The legend of the great Mike Hailwood was materilized in 1979 as a limited edition tribute bike from Ducati. Robert Smith recalls an extraordinary man.
Perhaps the greatest of them all
For the Isle of Man TT races, 1978 was a challenging year . Following the fatal crash of his friend Gilberto Parlotti in the 1972 125cc TT, Giacomo Agostini led a boycott that caused the TT to be dropped from the Grand Prix calendar in 1976.
Instead, Britain’s motorcycle sport governing body (the Auto-Cycle Union) came up with a great idea: Formula TT. Thundering production racers would be pitched against two-stroke GP bikes. It was such a success that it become (by 1984) a worldwide series of eight races, and provided the inspiration for World Superbike.
In its first year, 1977, bad weather stopped the Formula 1 (1000cc four-stroke/500cc two-stroke) race after four laps while the leading NCR Ducati of Roger Nicholls was refueling in the pits. Honda’s Phil Read rode through and was ahead of Nicholls when the red flag was waved. But NCR had given notice …
Mike Hailwood was effectively pushed out of top-level motorcycle racing in 1968 when Honda ended its involvement in GP, and enforced a no-compete clause in his contract to make sure he didn’t ride for anyone else. So Mike the Bike instead became a car guy, racing in Formula One. He quit in 1974 after badly injuring his foot in a crash at the Nürburgring. In 1978, then living in New Zealand and bored with retirement, Hailwood let it be known he might ride again.
But why would any racing team, even the small-time Sports Motorcycles operation based in Manchester, England, want to hire a superannuated rider with a gammy foot and a noticeable paunch who hadn’t twisted a grip competitively in 11 years?
Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood was born in 1940 into a motorcycle family and started on bikes early, entering his first race at age 17. In his first visit to the Isle of Man in 1958, he entered in all four solo classes: the Ultra-Lightweight (125cc), Lightweight (250cc); Junior (350cc) and Senior (500cc). His worst finish was 13th in the Senior, and he finished third in the 250cc race behind Carlo Ubbiali and Tarquino Provini. By the end of the season, Hailwood was British champion in three classes, fourth in the world 250cc championship, and sixth in the 350cc class. He’d won 74 races and set 38 new lap or race records. He was 18 years old.
The year 1961 was a banner one. At the Isle Man, he was first home in the 125cc and 250cc races on Hondas (giving the Japanese company its first IoM wins), then rode a Manx Norton to first place in the 500cc event. By year-end he was 250cc World champion on the Honda four. Hailwood signed with MV Agusta in 1962, winning four straight 500cc world championships. Leaving MV Agusta for Honda, Hailwood won the 250cc and 350cc world championships in both ‘66 and ’67, losing out in the 500cc class to Agostini on the MV.
But it was probably Hailwood’s outstanding success on the Island that won him his comeback seat in the 1978 Formula One race. As well as the 1961 hat trick, Hailwood won nine more TT titles: the 1962 Junior; 1963, 1964 and 1965 Senior; 1966 Lightweight and Senior; and in 1967, he swept the Lightweight, Junior and Senior. His lap record in the Senior on the rubber-framed Honda 500-four remained unbroken for eight years until Mick Grant cracked it, riding an equally evil-handling Kawasaki triple, in 1975.
The TT is as rough on bikes as it is on riders: run on public roads with all their hazards, obstacles and imperfections, it isn’t necessarily the quickest bike that’s fastest around the almost 38-mile circuit. Endurance racing is just that: the first thing you have to do is finish. Bikes of sturdy construction with long legs often fare better than fleet-footed, fragile machinery.
By 1978, Fabio Taglioni’s big bevel-drive desmo Twin was almost as old hat as Hailwood. But the big Duc was tough: the engine was bulletproof, and the bike’s long wheelbase meant excellent straight line stability. It had proven itself in endurance racing starting with Paul Smart’s and Bruno Spaggiari’s feted one-two victory in the 1972 Imola 200. And while Hailwood had been away from motorcycle racing for 11 years, he was still “Mike the Bike,” a living legend.
Ducati’s chief racing mechanic Franco Farné had teamed up with ex-factory race mechanics Giorgio Nepoti and Rino Caracchi of Scuderia NCR to create what was effectively a works race shop outside the factory.
Hailwood’s bike used a special Daspa frame weighing just 25 lbs. (11.3 kg), into which went a motor built from 750 and 900SS parts with a special narrow sump to allow close fitting of the exhaust system. After further modification by Steve Wynne at Sports Motor Cycles, Hailwood’s NCR Ducati emerged with Lucas-RITA ignition, crossover gearshift for left foot operation (Hailwood could no longer shift with his right foot after the Nürburgring crash), 11:1 Venolia pistons, indexed cams and a new three-dog geartrain. The resulting bike turned the scales at 360 lbs. (163.2 kg) and produced 80 horsepower at the rear wheel.
Few took Hailwood’s challenge seriously during practice week, though, and his first laps were disappointing. The man who had been always in his shadow in the Sixties—Phil Read—was much faster on the works Honda. But as Hailwood got into the groove with the unfamiliar bike, he got closer to Read’s times.
In the race, Hailwood started on the sixth row, 50 seconds behind Read, but caught him on the third lap. They pitted together, but the Ducati was slower away, and it wasn’t until Ballacraine that Hailwood caught Read again, this time passing him. The Honda died trying to keep up, and Read recorded a DNF.
THE MIKE HAILWOOD REPLICA OF 1979 was based on the 900SS. The fibreglass gas tank had become a styled cover over steel, and the seat had a removable cowl. The front cylinder exhaust was tucked in tight to the engine, meaning the header had to come off to check the oil level. Minor suspension, brake and equipment changes differentiated the MHR from the 900SS, as did 40mm Dell’Ortos and Conti pipes. Production of the MHR (by then in 1000cc form as the “Mill” ended with the sale of Ducati to Cagiva in 1985.
– Robert Smith, December 2010, issue #265