Sunday Salon: Mike Hailwood – Mike The Bike

(first posted 6/10/2012)     There is no more intimate connection between machine and man than racing a bike. And no one made it look more like an act of love than Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood, MBE, GM.  Born on April 2, 1940 with two tiny wheels between his legs, he died, ironically, at the hands of a truck driver in an automobile accident on March 23, 1981. He became known as “Mike the Bike” because of his supernatural riding ability. He is also one of the few men to compete at the Grand Prix level in both cars and bikes. He won the motorcycle Grand Prix championship nine times. He was the first man to win four consecutive 500cc world championships (1962-1965) with MV Agusta. He then returned to Honda and won the 250-350cc championships in 1966 and 1967. The people he trounced on the way to those championships reads like a Who’s Who in motorcycle racing. Catch me if you can.

Mike the Bike dropped out of school at sixteen and his father got him a job as an assembler at the Triumph factory at Meriden. He began club racing at sixteen (about nineteen in this picture), raced for a spell in South Africa and became a world champion at 21 on a 250 Honda. That Honda was not a factory bike and he beat out those that were. Then he joined MV Agusta.

His dad, Stan Hailwood was a bike dealer and ex racer who was a millionaire. Daddy’s money may have gotten Hailwood started racing but he paid it all back according to his mechanic. Talent, especially in motorcycle racing, is generally more important than money. said that if you were to list the most naturally talented riders ever the list would have to include Roberts, Read, Hailwood, and Spencer in whatever order. I would also include Rayborn and can cite reasons to do so, but I agree with the above statement.

According to a mechanic who worked for both Hailwood and Roberts, they were just about equal but Roberts needed luck and Hailwood did not. On the other hand, Roberts (below) rode the TZ750 (even on dirt tracks) and Hailwood said he refused to get on that bike. This, of course, was 1979. Who knows what that says. Perhaps some of Roberts luck was staying alive while riding that evil beast.

Phil Read could have been known as the best Motorcycle Racer of his time except for one little problem. He shared that time with Mike Hailwood. He once tied in points with Hailwood for a championship,  but Mike the Bike won the tie breaker.

Giacomo Agostini, with his Movie Star good looks, is one racer who has to be considered in the same mold as Hailwood. The statistics are skewed, due to Hailwood’s time racing autos and temporary retirement, while Agostini continued to race. Agostini was world champion 15 times, to Hailwood’s nine. Hailwood won 14 Isle of Man TTs to Agostini’s 10. For Hailwood these wins came from 1961-67 and 1978-79. Agostini was two years younger than Hailwood, but raced continuously until he was 33 years old. You can draw your own conclusions as to who truly was best. It would be hard to chose between the two of them in their prime.

Much of the time that Hailwood raced for MV Agusta, the two were teammates. Either one could work for me if I was starting a race team with world championship aspirations. But what Hailwood did on his short return to racing at the Isle of Man in 1978 and 1979 would be the tie breaker.

Hailwood won the first of his 14 Isle of Man TTs in 1961 and became the first rider to win three races in one week. One week! He won the Lightweight 125 and Lightweight 250 TTs on Hondas, the first victories by the Japanese marque, and the 500cc Senior race on a Norton. Shown above is the rc166, a six cylinder Honda 250.

Hailwood went on to win the Senior TT from 1963 to 1967, the first three on MV machinery, and the last two on Hondas.

In addition, he won two Junior 350cc races, one each on an MV and a Honda, and two more Lightweight 250cc races again on Honda machinery. It’s hard to imagine anything more diverse than that.

Honda pulled out of Grand Prix racing in 1968. Even so, since they intended to return eventually, they did not want Hailwood to race for a competitor. So they paid him for a year not to race.

Hailwood had moved to four-wheeled sport after his retirement from motorcycle racing, and he was European Formula 2 Champion in 1972 driving for former GP World Champion John Surtees. Hailwood then moved to Formula 1, but that part of his racing career ended after a crash in 1974 at the old Nurburgring circuit. There he suffered a bad leg injury in the German GP, and retired from Auto racing.

Before he himself was injured, Hailwood was singled out for heroism. In a Grand Prix race in South Africa he pulled Clay Regazzoni from a burning wreck. Hailwood actually had to have the fire put out on him before he returned for Regazzoni. For that he was awarded the George Medal for bravery. That’s the highest award a British civilian can get.

Hailwoods career is summed up by Jacques Bussillet in the book Mike Hailwood and the Honda Six and translated by

” … in twenty-two years of racing Hailwood rode more than seventy different machines in all classes from 125 to 900cc, most being works bikes from fifteen or sixteen different factories. With all these bikes, he won nine world championship titles in Grand Prix, one TT-F1 world championship title, seventy-four Grand Prixs and an incredible number of international races around the world, adding to his credit the one hour speed record on the spare MV during an attempt in 1964 at the Daytona Speedway. He was killed when a truck made an illegal turn.”

After winning nine world championships Hailwood would still tell people he was just a bloke who rode bikes.

I believe that the true mark of the man was not seen until 1978, and I think it is what sets Hailwood apart from Agostini and the others. It makes one wonder what could have been had he not drifted off into four wheels. Prior to leaving for Auto Racing he had won Grand Prix championships  in each of the 250/350/500 classes, including winning Grand Prix events in all three classes in the same season, a record five times.

Thirty-eight years old, in 1978 Hailwood returned to the Isle of Man and rode a borrowed Ducati 86o SS to victory. He did not otherwise ride for them, but that ride sold a lot of Hailwood replicas for Ducati. Until researching for this article, I had always assumed he spent time as a Ducati rider. There would have been nothing strange about that considering the wide variety of machinery he mastered.

The next year he returned again and rode an RG Suzuki 500cc, 4 cylinder, two stroke (above) to victory. He won the senior TT and then competed on the same bike in the unlimited and lost by two seconds to Alex George on a bike more than twice it’s size (1100 Honda).

It was only then that Mike the Bike actually retired.  And two years later he was gone.