What made Mike Hailwood so good?

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Only two riders are usually considered for the accolade ‘greatest bike racer ever’: Valentino Rossi and Mike Hailwood. Here, 55 years after Mike the Bike’s first TT win and first world title, friends, rivals and team-mates discuss what made Hailwood so great 

n the morning of June 12 1961 Mike Hailwood rode a Honda RC143 125 twin to victory in the Lightweight TT. It was his first success in the world’s greatest motorcycle racing event. A few hours later, the 21 year-old climbed aboard a Honda RC162 four-cylinder 250 and won the Junior TT. At the end of the week he took his Bill Lacey-tuned Manx Norton to victory in the Senior and became the first rider to win three races in TT week. That September, Hailwood secured his first world title aboard the same 250 at the Swedish GP. The foundations to his legend had been laid – Mike the Bike would go on to win another nine world championships. 

It is remarkable that half a century later Hailwood is still rated by many as the greatest racer of all time. Only one other rider is usually considered for that accolade – nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi. So what made the man so great?

Hailwood was a one-in-a-billion force of natural talent who had an instinctive ability to ride a motorcycle. Some of that was inborn, some of it came from experience because he started riding much earlier than most. 

Years before the Japanese industry invented the minibike, Hailwood’s millionaire father gave the seven-year-old Hailwood a hand-made minibike on which to hone his riding skills. No wonder he was already winning British titles in his teens.

There’s no doubt that Hailwood had a privileged upbringing, both in real life and on the track. “Mike would turn up at Pommie meetings with six Nortons in his truck, and who the hell else had that?” remembers Aussie rival Jack Ahearn. “But it was for the right bloke – Mike was a bloody good rider. His old man was the one I didn’t like – Stan the Wallet was a miserable old so-and-so!” 

Hailwood may have been spoilt by his overbearing father, but he was nothing less than a genius rider.

“Mike was blindingly quick through the corners and on the throttle very early,” says Ralph Bryans, Hailwood’s Honda team-mate in 1967, his final year as a GP rider. “His lines were good too – if you put a postage stamp on the road he’d run over it every lap. And you knew when he was behind you that he was going to come past – there was no two ways about it.”

Bryans remembers going out to practice at Imatra in 1967, both of them aboard Honda’s 250 six: “Round the back of the circuit there was a triple apex corner with a vicious camber. I sat up, looked at it, knocked back a gear, went over the first camber and Mike came shooting past, front wheel in the air, across the first camber, down again, dirt flying off the road and across the next camber. I shut off because I thought I was going to witness the biggest accident ever, but he got round. And the bugger did exactly the same thing for the next four laps. I said to him afterwards ‘Jesus, Mike that was near the bone’. He said ‘I know, I gave myself a fright the first time, but then I realised I could do it’. So he kept doing it.”

Usually, Hailwood’s style was silky smooth, which perfectly suited the era’s rudimentary brakes, suspension and tyres. Back then, it was all about keeping the momentum rolling.

“His style was very smooth and he was so good to watch,” says former GP winner Peter Williams, whom Hailwood once wanted for a Honda team-mate. “He had a certain economy of movement, just enough and not too much. I think Rossi is similar – very smooth and stylish, and he doesn’t manhandle the bike. Mike was a great rider and an incredibly brave man – not many people get the George Medal.”

Hailwood received this rare award – the civilian Victoria Cross – for risking his own life while dragging Clay Reggazoni from his blazing car during the 1973 South African F1 car GP. Hailwood twice dabbled with F1, scoring a best of second place in the 1972 Monza GP.

Perhaps just as impressive as Hailwood’s speed, style and bravery was his talent for extracting the maximum from any motorcycle in any condition; a crucial ability at a time when machinery rarely performed to perfection.

“If you cobbled something together and gave it to him he’d ring its neck right away without thinking about it,” adds Bryans. “Most riders want the bike to be right before they can do their best, but Mike didn’t seem to bother that much. He had an amazing talent for riding practically anything.”

Williams can still hardly believe the 1967 Senior TT when Hailwood rode Honda’s evil-handling RC181 to victory, with a loose throttle.

“He automatically made allowances for any disadvantage the bike was giving him,” says Williams. “I mean, how on earth to you win a TT with a loose throttle? Just mind-blowing.”

And all this despite his infamous lack of technical know-how. Bryans again: “His mechanical knowledge was practically zero – he didn’t have the remotest idea. I was there when he jumped aboard the 250 six for the first time at Suzuka. He came back in and they asked him what it was like and he said ‘bloody awful’. But as for what was it doing and what could they do to fix it – no feedback whatsoever. It was lucky there wasn’t much set-up to do in those days – there was only one tyre choice and we’d set the suspension at the start of the year and never touch it again.”

