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40 year special: Mike Hailwood - the man and the bike

Published: 21 October 2018

Four decades after engineering Mike Hailwood’s TT comeback, former Mirror journalist Ted Macauley reveals the man behind the legend.

Eleven years after quitting bike racing to compete in F1, Mike Hailwood returned to the TT to make racing history, winning the Formula One race on a Sports Motor Cycles Ducati. The man who made it happen was Ted Macauley, then chief sports feature writer for Daily Mirror. Forty years after that historic event, Macauley gives his most in-depth interview ever about his great friend, Mike the Bike.

How did you first meet Mike Hailwood?

I was working for the Daily Mirror in 1961 and the sports editor had an idea to do something about the TT as so many people went to it back then but no-one really covered it. So we decided to do a special edition on the TT. I hadn’t heard of Mike Hailwood but his father Stan put me onto him. Stan had a genius for promotion so he arranged for me to meet Mike and we just got on so well straight away, it was incredible. The huge story from the Daily Mirror’s point of view was that here was the son of a multi-millionaire risking his life racing motorbikes. That was the year Mike became the first man to win three TTs in a week. The whole thing was just magical and the amount of extra copies the Mirror sold was phenomenal. And this was at a time when it was already selling five million a day!

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So you stayed in touch with Mike after that?

When I got back from the TT, Stanley Hailwood wrote to me from his house in Nassau saying he noticed how well Mike and I got on and he pointed out that this was very rare for Mike as he was quite reserved. So Stan encouraged me to keep up my friendship with Mike but I suspect his real motives were business because any story we ran on Mike was seen by five million people. Stan understood publicity, which is why he was a double millionaire by 1946. Can you imagine that?

What was Mike like as a man?

There was no level of arrogance or conceit or self-importance at all. It was a remarkably humbling experience to be with someone like that and there was an absolute parallel with Bobby Charlton. I’ve been friends with Bobby forever; I’ve done books with him, been on holidays with him and the similarities between him and Mike, despite their massive global fame, were uncanny. It was so humbling to be with Bobby or Mike because they had such humility and humanity.

Mike was a multi-millionaire, but did he have an extravagant lifestyle?

No, he was quite reserved in his lifestyle, not extravagant at all. He had a beautiful house on the Thames at Bray but he didn’t have huge collections of Ferarris and speedboats, even though he could have afforded whatever he wanted. Stan Hailwood kept his money to himself. He would buy race bikes for Mike but that was it, he didn’t hand out money to him, Mike had to earn his own. As far as I’m aware, all the properties that Mike had, he bought himself. He was earning big money from bike racing; only Giacomo Agostini earned similar amounts from racing back then.

Mike Hailwood at home with his millionaire father Stanley

He was quite a shy man by nature, wasn’t he?

Yes, he would much rather have a quiet night in with a few friends and a few vodka/lemonades than be at a party or a celebrity do. Even better, if he could sit in a corner and not be recognised and enjoy a great live jazz band, he was in his element. The last thing Mike was was showbiz, he had absolutely no interest in self-promotion. I was asked to set him up for This Is Your Life but I said there was no way I could get Mike to do that because he was too shy and retiring. They asked me to think on it and I finally decided we could trap him at the Motor Show in London. One of his old Surtees racing cars was on display so I got him to sit in it, knowing he’d be trapped. Sure enough, bang on cue, out comes Eamonn Andrews with the big red book and a cameraman following him. Mike said afterwards, “I’ll never forgive you for that!”

So how did he deal with all the attention that fame brought?

If Mike could have avoided all the attention then he would have, for sure. It was as if everybody knew that, if they could trap him in a corner, then Mike was well-mannered enough to give them time. He would never, ever push past someone or push someone out of the way. And he was never rude enough to say, “I haven’t got time.”

And he was idolised by the rich and famous too, wasn’t he?

Yes, it was surprising how many people knew about him. We were at a nightclub in London, just minding our own business, and Tom Jones came over and said to Mike, “I just want to shake your hand, it’s my absolute treat to shake your hand.” Me and Mike just sat open-mouthed! Many years later I was at the Indy 500 with Nigel Mansell who was driving for Paul Newman that year and Paul joined a few of us for dinner. When Newman discovered I had organised Mike’s TT comeback he asked if I would join him for lunch the next day, just the two of us, and all he did was ask about Mike!

He was a talented musician too...

Very much so. I went to his house at Bray one time and he had a jazz band playing at his party and when I arrived there was Mike playing drums with the band and then switching to piano. I was amazed. He was a fantastic musician, completely underrated. He was self-taught on piano, drums, and the accordion.

What was the funniest thing you ever saw him do?

We were flying to the Daytona 200 and the woman in front of him put her seat right back so Mike’s knees were getting crushed. When he tried to ask her nicely to put her seat up she told him to bugger off. Later, her shoes appeared under her seat so Mike took them and filled the toes with wet newspaper and let it go rock hard. We saw her stumbling out of the airport, wondering why the hell her size five shoes were now size two. Me and Mike were just roaring with laughter!

Did you go on a bike with him?

No, he was bad enough in a car. He was taking me to his apartment in London once in an Iso Grifo grand tourer and I remember coming over the Chiswick Flyover backwards as he’d got into a spin. We did a full 360-degrees then he carried on without blinking. He just turned to me and said, “sorry about that.”

Was there anything he was afraid of?

If he was afraid or anything, or wary of anything, it was fame. There’s nothing else I can think of that worried him. He wasn’t afraid of fame, per se, he just found it embarrassing.

What was his favourite tipple?

