Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mike the Bike (2 April, 1940-23 March, 1981)

Mike Hailwood died 30 years ago yesterday. He's perhaps best remembered for his amazing "comeback" win at the 1978 Isle of Man TT. That win, incidentally, helped to make the TT F1 class (which begat the Superbike class on the Island) more relevant than the moribund 'Senior' class.

I have a couple of deadlines looming here, so for today's Backmarker I'm going to publish an excerpt from Riding Man, in which I sketch out a subtext to Hailwood's great comeback: For real TT fans, it wasn't just the return of a beloved champion, it was the comeuppance of Phil Read, who many viewed as a TTraitor. Here's that story, from Riding Man...

By the early ’70s, “Mike the Bike” had nothing left to prove on two wheels. He retired from bikes and attempted to follow John Surtees’ example, by winning the world car-driving championship as well. He may well have achieved that goal, given a little more time. As it is, his car-racing career is best remembered for something he did outside the car.

At the 1973 South African Grand Prix, Clay Regazzoni crashed, and was trapped in a fiery wreck. It was Hailwood, fellow driver, who was first on the scene. Mike managed to undo Clay’s seatbelts, and was struggling to pull him free when his own clothing caught fire. He retreated for a moment to extinguish those flames, then re-entered the inferno to complete the rescue. He was awarded the George Medal, Britain’s highest honor for civilian bravery.

The next year, Hailwood severely injured his legs and feet when he crashed a Formula One car at Nurburgring. Despite having escaped his motorcycle racing career unscathed, those injuries meant the end of his car-racing career. He retired to New Zealand, but chafed there.

Mike Hailwood’s return to the TT in 1978 is the stuff of legend.

It’s less well known that he had been unsure of his ability to handle the Mountain after a prolonged absence. He came and rode on open roads in ’77, then borrowed a marshal’s bike to lap on closed roads during the TT. He made his comeback intentions public in the spring of ’78, arriving on the Island with a Ducati for the new F1 class, and a brace of Yamaha twins. Hailwood, who’d always seemed boyish as a motorcycle racer, wasn’t young any more. He was 38–going on about 58.

The fans accepted him as though he’d never been gone but experts knew that a lot had changed. Tires and suspensions were different, and race bikes demanded more physical input from riders. Balding, limping, sweating; he didn’t really seem like “Mike the Bike.” In my time, I heard knowledgeable observers ask the same question about Joey Dunlop: “Why would a man with so little to prove risk so much?”

There’s conflict in the comeback legend, too. Because one year earlier, Phil Read had returned to the Island.

“Where did he find the gall?” That was what locals wondered, because Read had been a ringleader, a few years earlier, when World Championship riders boycotted the TT. To many Manx it was simple: Read had been motivated by personal gain, and had sold out their World Championship status.
As more than one editorial put it, “The course would be a lot safer, if riders were better paid.” They felt that the real reason he’d jumped on the safety bandwagon was that the TT paid less start money than other Grands Prix. He was, to say the least, always motivated by financial gain, and is to this day almost comically tight with money.

In ‘77, when Read made his return, cynics noted–or at least rumored–that he was being paid £10,000 in start money. That year, equipped with a powerful Suzuki “square four” 500 cc GP bike, Read had no trouble bullying his rivals.

Read’s defense–that it was different now that the TT was off the World Championship calendar, and no one “had” to come or take unnecessary chances–rang hollow. The next year, there were many, among the faithful Island fans, whose hopes for the ’78 races could be neatly summarized as “anybody but Read.”

So it was sweet when Mike, a genuine hero untainted by the TT boycott, came and beat Read in the TTF1 race. If people hadn’t paid too much attention to the F1 class before, they did after that. And if his other races that year, including the Senior, were anticlimactic, it didn’t matter. In ’79, Mike came one last time, winning the Senior, on a Suzuki RG500. Soon afterward, Mike was killed in a road accident near his home. He’d gone out to pick up an order of fish and chips. It was a dark and stormy night. There was a truck in the middle of the road making a U-turn. Not a happy ending, I suppose, but good for the myth.

[Hailwood was almost as fast on four wheels as two; he raced in quite a few F1 car races in the mid-'60s, driving Lotus cars entered by Reg Parnell. From 1970-'74, he raced in Ford-powered Surtees and McLaren cars. His best season result was 8th overall in '72. He finished on the podium twice in F1 (2nd place, Italy, '72 & 3rd place, South Africa, '74) and recorded one fastest lap (South Africa, '73). When his driving career ended at Nurburgring in '74, he was on a pace for his best-ever season finish. -- MG]

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