Almost forty years since his untimely passing, Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood is still regarded by many as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, someone who could win on any bike and on any circuit and at whatever age, and doing so with both natural talent and flair in abundance.
Hailwood won his first world title at the age of 21 and when he retired in 1967, aged just 27, he’d racked up eight more titles and 76 Grand Prix wins, the latter being a figure that even today is still the fifth highest of all time. His tally of 14 TT victories is also the fifth highest on the solo list of winners around the Mountain Course.
It’s true that Hailwood’s early career was bank rolled by his millionaire father Stan but it was ‘Mike the Bike’, as he was affectionately known, who was twisting the throttle and money only got him so far, it was his skill and talent that did the rest.
He battled with, and beat, some of the greatest names in the sport including Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Jim Redman, Bill Ivy and Gary Hocking and whilst picking ten of the greatest achievements is no easy task given his glittering CV, here are some of his career highlights.
1959 British Championship
Hailwood burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 17-year old in 1957, his first race coming at Oulton Park on a 125cc MV. The following year saw him make his TT debut where he claimed a brilliant third in the 250cc race held on the 10.97-mile Clypse Course and, by now, he was already dominating the short circuit scene.
Hailwood won the 125cc, 250cc and 350cc British Championships in 1958 but then went one better in 1959 when he also won the 500cc title to make it a clean sweep of solo British Championships. He repeated the feat in 1960 when, still only aged 20, he was becoming a firm contender in the World Championships too.
1959 125cc Ulster Grand Prix – first Grand Prix win
As seen in the British Championships, Hailwood’s versatility was already evident and in 1959 he contested all four solo classes of the World Championship too with a variety of machinery which included a 125cc Ducati, 250cc Mondial, 350cc AJS and 500cc Manx Norton.
Fifth place was taken on the Mondial in the 250cc World Championship but despite his lanky frame, it was the 125cc Ducati that gave him his best results that year to place a fine third overall in the World Championship.
The crowning moment came at the Ulster Grand Prix when he fought neck and neck with the MZ of Gary Hocking. It was that close, the two were credited with an identical time on the second lap but Mike finally broke clear on the ninth of 10 laps. Keeping his head down, he was able to build a race winning lead of 7 seconds over Hocking which gave him his first of 76 Grand Prix wins.
1961 Isle of Man TT – first hat-trick
Throughout 1960, the momentum continued to build in Hailwood’s career and he arrived at the 1961 Isle of Man TT as one of the main contenders for honours, particularly in the smaller categories where he had secured factory machinery from Honda for the 125cc and 250cc races, all classes now being held once more on the 37.73-mile Mountain Course.
Despite only getting one lap of practice on the 125cc machine, Hailwood smashed the lap record on the first lap, doing the same again second time around and his first TT win duly came with an eventual winning margin of 7.4 seconds over another Honda rider Luigi Taveri.
The 250cc race followed later in the day and it looked like Mike would have to give second best to fellow Honda rider Bob McIntyre who broke the lap record and led by over 30s going into the final lap. However, his engine seized at Sulby which promoted Mike into the lead and he ran out a clear winner to complete the double.
Hailwood had his mind set on winning four TT’s but those dreams cruelly came to end in the Junior when his AJS expired on the final lap when he was more than two minutes in the lead. However, win number three came his way in the Senior when he took over the lead after Hocking ran into trouble with the MV Agusta thus becoming the first man ever to win three TT’s in a week.
1962 – first 500cc World Championship
After the success of the 1961 TT, Hailwood took three more 250cc Grand Prix wins to win the first of his nine world titles and his enthusiasm and ability brought him to the attention of Count Domenico Agusta who offered him 350cc and 500cc MV Agusta’s for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Mike won the 500cc event and took second to Hocking in the 350cc race, the results seeing him secure a contract with one of the best racing factories in the world.
