race against Agostini who was riding an MV Agusta, which is believed to be his finest and definitely his most exciting race. The battle to be in front was fast and furious with only a matter of seconds between the racers until they both had to make a pit stop in the third lap.   Mike had a mechanical problem with a loose throttle grip which the mechanics struggled to repair, but which lost him a valuable eleven seconds.  Hailwood's ever resourceful mechanic eventually simply tied a handkerchief round the throttle grip to hold it in place and off he went, by now with a lot of time to make up!  Hailwood rode incredibly hard pushing his bike to its limits until at last, on the last lap, Agostini's chain snapped and Hailwood sailed to a snatched eleventh-hour victory after a nail-biting race and a fantastic spectacle for the watching crowd.

A move to four wheels

Hailwood took a break from motorcycle racing in 1968 and moved sideways into motor racing, becoming well respected but never as wildly successful as he had been on two wheels. He did achieve a podium at Le Mans 24 hours though, which is not to be sneezed at.

By George!

As a person, as well as his great sense of fun, Mike was also notable for his courage. This was demonstrated in a race at Kyalami Circuit in South Africa.  Mike's fellow racer, Clay Regazzoni's car caught fire so Mike stopped racing to pull Regazzoni from his burning car. His own suit caught fire in the blaze but as soon as it had been put out by the fire marshalls, he dashed back into the flames to get Regazzoni out.  His selfless actions in this race earned him the George medal for bravery and the respect of all the other drivers and fans.

Then in 1974 Hailwood had a really serious crash at Nurburgring in Germany in which he smashed his right leg which caused him to retire from auto racing.

TT Time again

Then, suddenly, eleven years after he had retired from motorcycle racing, and against the advice of all his friends and family, Hailwood made a spectacular return to motorcycle racing and entered the Isle of Man TT.

Most race fans did not think that a thirty-eight year old racer who had not raced a motorcycle for eleven years, would stand a chance in the Isle of Man TT, but as usual Mike the Bike, riding a Ducati 900SS, amazed his audience by winning the TT yet again!

Finally, the next year, he raced in what was to be his last Isle of Man TT, coming within a whisker of winning, but finally only just beaten (they were in fact just two seconds apart) by Alex George.

After his triumphant comeback Hailwood did finally decide to permanently retire from motorsport after this, but his incredible abilities were formally recognised and he was awarded the MBE by the Queen for his services to sport.

An unhappy ending

After such an illustrious life, the Mike Hailwood story does have a very sad ending. His wife says that when he proposed to her she said that she had major reservations about marrying a motorcycle racer who might be killed any weekend while he was racing. Upon hearing this Mike told her that when he was in South Africa, a fortune teller had told him that he would die before forty, but would be killed by a truck so he would not die on the race track!

One day he was taking both his children Michelle and David to get some fish and chips when a lorry did an illegal turn across the central reservation of the road and ploughed into his car killing his daughter Michelle at the scene. Michael and David were rushed to hospital but Michael died a few days later on March 23rd 1981 from injuries he had sustained in the accident.

In Memoriam

Fans of Mike Hailwood still remember him and an annual Mike Hailwood Memorial Run takes place every March, starting at the former Norton Factory in Aston in Birmingham.  The run passes Portway where the accident took place and goes on to Tanworth-in-Arden church, where Mike and Michelle are buried.

Mike's memory lives on in the motorcycling fraternity and beyond and in 2000 the FIM named him Grand Prix "Legend", he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 1981 part of the Isle of Man TT course was named Hailwood's Height in his memory.

After his victory on the Isle of Man in 1978, Ducati produced a 900SS based Mike Hailwood replica for sale, and sold about 7000 of them.

One of the world's greatest ever racers, Mike Hailwood will never be forgotten by fans of motorcycle racing.

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