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Mike “The Bike” – Greatest of All Time?

In one man’s opinion Mike Hailwood was the best racer of all time and here’s his reasoning.

Voicing an opinion on who’s the greatest motorcycle roadracer of all time will initiate a spirited discussion that will likely deteriorate into shouting, arm waving and inevitably, fisticuffs. 

It’s like debating whether Gordie Howe was better than Wayne Gretzky. Howe played in the six team era when there was no off-season training, composite sticks or 30-second line changes. Could Gretzky have played in the pre-expansion era when hockey talent wasn’t so watered down and his supporting cast didn’t include Glenn Anderson, Jarri Kurri, Paul Coffey and Marc Messier?

Same with motorcycle roadracing. Some would look at overall wins and nominate Giacomo Agostini. Some might say Eddie Lawson or Freddie Spencer, while many of today’s fans would vote for Valentino Rossi.

All would be wrong. The greatest motorcycle roadracer was Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood.

Born in 1940 in war-torn England, “Mike the Bike” Hailwood was the son of a millionaire who bought his son the best machinery possible when he was starting out. Money can’t buy race wins however, and it was apparent that young Michael had abundant talent once he had a twistgrip in his hands. And, according to Nobby Clarke, Hailwood’s long-time mechanic, once he started making money, Mike paid back every penny to his father. 

You want to talk numbers? 

How about Mike Hailwood winning 76 Gran Prix career with nine World Championships (including four 500cc titles in a row) between 1961 and 1967? Hailwood scored 37 wins in the 500 class, 16 victories in the 350 class, 21 on the 250 and two in the 125 class. He won his first world championship in 1961 riding a Honda 250, and in the same year he was second in the 500 class and sixth in the 125 championship, all at age of 21. Throw in 14 TT Race wins at the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man, and you have quite a resume. 

When Honda quit GP racing in 1967, Hailwood turned to cars, and in his first year scored a third in the Le Mans 24-Hour race and third overall in the Formula 5000 Championship. He went on to win the Formula Two European Championship, then moved into Formula One before suffering career-ending leg injuries in 1974 while lying fourth in the championship.

A man of honour and courage, Hailwood was awarded the George Medal, Britain’s highest award for civilian bravery, for rescuing F1 driver Clay Regazzoni, who was trapped in his burning car during the 1973 South African GP. Mike dove into the flames, released Regazzoni’s seat belts, caught fire himself, extinguished his own flames and then went back into the fire to extricate the unconscious driver. 

Hailwood retired to New Zealand but soon grew bored. In 1977, he rode a Norton Manx in some Australian vintage races and in 1978, won another Isle of Man TT aboard a Ducati, setting his fastest ever lap at over 109 mph. 

In 1979, he placed fifth in the Formula 1 TT on a Ducati before scoring a second in the Classic 1000 and winning the Senior TT on a Suzuki 500cc four-cylinder GP bike. 

But statistics alone can’t possibly convey the two-wheeled genius that was Mike Hailwood. 

During the 1967 Senior TT on the Isle of Man, riding the almost unmanageable Honda 500-4 against Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood set a lap record of 108.77 mph that stood for the next eight years. 

He won three Gran Prix races in one day … five times! And that was when tracks were unsafe and races were long and grueling. At the 1967 Canadian Gran Prix at Mosport, the 250 race was 32 laps and the 500 race was 50 laps of the 2.5 mile circuit. Hailwood won both. Today’s Mosport Superbike race is a 20-lap walk in the park. 

During a test at Japan’s Suzuka circuit, Hailwood was lobbying for Girling shocks on the 250 and 350 six-cylinder racebikes because the Honda shocks were useless after two laps. Of course, Honda said the shocks were fine and Michael-san should ride harder.

Hailwood politely asked the mechanics to remove the shocks, then threw them as far as he could into the Suzuka duckpond, leaving the team no choice but to mount the Girlings. Hailwood went out and set a lap record that stood for 16 years. 

Valentino Rossi is the best of the modern era but he shares his success with a large supporting cast of top-drawer technicians, programmers and engineers. Mike Hailwood didn’t do it alone by any means, but the topic is “greatest racer,” not best electronics management engineer/tire technician/data analyzer/sponsor schmoozer. 

Think of how much Gran Prix motorcycle technology has changed in just the past three or four years, yet in 1979 (when he rode the RG500 Suzuki Gran Prix bike at the Isle of Man), Hailwood had been away from modern motorcycles for 12 years. He easily adapted to the tires, suspension and motorcycle dynamics of the day, then rode around the Isle of Man faster than anyone else—at the age of 39.

In 1971, the planets lined up and the paths of Hailwood and mine crossed for one fleeting moment. I’d entered my TD1-C Yamaha in the Daytona 250 Novice race and was getting tires mounted at the Goodyear garage. 

I half turned and bumped into a wiry, hawk-faced individual who inadvertently stepped on my foot as he was trying to get by. “Sorry,” he said and nodded. 

Yeah, whatever. Hey pal, why doncha watch where yer … holycrap, it’s … it’s … MIKE FREAKING HAILWOOD!

He’d just changed into his factory BSA leathers and was enroute to a practise session. As he walked away I snapped a quick, fuzzy picture with my Instamatic, preserving the moment for eternity.

Sadly, Mike Hailwood died at the age of 40 in a stupid traffic accident. He was on his way to get fish and chips when a truck made an illegal U-turn in front of his car. Hailwood and his nine year old daughter died but his son David survived. The truck driver was fined 100 pounds. 

Even after nine World Championships, Hailwood would shyly tell people, he was, “Just a bloke who rides bikes.”  

by Steve Bond Canadian Biker #267

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