Mike Hailwood’s tenure with McLaren was brief, not particularly successful, but in no way representative of the former motorcycle ace’s potential on four wheels. Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood was probably the most gifted motorcycle racer in history, so it was sad for his legions of fans that his transition to cars was not marked by a similar level of achievement.
‘Mike the Bike’ first dabbled in F1 back in 1964 when he handled a Parnell Racing Lotus 25 fitted with a BRM engine, his only championship point coming with a sixth place at Monaco. After this disappointing foray, Hailwood did not reappear in F1 for six years, celebrating his return with a storming fourth place in the 1971 Italian GP at the wheel of a Surtees. In 1972 he won the European F2 championship for ‘Big John’s’ team and was poised to grab the lead of that year’s South African GP at Kyalami when a rear suspension breakage spun him into retirement.
Surtees and Hailwood were very different characters, but their background in motorcycle racing ensured that they developed a workable alliance. Mike was genial, kind and totally without any of the pretence one might have expected from a millionaire’s son. He could be quite a handful socially when he let his hair down, but there was no doubting his professionalism and focus.
However, frustrated by lack of success with Surtees, Mike switched to McLaren in 1974, driving the single Yardley-backed M23 operated by Phil Kerr which was seperate from the Marlboro-backed machines handled by Emerson Fittipaldi and Jochen Mass. There were flickers of promise, but Mike’s spell with McLaren – and his car racing career – ended when he crashed heavily during the German GP at Nurburgring, sustaining serious leg injuries.
Yet there was a great encore still to come for ‘Mike the Bike.’ In 1978 he returned to the Isle of Man to score a sensational victory in the F1 TT on a 900cc Ducati. Just to prove that this was no fluke, he was back in 1979 to win the Senior TT on a 500cc Suzuki.
After that this great man retired for good, tragically to be killed, along with his young daughter Michelle, when Mike’s Rover saloon collided with a lorry which was executing an illegal U-turn on a dual carriageway close to their Warwickshire home. The entire motorsport community was left bereft and aching with sorrow.