Hocking would continue to be the lead rider and, initially, Mike found the going tough as he found the complicated four cylinder MVs more difficult and temperamental than the more straightforward singles he had previously ridden. However, the TT proved to be the turning point after a thrilling Junior race saw him get the better of team-mate Hocking by just 5.6s.
Hocking abruptly retired from racing after the TT which left Mike to shoulder the responsibility of winning races for MV Agusta but he didn’t disappoint. He immediately reeled off five straight wins to win his first ever 500cc World Championship, also claiming third in the 350cc standings. The MV Agusta was undoubtedly the bike to have and Mike would go on to win four 500cc titles in a row between 1962 and 1965.
1965 Senior TT
Mike and the MV Agusta dominated the 500cc World Championship during those four years, winning Grand Prix races all over Europe but one race that stands out is the Senior TT of 1965; indeed, it is still considered by many to be his most outstanding ride.
The combination of Mike and the MV were expected to win the 1965 Senior particularly as new team-mate Giacomo Agostini was making his TT debut and was very much treating it as a learning year. Conditions were far from perfect for the six-lap race with rain falling at various parts of the course and Agostini came to grief at Sarah’s Cottage which gave Mike a lead of more than two minutes over Derek Woodman at the end of the second lap.
However, on the third lap Mike also crashed at Sarah’s Cottage, the MV suffering a broken windscreen, damaged exhaust and bent handlebar whilst Mike himself suffered numerous cuts and bruises. Undeterred, he picked the bike up and bump-started it down the hill before performing a u-turn in the middle of the road and setting off back in the race, which, remarkably, he continued to lead.
A lengthy pit stop patched up both rider and machine as best it could but Mike still led and although he had to pit again at the end of lap five with a broken throttle cable, he soldiered on to take one of his best ever TT and Grand Prix wins.
1966-67 – the Honda years
Count Agusta wanted Hailwood to remain with MV for a fifth successive season in 1966 but Honda were keen to sign him and strengthen their already formidable team of Jim Redman, Luigi Taveri and Ralph Bryans. Mike subsequently signed for the Japanese giant with the plan being for Redman to go all out for the 500cc title on Honda’s new machine and Hailwood contest the 250cc and 350cc World Championships.
Redman won the first two 500cc races but then crashed in Belgium breaking his arm and he retired from racing shortly afterwards. Mike took over the 500cc ride and for the next two seasons contested the 250cc, 350cc and 500cc races at every Grand Prix. With all races lasting more than an hour, it was a remarkable feat.
In his two years with Honda in 1966 and 1967, Mike won a staggering 35 Grand Prix races across the three categories, despite the stiff opposition, and took the 250cc and 350cc titles in each year, the 1967 250cc Championship being, arguably, the hardest fought as he tied on points with Phil Read at the end of the year, both riders having the same number of wins and second place finishes. He also tied on points with Agostini for that year’s 500cc crown but whilst the 250cc title went in his favour, after being settled on combined times from the Grands Prix the two riders finished, the 500cc didn’t and Hailwood and Honda had to concede each year to Agostini and MV.
1967 Senior TT
One of Hailwood’s 35 wins during 1966 and 1967 came during the 1967 Senior TT after a titanic battle with Agostini which is still regarded by many as one of the greatest TT races of all time.
The Honda was rapid but had poor handling which made riding it around the Mountain Course a tough job but Hailwood grabbed it, literally, by the scruff of the neck as he took the fight to Agostini’s far more manageable MV.
The Italian set a new outright lap record on the opening lap to lead Mike by 12s but the tables were turned second time around when Mike went quicker still at 108.77mph – a lap record which stood for eight years – to reduce the gap to eight seconds. The gap was down to two seconds as both riders pitted at the end of the third lap, Mike grabbing a hammer to bash a loose twistgrip back into place.
