Mike the bike… in cars Mike Hailwood is remembered for being a multiple motorcycle champion – but his career on four wheels is less often celebrated Words Rachael Clegg Portrait Alamy. Mike Hailwood. The cars raced by Mike the Bike.
An intricate gilded trophy stands on Pauline Hailwood’s mantlepiece. ‘That’s Mike’s replica from Le Mans,’ she says. ‘It’s a horse’s face with a dragon’s tail but I don’t know what it means.’ Then she opens up about Mike ‘the Bike’ Hailwood’s other life: that of a seriously competitive car driver. But it’s a life that passed many motor sport fans by, even though Hailwood competed in several championships, including Formula 1, Formula 500, Formula Junior and Formula 2. His first foray into cars was in 1963, at Brands Hatch, driving a Formula Junior Lotus. He joined Reg Parnell’s team the following year – scoring a championship point at Monaco – in preparation for an F1 season in ’1965.
But parallel to this, Hailwood was competing in the 250cc, 350cc and 500cc Grand Prix classes for MV Agusta and Honda. With the exception of a handful of races under the Parnell banner in ’1965 and the 1966 Dickie Dale three-hour race, he decided to focus almost exclusively on his motorcycle career. It would be 1969 before Mike the Bike returned to four wheels.
And wisely so: during this period he built his reputation as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. Having already bagged the World 500cc Championship, Hailwood went on to break the four-hour record at Daytona in ’1964 and clinched the 500cc title (for the third time) the same year. Then, in ’1966 he won the 250cc and 350cc World Championships, and came second in the 1966 500cc World Championship.
As Pauline says: ‘He was never off a bike. When he was racing he would do three classes a day – 250cc, 350cc and 500cc. There was one motorcycle race in Holland and after racing he leapt off the bike, skipped the garland, jumped into a light aircraft and flew to France for a car race, then flew somewhere else for another bike race the next day.’
But in 1968 Honda withdrew from all world championship competitions and paid Hailwood £50,000 not to compete in any motorcycle series. So he turned to cars. He raced a Lola-Chevy in Formula 5000 and finished third in the Championship.
But the series was as much about wrestling as driving, as Rod Sawyer says in Chris Hilton’s A Man Called Mike. ‘Formula 5000 was designed to be a gut-rumbling formula for people who enjoyed lots of noise… It was a matter of getting together a bunch of people who could afford to build cars. Lola had agreed a cheap spaceframe chassis and you bolted in a big Chevy engine. I don’t think anyone appreciated how skilful the guys were. The cars were big, unwieldy beasts.’
While racing in the F5000 series, Hailwood also competed in the World Sportscar Championship with David Hobbs. In Hilton’s book Hobbs says: ‘In 1970 Mike and I drove the third Gulf Porsche 917. We had one of the 4½-litre flat-twelves. Most of the teams had 5.0 litres, but that was relatively new and they all bust in no time.
‘I started the race again and it was a nice sunny evening. We were doing alright, we were up to fifth or sixth in no time at all, and I gave the car to Mike. It started to rain, and in that he was absolutely the demon, he was up to third and flashing along at a great rate of knots, but he was unfortunate enough to run into a car that had crashed at the Dunlop Curve… The next thing they were hoisting our car over the guardrail on a crane. That was the end of that. John Wyer is reputed to have said “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”.’
In 1971 Hailwood signed up to race in F5000 with John Surtees. But the deal was made in an unconventional setting: the day after he’d had a ‘bender’ in his flat, Mike, the notorious party animal, shook hands with Surtees, the prim team boss, in his vomitspattered hallway. ‘Mike and John were like chalk and cheese,’ says Pauline. ‘John was very much down-to-business. If Mike was able to make John relax and enjoy himself a bit he would take it as a great compliment.’
Yet Surtees and Hailwood shared something rare: both had competed in motorcycles and cars, with Surtees, of course, being the only champion on both two wheels and four. But Hailwood was less of a natural on four wheels than Surtees.
‘When I came into car racing I made a clear-cut change,’ Surtees told me before he passed away last year. ‘I did motorcycles for x number of years and then one year I did both, and then the next year I did fully cars, but perhaps there was a little bit of indecision with Mike.’
Derek Bell puts it more simply: ‘It’s like asking Roger Federer to go and play squash.’ Another sticking point for Hailwood was paddock life. He was often lonely at car races and missed the camaraderie of the bike world. He found many of the drivers to be withdrawn and stern, so much so that he once said to Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck: ‘Have you ever seen so many miserable buggers earning half-a-million quid a year?’
