By Gavin Foster

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On 23 March 1981, Mike Hailwood died in hospital, two days after some twat in a truck did an illegal u-turn in front of him on a freeway in England. Hailwood had a long association with this country. At the end of 1957, when he had just a handful of club races under his belt, his father packed his young son off to South Africa with a personal mechanic, a GP rider called Dave Chadwick to hold his hand and a 1955 250cc NSU he’d borrowed from World Champion John Surtees. That’s the way you do things when you’re very wealthy.

Mike kicked off his campaign in Port Elizabeth on 1 January, when he won the 250cc class in the PE 200. Two weeks later he repeated the feat at Roy Hesketh in Pietermaritzburg, and at Grand Central in Pretoria the 17-year-old won the scratch race and took second in a handicap event to set the tone for a year that saw him win 74 races, take 17 second places and occupy the lowest step on the podium five times. “That trip to Africa was an eye opener,” Mike says in the book, Hailwood that he co-wrote with Ted Macauley in 1968. “Those riders must have been the hardest in the game; if you got in their way it was just too bad, they’d drive straight through you. I found the racing there much tougher than it had been in England, and a good bit wilder. When the flag dropped it was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, but there were some good men who were hard to beat. Africa was a terrific experience. Some of the circuits were out in the sticks and just about as primitive as you could see anywhere. The Port Elizabeth 200, for instance, was run in the wilds over a nine-mile (14km) circuit that was really rough. There were donkeys and tortoises all over the place. It was a bit hairy.” According to the Hailwood book and other sources, the youngster went home with a South African national championship, but the MSA White Book, which has been known to contain more than a few errors, doesn’t record this.

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He acquired some bad habits over here, as his father pointed out to Macauley. “I was horrified to find out that Mike had picked up the dreadful habit they have there of using their feet like speedway riders,” he said. Hailwood countered that at least he hadn’t come home with the South African racers’ habit of running out of road, which he reckoned was second nature to them because we have so much run-off area over here. “Apart from that, though, I was amazed at their ingenuity. Not only were they good riders, but most of them were superb mechanics too. Spares for racing machines were terribly difficult to get hold of, but those boys just got down and made their own. If they dropped a valve they’d simply weld bits on top of the piston and still they’d go like blazes.”

At the end of ’58, our man returned to SA where he scored hat tricks at Killarney and Hesketh in November and December before taking three second places at Roy Hesketh in January and February ’59. By the end of that year, he’d already won around 150 races, and it was clear that a superstar was on the rise. Ducati lent him a 125 and a 250 that year, along with a technician to look after them. By mid-year, head honcho Dr Montano was so overwhelmed by the success his rider was achieving in England that he fired off an emotional telegram to the Hailwoods: I AM ENTHUSIASTICALLY GLAD FOR VICTORIES OF MIKE WHO ALONE SAVED THIS YEAR THE DUCATI PRESTIGE STOP I AM GRATEFUL TO HIM AND TO YOU DEAR MR HAILWOOD WHO ARE VERY LOVELY AND DO ALL YOUR BEST FOR OUR PRODUCTS STOP HURRAH TO THE CHAMPION OF ENGLAND HURRAH TO YOU AND TO THE DUCATI STOP

Quite so.

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Although it’s virtually impossible to compare riders from different eras, Hailwood’s claim to be the greatest racer ever is convincing. Between the ages of 17 and 27 he won almost 350 races against some of the best riders around, on just about every make of machine imaginable. He claimed 76 wins in Grands Prix, of which 12 were on the Isle of Man, and won nine World Championships between 1961 and 1967. He very often raced in and won in three different classes in a single day.

Hailwood had an uncanny ability to race anything, anywhere and go quickly. In 1963 and 1964 he contested six Formula One GPs in between his motorcycle commitments, scoring a sixth, four eighths and a tenth. After Honda packed in motorcycle GP racing in 1968, he retired and became more involved in car racing and in ’72 won the European F2 championship; those he pipped to the title included future F1 World Champions Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter and James Hunt. By the time he gave up racing cars in 1974, Hailwood had racked up 49 GP starts, scoring numerous placings between 2nd and 8th after failing to finish 27 times. He also picked up a third place in the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race.

Mike owned a house in Durban for a couple of years, where he set up a building contracting business with Suzuki star Frank Perris in 1967. He married his girlfriend, Pauline, in South Africa shortly before moving to New Zealand in 1976. Those who met him here remember a party animal with no big attitude. He loved a good time, and in his GP days bedded hundreds of beauties, claiming that sex before a race invigorated him. An article on the BBC website claims that his face was familiar at hospitals around the world – not because of racing accidents, but because he frequently popped in for injections to clear up the sexually transmitted diseases he picked up on his travels. Luckily Pauline was understanding; she joked that all these other women kept her lover in practice while he was away from home. Now why are there no similar stories about Mr Rossi, who’s richer and more famous than Hailwood ever was?

Mike Hailwood’s greatest achievement came about in 1978, when, after eleven years out of motorcycle racing, he entered the Isle of Man TT on an F1 Ducati and won, following up with a win at Mallory Park the following weekend. The Ducati win brought him another World Championship – the F1 title. A year later he pitched up at the Island again and won the Senior TT by over two minutes on a Suzuki two stroke, giving him his 14th and final TT win.

Two years later The Champ set off in his Rover with his children to pick up a fish and chips takeaway for dinner. His daughter died instantly when the fool in the lorry did a U-turn, while Mike lingered on for two more days. The truck driver later received a 100 pound fine.

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