My local radio station rang me last Thursday asking me to talk about my sporting legend who would have been celebrating his 80th birthday on that very same day. Oxford boy Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood (Mike) – I could have talked about him all day long.
Nine times World Champion, 76 Grand Prix wins and 112 podium finishes in just 197 Grand Prix appearances, 14 TT wins on the Isle of Man and two podium finishes in the Formula One car World Championship speak for themselves. But there is so much more to Mike Hailwood who lived just over the hill from where I grew up just outside Oxford.
In 1961 he was the youngest ever winner of a premier-class World Championship race with victory at the TT on the Norton. That same year he became the youngster ever World Champion bringing Honda the 250cc title, the first ever for a Japanese factory. Six years later he won three Grand Prix races in one day at Assen. His wins in the 250, 350 and 500cc races came after 436 kms of racing flat out round the legendary venue. When he switched to four wheels, he won the European Formula Two Championship. In 1973 he was awarded the George Medal, Britain’s second highest bravery award, when he pulled Clay Regazzoni out of a burning Formula One Car with his own overalls on fire during the 1973 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. In 1978 eleven years after his last motorcycle Grand Prix appearance he returned to two wheels to race at the most demanding and dangerous motorsport venue in the World and won. Hailwood was 38 years old when he returned to the 60.721 kms mountain circuit to send the Isle of Man crazy with the most highly acclaimed victory ever in the illustrious history of the TT races.
Tragically three years later Hailwood and his nine-year-old daughter Michelle lost their lives in a road traffic accident. Hailwood had set up a motorcycle retail business with former 250cc World Champion Rodney Gould and was driving to pick up fish and chips for supper with his daughter Michelle and son David. An articulated lorry illegally drove through a gap separating the duel carriageways and collided with Hailwood’s car.
I remember slouching to school one morning down Park End Street making up the usual excuses why I’d not done any homework when my future miraculously appeared right in front of my very eyes. In the window of Kings of Oxford motorcycle shop Mike Hailwood’s TT winning 250cc four-cylinder Honda reached out to me gleaming in the morning sunlight. Forget Maths, Physics and French homework, I knew where were my future lay.
In 1965 I travelled to the magical Isle of Man to watch my first ever World Championship race. Hailwood versus new boy Giacomo Agostini – surely it could not get any better, but it did. Both crashed at the same place but in separate incidents. Hailwood remounted the MV Agusta to win. I was totally hooked.
Fourteen long years later I was back in the Island working for Motor Cycle News. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I witnessed Hailwood’s last TT win on the 500cc two-stroke RG500 Suzuki in the 1979 Senior race.
Meeting your sporting hero is never easy and often unadvisable. You can end up so disappointed, but I was not. In 1968 I was working as a clerk in a Solicitors office. I was hopeless and very bored. The amiable boss of the firm rang me one afternoon asking me to come to his office. I thought it would be the usual please get your hair cut and trim your beard before meeting clients. He came to the door of his office and told me there was somebody I should meet. It was Mike Hailwood and for once in my life I was totally speechless as he shook my hand.
Mike Hailwood: my sporting hero and a total legend.