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Mike Hailwood – Mike The Bike

Many a stories about inspirational legends usually seem to start out with a mediocre beginning. However, Mike Hailwood was a completely different story. His father Stan Hailwood too had raced in the pre-World War II era and was a successful motorcycle dealer. So their family was pretty well off from the start. Well off enough for junior Mike to be given a handmade minibike, way before the Japanese industry invented the mini bike. And Mike initially not knowing how to stop it, actually kept riding it until it ran out of fuel.

 

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At fourteen, he got a James trial bike, which he used to ride around on grass tracks when he was home from college. His father once surreptitiously timed him and found he was going faster than a grass track racer whom he sponsored. With all the practice he got at such an early age to hone his skills, it was no wonder that he was already on his way to establish himself as one of the best motorcycle road racer of all time. Mike entered his first event at the age of seventeen in the Scottish Six Days Trial. A week later, he entered his first race on a borrowed 125cc MV Agusta and placed 11th. A few months later, he got his international racing license. He wasn’t coming 11th anymore. Every time he won prize money, he would use it to buy a better bike. Then in 1957 he travelled to South Africa to further work on his racing skills, where he borrowed a 250cc NSU from John Surtees and later bought it. Returning home as the South African Champion in early 1958, he started racing a 125cc Ducati, John Surtees’s NSU, and 350cc and 500cc Norton’s. He won the British 125, 250 and 350 championships and came second in the world 250 cc championships. In only his second year of racing, he won 74 races. In 1959, he won the British 125cc championship on a Ducati, the 250cc championship on a Mondial, and the 350cc and 500cc championships on Norton’s. He won the Northern Ireland 125cc Grand Prix on a Ducati, and he finished 3rd in the 125cc World Championship.

 

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It was only in 1961 that the legend of Mike Hailwood actually started. Mike went to the Isle of Man with a borrowed 125cc bike from the then new upstart motorcycle company Honda. On the first two laps, Mike broke the lap record twice and won by seven seconds. He borrowed another Honda, and rode the 250cc race later that afternoon. The 125cc race was three laps of the mountain; the 250cc race was five laps. Mike raced 486km on two different bikes back to back. In the 500cc race, despite having a bike which was 15km/h slower than Gary Hocking’s MV Agusta, Mike won. In the process, Mike became the first person to average 100mph around the Isle on a British bike, and the first person to win three Isle of Man TTs in one week. He won the 250cc races at the Dutch, East German and Swedish TT. Count Agusta impressed with his performance then lent him his 350 and 500 MVs for the last two races. Jumping straight from a Norton single to an MV four, Mike came first and second in the races and finished second in the world championship.

 

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His winning habit continued in 1962, 1963 and 1964.There were 27 500cc races held. Mike Hailwood won 22 of them. On the ones he didn’t win, he either didn’t turn up for or his bike broke. In 1965, Mike took the 500cc championship for MV Agusta again. However, the awesomely talented Giacomo Agostini had joined MV. Since Count Agusta liked the idea of an Italian rider winning on an Italian bike, he began giving Mike inferior equipment. As expected, this struck the wrong chord with Mike and he left and went to Honda. During his first season with Honda, he took the 250cc and 350cc championships, and came second to Agostini in the 500cc championship. He repeated this in 1967.

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Mike somehow got his bike to lean angles which were greater than his competitors could achieve, but he didn’t hang off the bike like modern riders do. He was famous for wearing through the leather on his boots so far that he would grind his toes on the road, with bloody results. And, perhaps as a result of his early grass track training, he would spin the rear wheel out of corners; a technique which was not widely used then. Overall, he won nine World Championships, 76 Grand Prix wins and fourteen T.T Races on the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man course. He was revered for his outstanding talent and versatility. He was a true sportsman, charismatic yet unassuming, he loved music and had a huge sense of fun. Another quality that set Mike on a league of his own was his ability to extract the maximum from any motorcycle in any condition, a crucial ability at a time when machinery rarely performed to perfection. Something Mike proved to the whole world in the 1967 Senior TT when he rode the Honda’s evil-handling RC181 to victory with a loose throttle and also set a lap record of 108.77mph, which stood for eight years. And all this was made possible despite his infamous lack of technical know-how.

 

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In 1968 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to the sport. When there was nothing left to prove on two wheels, he also turned to motor racing. In his first full year of motor racing he finished third in the Formula 5000 Championship and third in the famous 24 hour race at Le Mans. He went on to win the Formula Two European Championship for the Surtees team, and then moved into Formula One. Mike’s Formula 1 career ended in 1974 whilst driving for the McLaren team when he sustained severe leg and foot injuries after crashing at Nurburgring. And not only was he a great racer. He was also a brave man – a quality that earned him the George Medal, the civilian Victoria Cross. He received this rare award for risking his own life while dragging Clay Reggazoni from his blazing car during the 1973 South African F1 Car GP.  In 1978, after an eleven year retirement from bikes, he made a fairytale ‘comeback’ to win another Isle of Man T.T. and with it, his 10th World Championship. Re-enthused by his spectacularly successful return to the Isle of Man, Mike was encouraged to have a few more rides. Mike appeared in Australia’s biggest production motorcycle race, the Castrol Six Hour at Sydney’s Amaroo Park. Mike then eventually became a devoted family man.

But in a mocking twist of fate, after thousands of racing miles at breakneck speeds, Mike Hailwood died in a road accident on 21 March 1981. It was a Sunday night and h had gone to collect pizza for dinner when he ran into the back of a truck that made an illegal turn in front of him. His daughter Michelle was killed on impact. Mike and his son David were taken to hospital and Mike died two days later. An ordinary incident turned into a disaster. His funeral was definitely one of the biggest and the annual Mike Hailwood Memorial Run still attracts thousands of riders. He was a one-in-a-billion force of natural talent who had an instinctive ability to ride a motorcycle executed and with a humility rarely seen in today’s sportsmen. Mike Hailwood was and will always remain as one of the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. Mike Hailwood is a legend to which others can only aspire to…

 

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