Yet there was one driver who shared Hailwood’s joie de vivre: James Hunt. Hunt and Hailwood met when Hailwood was racing for Surtees. They were both deadly serious about racing but laid-back in life. Hailwood would visit Hunt at his Marbella residence and they would indulge in their shared enthusiasm for both booze and beautiful women.
Yet while Hunt was Hailwood’s kindred spirit, Surtees was his anchor – and the pair went back a long way. Hailwood’s father, confidant and mentor, Stan, had raced motorcycles against Surtees’ father and it was in 1955 that Surtees – then a motorcycling star – first met Hailwood Jr. Surtees said: ‘I rode a 250cc NSU motorcycle and had a lot of success with it and Mike’s father asked me if I’d loan it to him. I did and he took it to South Africa with him… In fact I loaned them the bike and I never got it back!’
Speaking of Hailwood’s time racing in the F5000 series, Surtees said: ‘Mike was having troubles when he started driving in what was the F5000. We were talking at Oulton Park and I said “You probably need another motorcyclist to sort things out for you” because Mike never pretended to be mechanical. But we came together and had success in the F5000 cup.’
Hailwood finished second in the F5000 series and, fuelled by this success, decided to drive a Surtees-Ford in the European Formula 2 Championship. He embarked on a full Grand Prix season that year as well, with a second place at Monza and eighth overall in the Championship.
Hailwood remained with Surtees for the 1972 and 1973 GP seasons, driving a TS9B Cosworth and TS14A Cosworth, respectively. Only both seasons were beset with technical obstacles.
In the 1972 South African GP, while seriously duking with Jackie Stewart, Hailwood’s suspension broke. At Monza, just as he looked to have clinched a strong position, his airbox blew off. 1973 was even worse: the oil pipe went in Spain, in Sweden he stopped with tyre vibrations, in France it was an oil leak, and in Holland he retired with electrical failure.
In fact, reliability issues were so profound that Hailwood was known for tucking a paperback into his overalls so that he would have something to read when his car broke down. He was particularly fond of detective stories, apparently. But in 1973, something much more noble overshadowed what was otherwise a disastrous year of racing: Hailwood saved follow driver Clay Regazzoni’s life.
It was during the 1973 South African GP that Regazzoni – in his BRM – crashed into a pile-up involving Hailwood’s Surtees and Dave Charlton’s Lotus. And the whole lot burst into flames.
Pauline says: ‘There was an accident with Dave Charlton, and Mike caught the tail-end of it and clipped the back of Charlton’s car. Regazzoni’s car then crashed into Mike’s and burst into flames. Clay was unconscious so Mike leapt out and managed to get in – despite the flames – and unfasten Clay’s seatbelt. He was trying to haul him out but then he caught fire on his feet and his hands, so he ran across the track and rolled on the ground to put the fire on himself out before running back in to get Clay out.’ He was awarded the George Medal for his bravery. Pauline – quoted in A Man Called Mike – said: ‘When Mike returned his face was totally ashen. He jerked his thumb to say “Come on, we’re getting out of here.” We grabbed our crash helmets and that was that, we were off.’
Hailwood was also off – at the end of the season – from the Surtees team. ‘That was one of the saddest things,’ said Surtees. ‘That only came about because we had a sponsor come to us to sponsor us in a way that we’d never had before. This offer would have allowed us to make a lot of developments but there was one condition: their markets meant they had to have a German driver. They had a German company and also one in Brazil so they wanted Jochen Mass and José Carlos Pace. It brought my team to an end. Fortunately Rob Walker stepped in and arranged something for Mike with McLaren, so that was good.’
But Surtees remained somewhat rueful about that particular period in his motor sport career. ‘It was a tragic series of circumstances. No good for Mike and no good for me. It’s one of those mistakes one makes. The important thing is that we stayed friends. Mike asked for my advice when he was thinking about returning to the Isle of Man TT in 1978. He asked: “What do you think, John?” I said I was doubtful that it was a sensible idea but the most important thing was that it would be in a way that would allow him to latch into programmes of the past. When you are a driver or a rider, one develops a relationship, a “programme”, as to how one relates to a machine. One thing in Mike’s favour was that he knew the Isle of Man very well and, secondly, he was riding a machine that had lots of similar characteristics to what he had ridden before.’
Hailwood won the 1978 Formula 1 TT on a Ducati, much to the delight of the thousands of fans who flocked to the island to witness his return to two wheels. But back to cars…
Hailwood secured a place with McLaren with its Yardley sponsorship for the ’1974 season and things were looking up.