Giacomo Agostini, Hailwood’s biggest rival on the world stage, likens him to Honda’s current GP star. “Mike was like Casey Stoner today,” he says. “If the bike is good or not so good, for him it’s about the same. I remember in ’65 when we both rode MV 500s. I tried his bike and it was shit. Then he tried my bike and he said ‘oh Ago, it’s fantastic’. The bikes were the same, only my settings were better. But for him the lap time was exactly the same with both.”

Ago enjoyed his many battles with Hailwood because he could trust him: “Mike was very, very fast and very honest. He liked to win with his own power, not with other things like some other riders. It was nice to battle very close with him. Riding very close can be very dangerous, but not with him.”

In fact Hailwood did use “other things”, including psychological warfare. Pat Slinn, who helped fettle Hailwood’s Ducati 900SS during his magical Island comeback in 1978, recalls a funny moment during practice week.

“Mike was the psychological master at winding people up,” says Slinn. “We were in pit lane with [Yamaha mechanic] Nobby Clark, and Mike had just done a couple of very quick laps on the Yamaha 500, riding round with Mick Grant. Mick said ‘I nearly got past you here’ and ‘I wanted to come past here but I thought I’d better not’. Then Mike turned to Nobby and said ‘that reminds me, can you check it out, I think the bloody thing was only running on three’. I thought that was absolutely amazing.”

Slinn says he never had any doubt that Hailwood was going to win the ’78 TT F1 race. “I don’t think he would’ve entered if he hadn’t been sure he could win. After his first practice session on the Ducati, he came in, gave the bike to [Ducati engineer] Franco Farne and said ‘I haven’t forgotten any of it, every bump is still there’. When he broke the lap record in Thursday practice, Farne thought his stopwatch had broken, he couldn’t believe it.”

Slinn and many others are convinced that Hailwood was the greatest of his era. “Anybody from that time would say Mike was the boss,” says Bryans. “Ago would admit that, Phil Read would, anybody would.”

Of course, Agostini doesn’t. “It’s difficult to say because every rider thinks they are better than the others,” says Ago. “It’s the same now with Valentino, Stoner and [Jorge] Lorenzo. I don’t want to say I was better than Mike but I don’t want to say
I was worse. I think we were equal.”

But Ago does believe that Hailwood was better than Rossi, which presumably means that he too is better than Rossi. “Mike has one thing that Valentino doesn’t. On one day he races a 125 and he wins, he races a 250 and he wins, 350 and wins, 500 and wins. Not many riders can do this. Why was he so good? I don’t know. I think talent is something our mothers or God gives us, like Cassius Clay in boxing, Eddy Merckx in cycling and Bobby Charlton in football.”

One thing everyone does seem to agree on is the fact that Hailwood was a good man. “He was such a gentleman to work with,” says Slinn. “He asked for things, he said please and he said thank you. He was a thoroughly nice guy.”

A nice guy perhaps, but with a racer’s killer instinct. “Mike took his racing very, very seriously,” says Bryans, recalling the 1966 East German GP, at the height of the Hailwood/Agostini duel for the 500 title. “Mike’s bike had broken and Ago was running away with the race when, lo and behold, he crashed on the last lap. Mike was in his caravan in a foul mood. I went in and said ‘Hey Mike, Ago just crashed’. And what did Mike say to that? ‘Fucking good!’ – no ‘Is he all right?’ or anything like that.”

Agostini was deeply touched by Hailwood’s gracious behaviour following their epic battle in the following year’s Senior TT. Ago had been leading when his chain snapped. “In the evening, Mike came to pick me up from my hotel and took me to the discotheque. He told me ‘You were the winner today’, which was fantastic. Not many riders would do that.”

Hailwood spent a lot of time in discos – he was a naughty gentleman playboy. His weaknesses, according to Bryans were “women and drink”. Bryans remembers a hilarious incident in 1966, following Jim Redman’s career-ending crash at Spa.

“After the racing, Mike, myself and Stuart Graham jumped in Mike’s Ferrari to see how Jim was. The hospital was a big old chateau, staffed by nuns. After we’d seen Jim, we were leaving when Mike approaches this nurse and says ‘Excuse me, could I have a shot of streptomycin’. The nun says ‘Why do you want a shot of streptomycin’ and he says ‘Because I’m allergic to penicillin’. And she says ‘But why do you require an antibiotic’ and he says ‘I’ve got a dose of the clap’. He’d been down in Cannes and he’d come back with more than he bargained for.”

Slinn still remembers the post-race knees-up following Hailwood’s most famous victory – the 1978 F1 TT. “We had a wonderful party in a little restaurant in Douglas. We all saw the sun come up. Mike certainly knew how to let his hair down. He was very, very fast and people adored him because he was a nice guy. He was the last of a breed.” 

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