'Mike the Bike' rides again: The tragic story of Mike Hailwood told in new documentary

Rated 'the greatest motorcyclist who ever lived', his feats and bravery are recalled for a new generation

Mike Hailwood lies alongside his daughter, Michelle, in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden. A black gravestone records the names and age of the two, the nine-year-old girl and her father, aged 40. There is also an inscription for each. Hailwood's reads simply: "Too good in life to be forgotten in death."

For Murray Walker, Hailwood – "Mike the Bike" as he was known – was a good deal better than even that. According to Walker, Mike Hailwood is the "greatest motorcycle rider who ever lived". Walker was close to Hailwood but his judgement is not coloured by friendship – he is just one among plenty who hold up Hailwood as the best man on two wheels, indeed one of motorsport's greats, even if he remains unknown to many beyond his sport.

"Motorsport had lost a friend and one of the greatest people who has ever lived in it," said Walker, talking in a new film about Hailwood's life, An Ordinary Hero, that will re-introduce him to the sporting world.

Last Friday marked the 33rd anniversary of the road accident that killed Michelle and two days later took her mortally injured father too. Hailwood was en route with his two children – his son David survived – to pick up fish and chips for the family's dinner when a lorry turned suddenly into the car's path. The lorry driver was to be fined £100.

At his funeral Hailwood's pall bearers included James Hunt, John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini. His abilities on his bike can be measured in titles, 12 times a winner in the Isle of Man – "the scariest race in the world" – and nine times the Grand Prix Motor Cycling champion, as well as the less quantifiable but no less obvious esteem in which he was held by the sport. Hailwood revelled in the "here today, gone tomorrow" attitude that pervaded motorsport in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a dangerous game, and it was treated as a game. "He was a little bit wild," said his wife, Pauline. Walker put it another way: "He was a party animal." Legend has it Hailwood taught Hunt how to party.

Mike Hailwood at the 1978 Isle of Man TT where he finished as race winner (Getty) Mike Hailwood at the 1978 Isle of Man TT where he finished as race winner (Getty)
For a time Hailwood swapped two wheels for four. He drove in Formula One, competing in 50 Grands Prix. He finished on the podium twice, as he did once at Le Mans, making a decent fist of driving for lesser teams, believed Jackie Stewart. It was a sport Hailwood never felt at ease in, thinking the other drivers looked down on this scruffy bike rider – Stewart said Hailwood felt more comfortable with the mechanics than the drivers – but in Formula One came the moment that stripped away the "playboy" exterior to reveal the man beneath via an act of selfless, unthinking heroism.

It happened in 1973 at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. On the second lap, Hailwood and Clay Regazzoni collided. Regazzoni was knocked unconscious and his car caught fire. Hailwood rushed to Regazzoni's car and tried to pull him out only for his own clothing to be set alight – footage of the incident shows Hailwood frantically waving his flaming hands around. A race marshal aimed a fire extinguisher at Hailwood, whereupon he went straight back to Regazzoni, whose car remained engulfed in flames. This time he managed to pull the Italian out.

Hailwood's actions saved Regazzoni's life and what is astonishing in watching the footage is his return for a second go – many acts of bravery happen when there is time only to act and not think.

When he later returned to the pits, where Pauline was waiting, Hailwood did not tell her what he had just done. The couple returned to their hotel and it was only the following morning when she saw the newspapers that she discovered he had saved a man's life at potential cost of his own. "That's the symbol of a brave man, of a great man," said Stewart, who won the race. "That's typical of Mike Hailwood."

Motorcycling was his true love and in 1978, after more than a decade out of the sport, he got back on his bike for another go at the Isle of Man TT, a race he had first ridden as an 18-year-old in 1958. He was unfit, "pot-bellied" Walker suggested, and out of touch with the sport and its developments. He was given no chance; sure enough he won. A year later Hailwood had one last go around the island before giving up his sport for good. Two years later he was dead.

'An Ordinary Hero - the Mike Hailwood Story', BT Sport 1, Wednesday 26 March 9.30pm

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open