Pauline says: ‘McLaren were doing pretty well and he knew the boys in McLaren and got on well with them. He’d socialised with those guys quite a bit previously as well, so he was really excited about making that move. The fact he was happier with the team started to show in his racing. The cars were more reliable and so he started getting better results.’
It was also during that year that Hailwood drove for the Gulf Mirage Team at Le Mans with Derek Bell. The pair finished fourth. Pauline adds: ‘He was also involved with Steve McQueen’s Le Mans film that year. He was doing some of the driving in the film and Dave [Hobbs] has a photograph of the two of them. You can see they were talking about racing lines because Steve McQueen is gesturing as if how to take a corner.’
Derek Bell remembers that period fondly. ‘I had some great times with Mike. I remember at Le Mans, I’d hand the car to him and he always said: “I’ll let it quit by early dinner, in time for a glass of wine.” And then he’d turn in, saying “third gear was playing up”.’
Bell and Hailwood’s friendship was cemented during the hours the pair spent driving Hailwood’s beloved Citroën SM. ‘We cruised around Europe in it,’ says Bell. ‘He’d always have music playing – he loved music and would always drive to really heavy rock with his fingers tapping on the steering wheel.’
‘The Citroën Maserati was probably his favourite car,’ says Pauline, ‘because it was so comfortable.’
It was while driving his Citroën SM that Hailwood and his friend Peter Geffen hit a cow on the road in South Africa. ‘It was total blackness and a cow was wandering across the road,’ she adds. ‘Pete, who was in the passenger seat, managed to duck just as they hit it and when he got out of the car one of the horns was straight through the back of his seat. Mike was rather dazed and confused, with facial cuts from the glass, but suddenly he said, with a straight face: “Come on Pete, stop fucking about. We’ll never get there at this rate.” Such was his sense of humour.’
Bovine collisions aside, 1974 was looking to be Hailwood’s year. The McLaren was running well, Le Mans was a success, and he finally had the team camaraderie he’d been craving. But that all changed during the 1974 German Grand Prix.
Hailwood was running fourth in the Championship but crashed at the Pflantzgarten section of the Nürburgring, as Pauline explains. ‘Just as the car landed it was skewed off to the right and went straight into the Armco. Mike was trapped in the car for about half an hour with very badly damaged legs and feet. They had to cut him out and get him off to hospital. He ended up at St Thomas’s in London and had several operations on his feet and legs, so he was in rehabilitation a long time.’
But even in rehab, Hailwood never lost his taste for fine dining, as recalls Guy Edwards – who was also receiving treatment at the same rehabilitation centre – in A Man Called Mike. ‘My arm was totally encased in plaster and his leg was totally encased in plaster.
They were working on us day-in, day-out, and it was a great place but the food wasn’t so good and Mike said he couldn’t take any more of it. But what could we do? He said: “Hang on a minute, you can press the accelerator and I’ll steer the wheel!”’ Needless to say, the pair found a nice Italian restaurant ‘with lots of bottles of wine’.
The accident had marked the end of Hailwood’s car racing career. But what followed was one of motor sport’s most majestic comebacks: his return to the Isle of Man TT, which crystallised his moniker: ‘Mike the Bike’.
In 1975 Hailwood appeared on This is Your Life. ‘That was fun,’ says Pauline. ‘I think he thought I was having an affair for a while because I kept having to slide off for these meetings.
‘But his This is Your Life appearance brought home quite what he had achieved. He was so modest because there were Giacomo Agostini, John Surtees, Graham Hill, Luigi Taveri and Geoff Duke in the studio and Mike said ‘Look how many world champions are over there’, forgetting about his own achievements. That’s a mark of the respect other champions had for Mike.’
After two decades of racing on the world’s most dangerous circuits, in 1981 Mike was driving home from the fish-and-chip shop in his Rover SD1 with his two children, David and Michelle, when a lorry made an illegal U-turn in front of him. Only David – and the lorry driver – survived the crash.
His pall-bearers symbolised the respect he’d gained on both two wheels and four: John Surtees, Luigi Taveri, James Hunt, Richard Attwood, David Hobbs, Geoff Duke and Giacomo Agostini.
A more recent testament to Mike’s car racing is recalled by his son David. ‘I was at Race Retro doing a talk on my dad and afterwards an old man came up to me and said: “Mike Hailwood, I never knew he raced bikes…”’
‘RELIABILITY ISSUES WERE SO PROFOUND THAT MIKE WOULD TUCK A PAPERBACK INTO HIS OVERALLS TO READ WHEN THE SURTEES BROKE DOWN’