He only ever drank vodka and lemonade, he wasn’t interested in wine or anything else, at least in the Sixties. By the time we went back to do the TT in 1978 he drank pretty much anything! In fact, we were drinking vodka and lemonade the night we met Tom Jones in that nightclub and had a bet to see who could grow the best moustache. Eventually we agreed it was a draw but that’s why I still have a moustache; it’s a living, growing memento of Mike.

Was his reputation as a ladies’ man well deserved?

Yes, Mike had a fatal attraction to women. I think it’s that thing about daredevilry that just attracts women. We’d frequently get drinks sent over to us in clubs along with hand-written messages written by gorgeous women hoping to tempt Mike, particularly in the Palace Casino on the Isle of Man.

The young Mike rode endlessly around the family estate

Was Mike’s ability on a bike completely natural or did he really have to work at it?

It was 100% natural. His dad got him a little bike when he was about three and he rode around the grounds of the estate endlessly. He was naturally very fit and very strong but he didn’t go to the gym. He had some weights but rarely used them. And he lived the high life. He liked his good eating and his vodka and lemonades. He ate whatever he liked and was particularly fond of Italian food. He’d been brought up to enjoy the good life; that’s how his father and his family lived.

What made him such an exceptional racer?

He had a level of daring and he was great at race strategy and knowing where he needed to be on track and when. Sometimes he went for gaps that I couldn’t believe he was going for and that was down to skill and his supreme sense of balance. He had bravery, balls, and the ability to get the most out of any bike at the most critical instant. But it was impossible to gauge what the difference was between Mike and, say, Phil Read. He just seemed to have an added X-factor.

He wasn’t very technically-minded though, was he?

No, not at all. Everything he did was down to natural feel, he didn’t have any interest in the technical side of things; he couldn’t be bothered.

Mike Hailwood could tune a guitar but wasn't so hot on tuning engines

Did he have any pre-race rituals or superstitions?

He used to go inside himself before a race. When I took him back to the TT in 1978 and was driving him from the hotel to the grandstand, he was sat in his leathers and seemed to be getting smaller and tighter as he withdrew into himself. Right from the outset we’d had an agreement that I would only take him back to the TT if he would treat it as fun and just go out and have a steady ride and enjoy himself without sticking his neck out. But when I saw him withdrawing, I said “You’ve been lying to me, haven’t you?” He was like “What do you mean?” and I said “You’re going to try to win, aren’t you?” He looked me straight in the eye and said “Too f**king right I am. I can’t be any other way” Even now, recounting this story to you makes the hairs on my arms stand up. That was Mike all over.

Did he have a racing hero?

Not really. In later years he looked up to Agostini a lot. He thought he was fantastic and the pair of them got an awfully well. He hated Phil Read though; they just never got on at all. But if he had a distant admiration for any rider it was Geoff Duke. He felt absolutely honoured that Geoff put him up in his hotel when Mike first went to the Isle of Man. I can’t swear to this but I’m pretty convinced that Geoff passed on a lot of TT course knowledge to Mike during the time they spent together.

Speaking of Agostini, the two of them were great friends.Mike spoke fluent Italian but when Ago first came to the TT he didn’t speak any English so Mike offered to translate at the press conference. So I asked Ago questions, Mike would translate in Ago’s ear, then Ago told Mike the answers in Italian, and Mike then told Ago how to respond in English. That was just asking for trouble. Ago’s first answer in English to a packed press room was “F**ka-my-olda-bootsa!” To this day, when I see Ago, his greeting to me is always “F**k my old boots!”

Mike Hailwood teaching Ago the finer points of bar billiards in 1965

So many riders were killed during Mike’s era of racing. How did he deal with that?

I remember having dinner in the Palace Casino hotel with Mike, Mick Grant, and possibly Charlie Williams and the conversation got round to the dangers of the TT and we started counting up how many riders we each knew who had been killed and in no time we were above 50. We realised that even if we were serving on the front line of a war zone, we probably wouldn’t personally know 50 men who had been killed. But Mike could just switch off to that. If he had lingered on the dangers he couldn’t have done what he did. And yet Mike never really got hurt bike racing. It was car racing that saw him get badly hurt.

Was he fiercely competitive at everything he did?

He was more competitive with himself. When he decided to learn to play the piano, he had to be the best he could be. Then the drums would be the next challenge. Whatever Mike decided to learn, he gave 150%.

What do you consider to be Mike’s greatest race?

The TT ’78 comeback, for sure. I still go cold when I think about that. The honour that I still feel at having been involved in that is extraordinary. To sit in that grandstand while he went out to do what he did, at the speed he was doing it, and knowing the dangers, as I did, was the most scary and thrilling experience of my entire life. When he came across the line I just lost control and ran across the track to get to him. It was just remarkable and just a total privilege to have been with him and to have organised that whole thing and to be with him out on the town later that night. Boy, did we get drunk!

Who is Ted Macauley?

Ted Macauley was a showbiz writer and, later, sports writer for the Daily Mirror at a time when the newspaper sold five million a day. He was not only best friends with Hailwood but also counted George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton and Nigel Mansell among his closest friends. He spent six weeks working with The Beatles on their first UK tour and has published 15 books, including several written with Hailwood.

Former Mirror journalist Ted Macauley

He is the only journalist to have been awarded the Seagrave Medal (for organising Hailwood’s TT comeback) and was also the ACU’s Journalist of the Year in 1978. More recently he has written biographies of James Toseland and Ian Hutchinson. He lives in Surrey with his wife, Delia Elizabeth.

Buy Mike the Bike Again, by Ted Macauley on Amazon today for more on the inside story