Agostini upped his lead to 12s once more on the fourth lap but as Mike flashed past the Grandstand to start his sixth and final lap, there was no sign of Ago – the chain had come off at Windy Corner and his race was over. Mike swept to his 12th TT win and second hat-trick but with Honda pulling out of racing at the end of the season, Mike’s full time racing career came to an end.
1978 Formula One TT
If the 1967 Senior was one of the greatest races of all time, then the 1978 Formula One TT was one of Mike’s greatest rides of all time when, after 11 years of retirement, he returned to the TT to defy all the odds and win around the Mountain Course once more. Those 11 years had seen Mike compete in the occasional motorbike race, like the Daytona 200, but primarily focus on four wheels where he contested 29 Formula One Grands Prix and took two podiums.
Bikes remained his love though and he hatched a plan to return to the TT in 1978 despite the lengthy layoff and problems with a badly broken leg sustained at the 1974 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. The island was packed for Hailwood’s return but few truly felt he would be competitive after such a long time away whilst his Ducati 900SS wasn’t seen to be the best bike either for the Formula One race.
However, the now 38-year old was more than competitive and led Tom Herron by nine seconds at the end of the first lap. Aided by his first ever 110mph+ lap of the Mountain Course he continually extended his lead and the fairytale return was completed as he took his 13th TT win by almost two minutes from John Williams. It was perhaps his most remarkable TT win and one that will be forever etched in the minds of many.
1979 Senior TT
Having got the TT bug well and truly back, Hailwood returned a year later where he was armed with a new Ducati and a 500cc RG Suzuki, the two-stroke machine far removed from anything he’d ridden before.
The Ducati wasn’t as competitive as the year before and Mike had to settle for fifth but the factory Suzuki, similar in spec to what Barry Sheene was riding that year in the 500cc World Championship, was certainly up to the job in hand.
Mick Grant led on the opening lap, despite riding with a broken pelvis sustained at the preceding North West 200, with Mike in third but second time around Hailwood upped his pace and his first ever sub-twenty minute lap of the Mountain Course gave him the lead.
Lap three saw Mike go quicker again at 114.02mph and his lead over Alex George was now 13s. Both Grant and George subsequently retired and Mike took his 14th – and what would to be his last – TT win by more than two minutes with Tony Rutter in second and Dennis Ireland in third.
1979 Classic TT
Mike had one more try for a TT victory and that would be the 1979 Classic TT in what would prove to be, once and for all, his final TT race. The combination of Mike and the 500cc Suzuki were up against a horde of challengers including the similarly-mounted Mick Grant and Honda Britain’s Alex George who had won the Formula One race earlier in the week.
It would again pan out to be one of the greatest ever TT races and the Classic certainly lived up to its title. George, on the bigger 1000cc Honda, led by nine seconds at the end of lap one but Mike halved the deficit second time around to put himself well into contention.
Amazingly, the duo posted identical laps of 114.14mph on the third lap to maintain the status quo but at the end of the fourth lap, Mike had brought the gap down to 3.4s. The fifth lap saw him bring the deficit down further and at Ramsey he led by 1.4s although George brought that back down to 0.8s as they started their sixth and final lap.
By Ballaugh, half way round the lap, Mike had pulled away slightly to lead by two seconds but George responded and there was just 0.4s between them at Ramsey. The bigger capacity Honda had the edge over the Mountain though and George re-took the lead at the Bungalow eventually winning by 3.4s.
Amazingly, it was the first time Mike had ever finished second in a TT race and he announced afterwards that, this time, his TT career was definitely over and he retired from racing for good. Hailwood’s career saw him take 76 Grand Prix victories, 112 Grand Prix podiums, 14 Isle of Man TT wins and ten world championships.
Sadly, less than two years later, Mike and his daughter Michelle lost their lives in a road accident after a lorry made an illegal u-turn and crashed into their car. Shortly after his death, part of the TT Mountain Course was named after him, Hailwood’s Rise leading to Hailwood’s Height, and the FIM named him a Grand Prix legend in 2000.