Motorcycling: Hail to the legend of Hailwood

As the Isle of Man prepares for the annual TT, Mac McDiarmid marks the 20th anniversary of an extraordinary victory
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The Independent Online
I CAN'T tell you where I was or what I was doing when President Kennedy died, and I'm already hazy about Lady Di. But, like a generation of motorcycle fans, I remember these things vividly about the day our legend died: 23 March 1981 was the day Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood - decorated for bravery by the Queen and survivor of countless races on two wheels and four - died after a road accident on the way home from the chip shop. Greatness should not end this way...

It will be 20 years next week since Mike Hailwood's most celebrated achievement. In 1978 he emerged, rusty and unfancied, from 11 years of retirement and took an equally unfancied Italian Ducati motorcycle to victory in the toughest race in the world. The man was already a legend, on the Isle of Man on 3 June 1978 he became a god.

The TT was billed that year as the return of "Mike the Bike". Hailwood's first Isle of Man TT had been precisely 20 years before, when he had finished a startling third in the 250cc event. Fittingly, 1998 also marks the 50th birthday celebrations of Honda, for in 1961 Hailwood gave both himself and Honda their maiden TT victories in the 125cc and 250cc events. For good measure he brought a Norton home first in the Senior TT - then the British Grand Prix - to become the first man to win three races in one week, a feat only exceeded, by Phil McCallen, in 1996.

His status as a racing great already assured, Hailwood went on to notch up a further nine TT wins and 10 world titles before retiring from two- wheel racing in 1967. What was more remarkable was the public affection which greeted his success.

Motorcycle racing was essentially a working-class sport, yet here was a public schoolboy, the son of an Oxfordshire millionaire, whom they openly revered. Not only did racing hardware come easily to Hailwood - his father's lucre saw to that - but the act of racing did, too. His style was consummate. Everything he did had an aura of Corinthian grace.

Yet although he cultivated an image of the "perfect natural", many of his contemporaries will tell you how hard he grafted on the details; and what a tough customer he was on the track. Even when he abandoned two wheels for four, his former fans adored him. In Formula One car racing, his best result was a second at Monza in 1971, and he never quite had the talent to equal John Surtees' feat of world titles on motorcycles and cars. But as well as dignity, he showed rare courage.

In 1973 in South Africa he hauled Clay Reggazoni out of a blazing Ferrari as marshals stood by impotently, a feat which earned him the George Medal. Only a few months later his own car-racing career was shattered when he crashed his McLaren at the Nurburgring, seriously damaging a leg.

It was this half-crippled, balding has-been who, at the age of 38, had the temerity to return to the Isle of Man. The Formula One TT was the first event of the week, held in glorious weather before record-breaking crowds.

If there was a god in heaven, there could surely only be one winner. Honda, piquantly, had other ideas andtheir rider, Phil Read, would be Mike the Bike's main rival over six laps of the 37.73-mile course.

Read was a contemporary of Hailwood's, a multi-world champion himself, and working-class to boot. Yet he was never held in the same esteem. Worse still was his denunciation of the "unsafe" Manx races, a position he recanted when the financial incentive became worthwhile. To TT fans, Read was the traitor to Hailwood's patriot. Some even threw rocks at him on his way to winning the 1977 race.

Read started the race 50 seconds ahead of Hailwood. After two laps the pair were level on the road. Hailwood smashed the class lap record, while Read's bike blew up trying to match the pace. As Hailwood cruised to victory his Ducati's engine self-destructed as it crossed the winning line. It could not have managed another mile.

The fairy-story's other dimension was that little Ducati had trounced mighty Honda. Indeed, Hailwood only agreed to ride the Italian V-twin after Honda had denounced him as "over the hill" and declined to supply machinery. The Hailwood Duke was the ultimate shoestring racer, created almost single-handedly by Steve Wynne, a Manchester motorcycle dealer.

Hailwood returned to the TT to win the Senior event in 1979, then hung up his racing leathers for good. With over two decades of dicing with death behind him, he ought to have had a long and leisurely retirement ahead. Yet within two years he was dead - killed, along with his daughter, Michelle, driving home from the local chippie. A lorry had done what the Isle of Man never could, and quenched the legendary flame. The final irony in an implausible story comes on Monday week when the Ducati ridden by Hailwood will thunder once more around the Isle of Man in the Classic Parade. The rider? Who else but Mike's once arch rival, Phil Read.

Race programme

Monday 1 June to Friday 5 June: Practice.

Saturday 6 June: 1.00pm: Formula 1 TT (6 laps) (Honda lap of honour follows F1 race) 5.00pm: Sidecar race A (3 laps)

Monday 8 June: 10.45am: Lightweight TT (250cc) and Supersport 400 TT (4 laps); 1.15pm: Sidecar race B (3 laps); 3.15pm: Classic parade lap.

Wednesday 10 June: 10.45am: Ultra-Lightweight TT (125cc) and Single Cylinder TT (4 laps); 1.15pm: Junior TT (600cc) (4 laps)

Friday 12 June: 10.45am: Production TT (3 laps); 1.15pm: Senior TT (6 laps)